Originally published in The Rafu Shimpo on Thursday, February 23, 2012.
By J.K. YAMAMOTO
Rafu Staff Writer
The connection between past and present constitutional issues was emphasized at the annual Day of Remembrance program in Little Tokyo.
“70 Years After Executive Order 9066: Defending Our Civil Liberties” was the theme of the event held Saturday at the Japanese American National Museum with about 300 people in attendance.
Chris Komai of JANM announced the museum’s new Remembrance Project, a website that encourages families to pay tribute to Nikkei who lived through the World War II experience; and the museum’s partnership with Ancestry.com, which for one week (Feb. 16-23) is making internment camp and immigration records available online at no charge.
Serving as emcees were Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council, and Kei Nagao, who has worked for the Little Tokyo Service Center Community Development Corporation and is a board member of the Little Tokyo Community Council.
“This year we mark the anniversary of the presidential order that led to not only our government’s forced removal of thousands of innocent Japanese Americans from their homes and businesses, but also the immoral mass incarceration of 120,000 innocent citizens of this country … merely because of their ancestry,” said Syed. “Today we shall also attempt to learn from this tragic chapter of this nation’s history.”
Nagao noted that the first Day of Remembrance in Los Angeles was presented in 1979 by the Manzanar Committee and JACL National Committee for Redress. “Day of Remembrance programs were organized by many communities with the purpose of sharing first-person voices of those who lived through this experience. They also gathered support to petition the government for redress. The campaign reached fruition when President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.”
Syed added, “The desire to pass on this experience to each new generation of Americans, with the hope that it will deter repeating the mistakes of the past, continues to motivate the organizers of each Day of Remembrance.”
Part of each ceremony is set aside to “recall the manner in which our community endured this humiliating experience with dignity, courage and caring for each other,” said Nagao, citing the accomplishments of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Military Intelligence Service, which collectively received the Congressional Gold Medal last year. She asked veterans Ken Akune, Jack Kunitomi and George Yoshinaga to stand and be recognized.
Special recognition was given to Gordon Hirabayashi, who died last month. “His courage and integrity embody today’s theme,” said Syed. “In 1942, as a young college student, Hirabayashi defied the legality and challenged the morality of the government’s curfew and the exclusion orders … He allows us today to humbly stand on his strong shoulders to keep his legacy alive.”
An excerpt from “A Personal Matter,” a documentary about Hirabayashi, was shown.
Attendees received nametags similar to those given to Japanese Americans when they were rounded up. Each tag had the name of a War Relocation Authority or Department of Justice camp, and as the name of each camp was called, those holding the corresponding tags were asked to stand. When everyone was standing, Nagai asked for a moment of silence “as we remember the Issei, Nisei and Sansei who are no longer with us.”
Concerns About NDAA
The keynote speaker was Robin Toma, executive director of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission since 1999. He worked on the cases of Japanese Latin Americans who were not eligible to receive redress or an apology under the Civil Liberties Act.
“My connection goes to my mother and my eight uncles and aunts … who found themselves in Tule Lake and then in Minidoka,” he said. “While looking back, we can say it was three years, at the time they didn’t know how long they were going to be there. For all they knew, the war could last for decades, and so would their imprisonment …
“I also think about Japanese Latin Americans who I represented. Alice Nishimoto, Carmen Mochizuki, Henry Shima and 2,261 others who were … all of a sudden forced to go to … prison camps outside of their own country, put on ships with an unknown destination, put in railroad cars with the windows covered, sprayed in a warehouse with DDT like so many cattle. Then rendered stateless … to be illegal aliens that could be at the whim of the government sent to Japan in exchange for U.S. citizens who had been captured abroad in Japan-held territories.”
Toma expressed concern that President Obama has signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, which “has provisions that allow our president to sign and authorize the indefinite detention of any person in the United States or abroad. And while President Obama has made a signing statement … that he would not allow in his administration for any U.S. citizen to be detained indefinitely by the military through this bill, I’m not sure we can count on President Obama being there forever.”
He called on the audience to “let your voices be heard” on NDAA. “If it means just calling your member of Congress, calling your White House line, signing a petition, going online, sharing with others, whatever it is, I would say that we have a special responsibility to do that. Because we know what could happen.”
Noting that a federal commission concluded that the internment was the result of “wartime hysteria, pre-existing prejudice against the Japanese, and a failure of political leadership,” Toma said, “When I look at what’s going on today, I see those three things present as well … Being a Muslim in our world is not easy. Being Arab American is not easy. I hear all the time complaints about how difficult it is to simply travel across this country because if one looks Muslim, it will almost guarantee you will be pulled off, given an extended interrogation, and miss your flight.”
Toma was a member of the Obama Administration’s official delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2010. “I believe that President Obama, unlike past presidents, decided to take the step of having our country be part of the rest of the world in presenting its human rights record for scrutiny in front of all the other nations,” he said. “That’s a huge step and a huge message. But I also heard so many of our allies … point out that our nation has not signed on to some core human rights treaties, and the ones that we’ve signed on to, we’re not there yet in fulfilling compliance to those treaties.”
On a personal level, Toma said not to engage in “that same kind of stereotyping that occurred to Japanese Americans … to Muslim Americans and Arab Americans, to Latino immigrants, to African Americans, to Jews, to Buddhists. That is what we as human beings can easily fall into if we don’t make a conscious effort to stop ourselves.”
Regarding his commission’s efforts, he said, “What gives me hope is that I see in our day-to-day work those things changing. In schools where there have been fights because of ethnic and racial differences, harassment because of one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, I see people changing the way they treat one another … By simply organizing ‘No Haters Here’ weeks, by having curriculum that helps students become able to stand up to prejudice when they see it, you’d be amazed to see how that changes the campus.”
He added, “I also find hope in the fact that on a more personal level one of my daughter’s best friends is Muslim American, and I get a chance to spend time with that family, get to know them on a personal level. I would invite everyone here to do the same. I know it’s very comfortable not having to do that, not having to reach out to someone who’s … coming from a different culture, a different language, a different religion, but that’s how things change.”
Toma asked the audience to join hands and say, “We will not forget. Together we are powerful. We will stand up for liberty, justice and human rights for everyone.”
He also presented a Day of Remembrance proclamation from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
“Who Showed Up,” a performance directed by writer and arts educator Traci Kato-Kiriyama brought together Japanese Americans and Muslim Americans who shared stories about community engagement, social justice and solidarity in a collaborative writing process. Using excerpts from Hirabayashi’s letters and testimony, the performers connected his experience with their own.
Sean Miura of the Tuesday Night Project, Little Tokyo Roots, JLGBTQA and the hip-hop dance team Family Bizness recalled how he was moved to action by stereotyping of Asians in Abercrombie & Fitch ads.
Kifah Shah, an organizer at Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) in Los Angeles, recalled being put on the spot, as the only Muslim in her class, by a teacher who claimed, “All Muslims want to kill all the Jews.”
Aslam Akhtar, one of 11 activists convicted for disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador at UC Irvine, talked about asserting his right to protest peacefully and thanked his family and members of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress for their support.
Kathy Nishimoto Masaoka, who represents NCRR in the Bridging Communities program wih Pacific Southwest District JACL, Kizuna and the Council on American Islamic Relations, remembered that after 9/11, Muslim Americans were afraid to go out in public, just as Japanese Americans were after Pearl Harbor. She said of today’s young activists, “They are the future.”
The performance concluded with excerpts from testimony given before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1981. It was announced that tapes of the hearings are available from NCRR and Visual Communications, and a reference guide to the more than 750 oral testimonies, “Speaking Out for Personal Justice,” edited by Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga and Marjorie Lee, has been published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
The emcees asked attendees to visit the sponsoring organizations’ “action tables,” which offered information on such activities as the Manzanar Pilgrimage, the Tule Lake Pilgrimage, an “Open Mosque Day” and campaigns to stop FBI and LAPD surveillance of Muslim American communities.
“It has always been the goal of Day of Remembrance programs to inspire us individually or collectively to act … to proactively defend violations of civil and human rights,” said Nagai.
“If we leave today without taking any action on the causes that are so dear to our hearts, it would be a waste of time,” Syed stressed, adding, “I would like to make three or five friends who don’t look like me … Don’t go home without making new friends today.”