Local Author Writes About the Japanese American Experience During World War II

On Sept. 22 Shirley Ann Higuchi, J.D., came to the Ann Arbor District Downtown Library to discuss her book “Setsuko’s Secret,” following the story of Higuchi’s mother Setsuko.

Both of Higuchi’s parents were incarcerated as children along with 14,000 other Japanese Americans at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming during World War II. 

“My mother really never talked about her incarceration experience and we found out much late that she was donating money secretly to Heart Mountain dreaming of something being built there and I never knew anything about it until her deathbed experience,” Higuchi said. “Heart Mountain was bigger than my mother, Heart Mountain was bigger than me and my family. Heart Mountain was significant as an experience that this country has had.”

According to the U.S. National Archives, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, some were concerned that Japanese Americans on the west coast perpetrated a threat by living near military areas. Executive order 9066 was signed on February 19, 1942, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, ultimately resulting in the incarceration of around 122,000 Japanese people forcibly, almost 70,000 of whom were American citizens. 

“Setsuko’s secret was that she never really talked about the camps, but the bigger secret is I never knew how much it really meant to her to memorialize that place,” she said. “There are many secrets that I found out later, things that I didn’t know about but most importantly, for her, what she wanted to do was keep those negative feelings buried and to really assimilate, excel, and be part of the community, and that’s what she did.”

Setsuko Saito and William Higuchi grew up and met at Heart Mountain but reconnected when they recognized each other while studying at the University of California Berkeley, years later. 

“We really can pick and choose what we like out of life,” she said. “I mean if you think about it, if my parents were never incarcerated, I wouldn’t be standing here today because they would have never met. […] But that’s what I find very interesting is how just one thing could basically shift the entire trajectory of where your life goes.”

Higuchi was raised in Ann Arbor, attending both Huron High School and the University of Michigan. She was the only Japanese American at Huron at the time and she recalls only being around other Asian people because of the colleagues and scientists from all over the world that her pharmacist father would bring home. 

“I had this very stilted view of what it was like to be with other Asians beyond myself and my family, and I think in some ways that made it somewhat distorted for me,” she said. “It’s not like I was growing up in LA with a bunch of Japanese Americans. My introduction to Asian people was foreigners as well.”

The Higuchi family did their best to be the “All-American” family from the way they dressed to Shirley being on Huron’s cheerleading team. For many Japanese Americans, after being incarcerated for being accused of “not being loyal”, acculturation within the greater community was important. 

“My dad and my mother really assimilated [into] the university life. they had frequent dinners and events and in some ways living in Ann Arbor is like living in a bubble,” Higuchi said. “Given the incarceration experience and the accelerated track that my parents were on in terms of really being the best in our community, they never really talked about their incarceration experience.”

After her undergraduate studies, she attended Georgetown Law School and has worked in Washington D.C. since. She currently serves as the associate chief for professional practice at the American Psychological Association (APA) as well as the chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation. 

“There weren’t a lot of Asians when I first arrived [to the D.C. legal community], so in some respects that experience in Ann Arbor really worked really well for me,” she said. “I was one of the few Japanese Americans I went to Georgetown Law School, I was the first Japanese American Asian to ever be an attorney for Epstein Becker [and Green law firm], same thing with APA, and I was the first D.C. bar president who was an Asian. I was always the first Asian and that’s kind of what my experience has been most of my life.”

Learn more about Shirley Ann Higuchi and Setsuko’s Secret by visiting her website. Learn more about Heart Mountain here.