THROUGH THE FIRE: In the Spirit of Redress

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By SHARON YAMATO

There are times when I feel especially lucky to be part of the greater Nikkei community, and last weekend was one of them. Attending the Japanese American National Museum’s “Speaking Up: Democracy, Justice, Dignity” conference in Seattle was a bonding experience that will serve as a lasting reminder of why we as Japanese Americans are so privileged to share such a rich and complex history.

It was a heady weekend of thoughtful speakers, creative workshops, insightful tours, and mind-bending breakout discussion sessions, but if I were to name one thing that made this conference exceptional, it would be the people. Some of their names can be seen in the pages of The Rafu from time to time, but rarely do we get a chance to brush elbows and even sit down to talk with them. People like the Honorable Norman Mineta, poet and actor Hiroshi Kashiwagi, scholar Roger Daniels, and “Farewell to Manzanar’s” Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston — to name just a few — were among those hanging out in the Sheraton foyer. 

But it wasn’t just the famous and near famous in our community, it was the everyday folk like me who came from afar to learn and to reconnect. Manzanar Committee’s Bruce Embrey said it best when he casually noted that the best times during the conference were those spent in the hallways: seeing friends and exchanging hugs with those who have been around since the redress days and before. Not to sound too otherworldly, but the spirit of redress hung in the air gently protecting this distinguished assembly of wonderful people.

I guess you could say that redress was the reason behind this conference that commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. This now-historic ten-year struggle explains why we are joined at the hip. I dare to say that no other Asian American group — be it Chinese, Korean, or Filipino — has the collective experience of first being “concentrated” in camps and then fighting long and hard to regain a rightful place as true Americans. What resulted from the mass incarceration — including the persecution, discrimination, the resulting shame, and the struggle to uphold our civil liberties — are things we as Japanese Americans alone experienced.

It doesn’t even matter if you were thrown in a camp yourself; it affected everyone who followed, including children and grandchildren. Importantly, it also impacted a slew of activists, educators, scholars, and historians.

These were the people who organized and lent their support to this candid and open-minded conference. Outspoken Japanese Americans like Tom Ikeda, Franklin Odo, Alan Nishio, Bill Nishimura, Karen Korematsu, Grace Shimizu, Frank Abe, Craig Ishii — the list goes on and on — spoke not only about allegiance but about dissent. We learned about Tule Lake, the Alaskans and Aleuts, the Japanese Canadians, the Department of Justice camps — subjects that expanded our knowledge of what went on during this complicated time in our history.

This conference was not merely an overview; it was about digging deeper into topics that have eluded us in the past, partly because we didn’t have enough information about them and partly because we didn’t want to face the more unpleasant parts of this already ugly part of our history. Getting together to talk about these things allowed us to face up to the divisions in our community by giving them airtime and breathing room. 

I feel especially fortunate to know the hard-working people at the museum who gave tirelessly of their knowledge and energy in the days and months leading up to this conference because of their undying hope to keep our Japanese American history vibrant and alive so that others could learn from it. Led by the ever-steadfast Nancy Araki, her small band of soldiers worked like a giant army to put together a three-day event that shook walls and broke through many.

I heard it expressed over and over that the museum was committed to preserving this unique history; however, with the aging and passing of the Nisei, increasing budget deficits, and ongoing efforts to reach out to new audiences, I wonder if this iconic story of what happened to Japanese Americans during WWII will soon become relegated to the back pages of this and other Nikkei institutions struggling to stay afloat. 

There are few opportunities to hang out and talk about how we’re going to impact the future with stories from our past. If institutions like the well-oiled museum do not continue to do it, will there be others that do?

Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey. She can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

Japanese American National Museum docent Bill Shishima (far right) and family members (from left) Mark, Pam, Emily, and wife Emi. (Photo by Tracy Kumono)

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