Prominent Speakers at VJAMM Commemoration

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From left: June Tomita, Mary Nomura, Brian Maeda, Ken Seino Kataoka, Suzanne Thompson, Emily Winters, Bruce Embrey, Ann Burroughs, Mae Kakehashi, Warren Furutani, Alice Stek, Phyllis Hayashibara, Arnold Maeda, Mitchell T. Maki.

By PHYLLIS HAYASHIBARA

The Venice Japanese American Memorial Monument on April 18 celebrated its second anniversary after its dedication in 2017, and commemorated the 31st year after the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the 50th anniversary of the Manzanar Committee’s annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, and 77 years after the forced removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast and their incarceration in ten American concentration camps after the signing of Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942.

The program began at 10 a.m. with Mary Nomura, the “Songbird of Manzanar,” singing one of her favorite songs of the 1940s, “Accentuate the Positive.”

VJAMM Committee members contributed to the commemoration program:

Phyllis Hayashibara emceed;

Nikki Gilbert read the VJAMM text aloud;

Brian Maeda read the five VJAMM quotes by former Manzanar incarcerees;

Alice Stek recounted the role of the Venice Peace and Freedom Party and the Free Venice Beachhead in initiating a memorial to the Japanese American experience in 2001 to remind people that singling out people who looked like the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks came too close to the prejudicial and unconstitutional sentiment behind Executive Order 9066 in the wake of Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941;

Emily Winters spoke of the Venice Arts Council’s collaboration with the VJAMM Committee on the obelisk design of the VJAMM, which echoes the silhouette of the ireitoh obelisk in the cemetery at Manzanar National Historic Site, and expressed appreciation for the many donations that made the VJAMM possible to help educate a surprising number of people who have said that they had never before heard of this dark chapter in American history.

Tijana Quilici of Venice Community Housing’s YouthBuild program thanked the VJAMM for its partnership with the community service component of YouthBuild, which has helped maintain the VJAMM and clean the surrounding sidewalk and curb. YouthBuild offers youth between 18 and 24 years of age choices in completing a high school diploma, job training and work experience in construction, and leadership development through community service projects.

Both VJAMM and YouthBuild, said Quilici, share a common purpose “in standing up against injustice and ensuring we know our painful histories as a means of preventing future injustice.”

Zachary Gaidzik, West/Metro field deputy for Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, acknowledged that “Americans must be mindful of the progress we have made, but we must work hard to defend and protect the rights of our most vulnerable population.”

Nicolas Rodriguez, district director for U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, brought greetings and a Certificate of Congressional Recognition to the VJAMM Committee, with “sincere appreciation for your remarkable leadership and dedication to community engagement.”

Mary Nomura, the “Songbird of Manzanar,” sings “Accentuate the Positive.”

Prominent speakers helped the VJAMM Committee pay tribute to the persons of Japanese ancestry from Venice, Santa Monica, and Malibu, who gathered on the northwest corner of Venice and Lincoln for bus transport to Manzanar in April 1942.

Ken Kataoka Seino, dressed in a black suit and fedora and carrying a small green suitcase, personified his maternal grandfather, Charles Kozo Kataoka, as he prepared to board a train to the War Relocation Authority camp at Rohwer, Ark. in 1942. Seino brought a framed copy of the “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry,” which were posted in Japanese American communities in Washington, Oregon, and California.

The instructions bore the name of the Western Defense Command’s Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, who said in defense of his evacuation order from the allegedly militarily sensitive West Coast, “A Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not.”

Some 2,000 died while imprisoned in the ten WRA camps, Seino said, of smallpox, whooping cough, flu, typhoid fever, diphtheria, and tuberculosis. While Seino and his suitcase wore replicas of his family’s numbered identification tags, he brought his grandfather’s worn and dirt-stained original tag.

Seino wondered if his grandfather, who became a gardener and landscaper after World War II, held on to that original tag as a reminder of what had happened to him, his picture bride from Japan, and their eight American-born children; or of what he could have been or what he could have accomplished in his life, had he not lost everything and been incarcerated for over three years.

Go For Broke National Education Center President/CEO Mitchell Maki and former Assemblymember Warren Furutani.

His grandfather, like so many other Issei, never spoke of his experiences in camp. Seino quoted British writer Aldous Huxley as a warning, “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”

Bruce Embrey, co-chair of the Manzanar Committee, commended the VJAMM Committee as an inspiration in its local, specific efforts to educate the country, and for reaching out to the people who had been directly affected by the forced removal and incarceration, including former Manzanar incarcerees Mary Nomura, Mae Kakehashi, and Arnold and Kim Maeda.

Embrey also praised the newly elected Bishop City Council, which recently overturned two 1942 resolutions that opposed “the release of any Japanese from the physical limits of Manzanar Relocation Area for any purpose whatever” and demanded that “the civilian administration of the Manzanar Relocation Area be immediately replaced by military authority.”

Embrey paraphrased the War Department’s chilling response as, essentially, “Don’t worry. We’ve taken everything from them. If they do pose any threat, they will easily be exterminated.”

Embrey said that as in the 1940s as much as today, demagogic, racist, xenophobic appeals have consequences that affect people in ways that go against the very nature of the U.S. Constitution, the very nature of this country.

In 1969, Embrey’s mother, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, and Warren Furutani made the first Manzanar Pilgrimage sponsored by the Manzanar Committee. They organized and campaigned relentlessly, and ultimately successfully, to establish Manzanar as a California Registered Historical Landmark in 1972, and a National Historic Site in 1992.

Ken Kataoka Seino, portraying his own grandfather; Manzanar Committee Co-chair Bruce Embrey; Japanese American National Museum President/CEO Ann Burroughs.

The 50th Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 27 hosted two keynote speakers, Karen Korematsu and Dale Minami. Korematsu, daughter of Fred Korematsu and founder and executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, successfully established Jan. 30 as a perpetual “Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution” with then-Assemblymember Furutani.

Dale Minami, lead counsel on the coram nobis cases of Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Minoru Yasui, prevailed in vacating the conviction of Korematsu. Both Karen Korematsu and Minami have supported the efforts of Georgetown professor and one-time Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, who sued to overturn the Muslim travel ban imposed by the Trump Administration as unconstitutionally discriminatory against a specific religion.

Calls for walls and calls for bans, said Embrey, have come today come from the very halls of power, the White House, the very place where Executive Order 9066 was signed in 1942. Admitting that it was a little more relevant today than desired, Embrey said the West Coast Japanese American experience during World War II remains a cautionary tale.

“Victories, like the VJAMM, Manzanar National Historic Site, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, are hollow victories,” said Embrey, “if we don’t learn from our past, from this community that was so devastated, if we do not today stand up for those who that are being persecuted and defend their rights, since no one did that for our families back in 1942. It’s important that we understand that this is our legacy, and what we will communicate at the 50th Manzanar Pilgrimage.”

Furutani, former member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education and the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees, returned to the 2019 VJAMM commemoration after having keynoted the VJAMM dedication in 2017.

He remembered wondering at the time in what bucolic park or beachside location in Venice the VJAMM might be installed. He learned the site would be the northwest corner of Venice and Lincoln, where some 1,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, forcibly removed from Venice, Santa Monica, and Malibu, lined up with only what they could carry for an eight-hour bus ride to Manzanar in April 1942.

Furutani acknowledged the very busy traffic on Venice and Lincoln, with two bus stops, fast-moving commercial and passenger vehicles, as well as the occasional emergency vehicle sirens that pierced the speakers’ prepared remarks, and attributed the apt “in your face” placement of the nine-and-a-half-foot-tall VJAMM obelisk to the “whether you like it or not” attitude of the Venice community of activists.

“That the obelisk has stood on this corner, and nothing has happened to it,” Furutani said, “is a testament to the work that VJAMM, the Japanese American community, and all democracy-loving people have done to educate the community about what this episode and chapter of American history was all about.”

As a member of the the Board of Education, Furutani succeeded in securing high school diplomas for Japanese American students who left for camps in 1942. The initial request came from his activist mother-in-law, the late Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, who had played a key role as lead researcher for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), which laid the groundwork for the redress legislation.

As a member of the California State Asembly, Furutani sponsored the successful bill to confer honorary degrees from the California Community College, California State University and University of California systems upon Japanese Americans forced to defer their higher education when incarcerated. The Assembly voted 79 to 0 in favor; not one member voted against the bill.

The VJAMM commemoration could simply be a trip down memory lane or a history lesson, said Furutani, but what makes this history dynamic are its contemporary applications. Just a month earlier, Crystal City Pilgrimage organizers sponsored a protest demonstration at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, where approximately 2,400 mothers and children from Central America are detained behind chain-link fencing while they seek asylum in the U.S.

More than 100 protesters brought over 25,000 origami cranes in support of the detainees, and “to speak out against injustice and inhumane treatment of innocent human beings,” according to an organizer.

The Crystal City Alien Enemy Detention Facility was the site of a Department of Justice camp where leaders of the Japanese American community who had been detained by the FBI were imprisoned, without explanation or due process, within 24 hours of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Some presidential candidates, with elections less than a year away, have considered the issue of reparations in their campaigns – reparations for slavery in the United States. Furutani named the only two historical instances of the U.S. government apologizing and making token restitution for actions taken by federal authority: the taking of lands from the Sioux, and the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans.

Furutani referred to the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa in its post-apartheid period, which served to foster healing and understanding, and which could serve as a model for approaching the lessons learned relative to the impact of slavery on people of color in the United States.

“People cannot deny that the wording on the front of this obelisk is in relationship not to the Japanese Ameircan community only,” Furutani said, “but to all of our communities. It’s a statement of democracy that makes what we’re about in this country important…. There is much more work to do, as the brothers and sisters have been doing for decades in crazy-ass, progressive … Venice. Use this opportunity to talk about the future of our country, how to heal, bring people together, to make the kind of community that won’t do this kind of crap ever again.”

Dr. Mitchell T. Maki, president and CEO of the Go For Broke National Education Center, opened his remarks with a remembrance of his grandmother, who emigrated from Japan, worked on the plantations of Hawaii, and had six children by the age of 30, living a life that he described simply as “hard.”

But Maki does have fond memories of being chased around by his grandmother, and being called “bakatare,” which he understood to be a term of endearment, until his mother later told him it meant “stupid idiot.” His mother also told him to “be good, take care of family, and remember who you are.”

“That’s why we have gathered here today, at this very historic point,” said Maki, “to remember what happened here and to remember who we are; to remember there were no charges, there were no trials, there were no convictions. And yet, people lost their homes, they lost their jobs, they lost their businesses, but most of all, what was lost was their sense of place at the American table of citizenship.”

Yet, he continued, young Japanese Americans chose to serve in the U.S. military, to put themselves in harm’s way to fight for liberty and justice, while their own families were denied their constitutional rights. One of those who fought in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Staff Sgt. Kazuo Masuda, explained his choice as the only way he knew to give his family a chance in America, to demonstrate his loyalty in blood. Two weeks after he said this, Masuda was killed in action in Italy.

After the war ended, a military ceremony awarded Masuda’s posthumous Distinguished Service Cross to the Masuda family, who had returned to Santa Ana. A young Army captain by the name of Ronald Reagan spoke these words of comfort: “The blood that has soaked into the sand is all of one color. America stands unique in the world, the only country not founded on race, but on an ideal. Mr. and Mrs. Masuda, as one member of the American family to another, for what your son Kazuo did, thanks.”

Reminded of his own words, President Reagan, despite Republican Party opposition, and signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, providing for a presidential apology, reparations for all surviving former internees, and a public education fund to help prevent such a recurrence.

Maki quoted the warning of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who said, “The Korematsu decision was wrong, but you are kidding yourself if you think it will never happen again. In times of war, the laws fall silent.”

Maki closed his remarks by reminding all Americans who value the Constitution and believe in America’s promise that “in our land, no one is to be judged by the color of their skin, the God whom they choose to worship, or the land from which they come,” and that “As we gather here today to remember the history of this spot, to remember the sacrifices of those who went before us, and to remember the challenges that lie ahead, let us all recommit ourselves to the notion that never again, in this land, shall we let our laws fall silent.”

Ann Burroughs, president and CEO of the Japanese American National Museum, expressed her appreciation for the commemorations of the VJAMM, the Manzanar Pilgrimage, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, and Executive Order 9066, but warned, “Now more than ever, we must speak out against the rollback of rights and the constitutional violations that we are witnessing, that parallel ethnic and religious discrimination of 1942.”

Asked to speak about her own experiences in South Africa, Burroughs recounted her 1986 arrest and imprisonment as a demonstrator against the law of the land, apartheid, which legalized and codified racial segregation in housing, employment, fraternization, marriage, and travel, based on the notion of white racial superiority. The South African government declared war against the anti-apartheid movement for justice, freedom, and democracy, suspended due process, and implemented emergency laws that permitted indefinite detention with no rights to an attorney.

At the age of 20, Burroughs found herself in solitary confinement in a small, feces-encrusted cell, able to shower in the nearby mortuary only after the bodies had been removed. Police brutality, torture, disappearances, and assassinations routinely accompanied official custody. The government charged her with treason, with a minimum sentence of ten years to a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

“Because I was white,” said Burroughs, “I knew I would not be executed.” But only through the efforts of Amnesty International did she finally win release. Kept safe by her sponsors from being re-arrested, she nevertheless complied with the restrictions imposed on what she could say, what she could publish, and whom she could marry. She and her fiancé waited for four years until anti-miscegenation laws were overturned.

Burroughs warned that history teaches that rhetoric can normalize division and exclusion, that rhetoric can drive acceptance and submissiveness, and how easily history can be repeated. The VJAMM, she said, “reminds us to stand up for rights enshrined in the Constitution, and that such rights can become privileges that can be withdrawn or bestowed on whim.”

She referred to recent and troubling developments in the U.S. under the current administration: the white supremacy that has crept out of the shadows, the language of prejudice, the perversion of truth, the racial hatred that has made violence permissible again.

She listed current examples of inhumane treatment perpetrated by federal government policies: thousands on the southern border, criminalized and vilified, stripped of their rights to seek asylum; children taken away from their parents and incarcerated in cages and behind barbed wire.

“The Japanese American community,” said Burroughs, “is a beacon to the strength of democracy, a beacon to when rights are withheld, and a beacon to when democracy survives, a beacon to when a community comes together and stands up for rights, a beacon to when people of different opinions can come together and have civil discourse and effect something that is quite extraordinary, to effect this [VJAMM], to effect redress.”

“Truth,” Burroughs concluded, “is what matters more than anything else, and truth along with optimism is the strongest weapon of any democracy; because it’s that optimism, it’s that commitment, that belief in the future, that belief in a just society, that impels us, that inspires us, that motivates us to question, to raise up our voices not to be silent and to question always our political leaders. We must never ever allow ourselves to be tolerant when protest and dissent is silenced.”

VJAMM Committee member Suzanne Thompson closed the program with words of thanks to two community members who have featured the VJAMM in their projects.

Lindsey Kojima of Girl Scout Troop 5325, sponsored by Venice Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, recently earned her Gold Award for her VJAMM project, which involved videotaping her interviews with Brian Tadashi Maeda, Arnold Tadao Maeda, Mae Kageyama Kakehashi, Amy Takahashi Ioki, and June Tomita, widow of the late Yoshinori Tomita, who are quoted on the VJAMM; writing and illustrating her book, “The Corner of Lincoln and Venice,” based on the stories they told her about life in Manzanar and after their release; creating a paper model VJAMM that students can decorate and assemble; developing a questionnaire about the VJAMM and its lessons; and designing a VJAMM patch for those who have participated in her project.

Betsy Goldman sponsored the 2019 Venice Community Calendar, dedicated to the history of Japanese Americans in the Venice area, and featuring the VJAMM.

For more information about the VJAMM, the Girl Scout VJAMM patch, or the 2019 calendar, visit www.venicejamm.org. Videotape of all the speakers at the VJAMM commemoration may be accessed at https://venicejamm.org/our-progress/ under “2018 April 18,” courtesy of Global Voices for Justice.

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