By REV. SABURO MASADA
(The following remarks were given during the Tule Lake Pilgrimage on July 5 at the site of the camp cemetery.)
We are gathered at this holy site to remember and honor those who died at Tule Lake and those who survived the vengeance of our government for their dissent and protest of their unjust and unconstitutional incarceration.
Their dissent brought harsh treatment by the government, here at the maximum-security segregation center. Also it created a lingering stigma from traumatized Japanese Americans who were incarcerated and compelled to accept the wartime propaganda that defined dissent as “disloyalty.”
It was such an injustice piled upon the tragedy of the violation of our Constitution by our government.
Our government had us fighting each other, when we should have been fighting together, against our own government, because it was not the dissenters who were “disloyal,” but the leaders of our government who were disloyal to our Constitution and our democracy.
This TLP over the years has contributed so much to the understanding of what really happened, and the healing from this injustice perpetrated by our government, as well as by our own people.
I will never forget May 16, 1942, because it was the day of the West Coast Relays at Fresno State. I was hoping that Cornelius “Dutch” Warmerdam, who held the world record in the pole vault, would break his own record that day. I never found out, because the Army truck came into our front yard of our farm, and all nine in our family piled in and were taken to the Fresno Detention Center to be imprisoned there.
At the time, I was not aware of what the older Nisei were saying or doing. I wasn’t aware of any protest, or of any overt opposition to our being rounded up and taken to the detention center.
Our family was transferred to Jerome concentration camp in Arkansas. The weather turned extremely cold with snow, and my father caught pneumonia and died in a makeshift barrack hospital three weeks after our arrival.
The day he died, the potbellied wood stove showed up in our barrack, too late.
In this time of crisis, my mother called upon her Christians pastor friends to conduct a Christian funeral service for my father. Three weeks after that, my mother had all eight in our family baptized. That was the first time I had ever stepped into a church and understood nothing about the Christian faith.
After returning to Fresno from camp in 1945, I began to learn what Christians believed. One thing I was taught early on, which I had to unlearn a number of years later, was that the injustice of the camps should be seen as “a blessing in disguise.” After all, wasn’t it in the camp that our family started to go to a christian Church? Weren’t students able to attend universities on the East Coast and find jobs and careers in other states? Didn’t the Issei enjoy a time of leisure?
But in 1965, 20 years after coming out of the camps, I was in our living room in Ogden, Utah, where I was serving as a pastor, watching Walter Cronkite on TV, narrating what was one of the first documentaries on the concentration camps, “The Nisei: The Pride and the Shame,” with Mine Okubo, who authored “Citizen 13360.”
As I watched the incarcerees at Tanforan Detention “Assembly” Center trying to clean out their horse stalls and the stench of manure from their living quarters, I began to feel my blood starting to boil. I found myself saying in disbelief, “How could this happen in America? How could this happen in America?”
For the first time, I was able to feel my anger of what happened to us. From that day on, I would no longer say that our camp experience was a “blessing in disguise,” white-washing the tragic injustice.
I realized it was imperative to keep the crime of injustice separate from the courage, faith, and determination that enabled people to survive and triumph over tragedy and injustice.
As a Japanese American I was ingrained with respecting and obeying authority. I was very aware of certain attitudes and behavior that were being instilled in me: “Don’t rock the boat,” “Accommodate the dominant society,” “Kow-tow to the dominant society,” as a way to being accepted, and being well thought of by them.
We were told, “Shikata ga nai” (there’s nothing we can do about it).
I thought this was the way to survive and to work our way up in America.
Before World War II, I don’t remember JAs fighting prejudice head-on or protesting loudly about discrimination.
Our Issei taught us to be “otonashii” (quiet and reserved), not to bring “shame” by acting out, or by “rocking the boat.” I remember being taught by the Issei folks that those who discriminate against us were stupid, because we knew we were better than they.
I remember being told that we Japanese were “ichi-ban” (No. 1), even though we were treated as inferior in our country.
So, in my head, I was a proud Japanese American, but in my gut, I felt inferior.
I understood that this was the way the Issei were forced to survive, in a country that discriminated against them. Unfortunately, this was destructive to their mainland children, because our self-esteem and emotional self-confidence were being stunted.
The Issei grew up in a predominantly Japanese society, so their self-esteem was quite secure, but their children, as a minority in a prejudiced society, were not able to develop self-esteem and emotionally have a strong confidence.
I remember how many of us tried to be like the Caucasians, to speak like them with good English, and to act like them in certain ways. Many of us at times wished that we were not Japanese, but “white.”
So, we tried to outdo the majority in other ways, like in academics.
The Japanese in Hawaii were in the majority, so we see the vast difference between the “buddhaheads” of Hawaii and the “kotonks” of the mainland.
Also, the Nisei-Kibei stand in contrast to the mainland Nisei, in that they had the benefit of growing up in a dominant Japanese society in Japan. Therefore, their self-esteem and confidence were stronger.
The Kibei-Nisei were more prone to protest the injustice head-on, while the mainland Nisei sought to be silent or try to find ways to comply with the majority.
Only a very few Nisei joined Martin Luther King on his march on Washington, D.C. We who were so unjustly maligned and imprisoned during World War II should have been among the first to support African Americans on their March with MLK.
I believe we lost much of our integrity by accommodating white people to be accepted by them. Being called a “model minority” in the ’60s was far from being accepted as equal with them. I think we were afraid that our favored status would be in jeopardy if we joined black people in their rightful demand for justice.
We must never blur the line between injustice and survival, rationalizing the injustice in any way. Injustice is injustice. What is accomplished in spite of injustice is to be admired. We must continue to fight injustice together, each in our own way.
I appreciate what Sen. Dan Inouye said not very long before he died.
He was speaking of the draft resisters of conscience, and I believe he would say the same of the “no-no’s.”:
“Some looked upon them as cowards. They’re not cowards. It took a lot of strength and a lot of courage to do what they did, to go to prison sentence. It was not easy. Physical courage is easy. It’s the moral and spiritual part that’s difficult. We did what we thought was right, with courage, and they did what they thought was right, with courage. That’s the American way.”
May the legacy of those who fought for justice be honored. May each of us be inspired and encouraged to stand up for justice, as we enjoy the life they made possible at such great sacrifice.
Rev. Saburo Masada is a retired pastor of the Presbyterian Church, USA. He retired from his last pastorate, Calvary Presbyterian Church in Stockton, in 1995 after serving there for 26 years. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.