A conversation with the Chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, whose parents were both incarcerated as a result of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, signed on February 19, 1942. This resulted in the incarceration of nearly 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, and the date of the order's signing is now known as “Day of Remembrance” in the Japanese American community.
As children, Shirley Ann Higuchi and her brothers knew Heart Mountain only as the place their parents met, imagining it as a great Stardust Ballroom in rural Wyoming. As they grew older, they would come to recognize the name as a source of great sadness and shame for their older family members, part of the generation of Japanese Americans forced into the hastily built concentration camp in the aftermath of Executive Order 9066.
Only after a serious cancer diagnosis did Shirley’s mother, Setsuko, share her vision for a museum at the site of the former camp, where she had been donating funds and volunteering in secret for many years. After Setsuko’s death, Shirley skeptically accepted an invitation to visit the site, a journey that would forever change her life and introduce her to a part of her mother she never knew.
Navigating the complicated terrain of the Japanese American experience, Shirley patched together Setsuko’s story and came to understand the forces and generational trauma that shaped her own life. Moving seamlessly between family and communal history, Setsuko’s Secret offers a clear window into the “camp life” that was rarely revealed to the children of the incarcerated. This volume powerfully insists that we reckon with the pain in our collective American past.
Shirley Ann Higuchi, JD, Chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (HMWF), is the daughter of former incarcerees, Dr. William I. Higuchi and the late Setsuko Saito Higuchi. Her American born parents were children when they were incarcerated at Heart Mountain during World War II. Shirley’s pursuit of law stemmed from her feelings of discomfort toward how the US judicial system treated her parents. It was not until her mother was on her deathbed in 2005 that Shirley would inspire to take on her mother’s dream of “having something built there.” She was elected Chair of the Board in 2009, and her proudest moment was unveiling the Foundation’s world-class Interpretive Center in August of 2011 alongside journalist Tom Brokaw, the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye, Secretary Norman Mineta, and Senator Alan K. Simpson.
Her book, Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration was published by the University of Wisconsin Press and released in September. It chronicles her mother’s story alongside many other Heart Mountain characters.
In addition to her work with Heart Mountain, Shirley currently leads the legal advocacy office of the American Psychological Association. Active in the District of Columbia Bar, Shirley served two elected terms on the Board of Governors from 1994 to 2000, served as Chair of the Bar’s Nominations Committee in 2001, and was elected President of the Bar for 2003. In 2008, Shirley was appointed to the Judicial Tenure and Disabilities Commission for a 6-year term where she was responsible for reviewing misconduct, evaluating reappointments, and conducting fitness reviews of the District’s judges. In 2014, Shirley was appointed to the Federal Law Enforcement Nominating Commission by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC).
Follow her on Twitter: @HiguchiJD
See where to buy the book and how to join upcoming events at: setsukossecret.com.