By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
“Democracy in Crisis: 1942 & 2020” was the theme of the 41st annual Los Angeles Day of Remembrance program, held Feb. 15 at the Japanese American National Museum.
JANM’s Aratani Central Hall was filled to capacity, with the overflow watching a live feed in the nearby Tateuchi Democracy Forum and others watching online.
Following a gathering call played on a conch shell by musician George Abe, two father-daughter teams opened the program. Sara Omura read her poem “Has Anything Really Changed?” — winner of the Manzanar Committee’s Student Award Program — accompanied on guitar by Glenn Suravech.
The co-emcees were Maiya Kuida-Osumi and Tony Osumi. A student at Culver City High School, Kuida-Osumi noted that her grandmother, Machiko Okazaki Kuida, was imprisoned at Heart Mountain and Crystal City and her grandfather, Walt Kuida, at Gila River. Osumi, an LAUSD teacher, said that his grandparents, Chiye and Yoshio Osumi, were incarcerated at Poston.
JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs said, “I’m so grateful to all of you for coming. It’s always such an honor and a privilege at JANM to have you in our house at any time, but it’s a particular privilege to have you with us today.”
She read a statement from former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, chair of the JANM Board of Trustees, who was unable to attend because he was speaking at the Day of Remembrance in San Jose.
“On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which incarcerated 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, the vast majority of whom were American citizens,” Mineta said. “We were stripped of our freedom, our rights, and forced to give up our jobs and belongings, our homes and the communities that we loved. I became an enemy alien in the land of my birth. For us, this is not an abstract history lesson but an episode indelibly seared into our memories, an experience we must never forget.
“This shameful chapter in American history demonstrates the corrosive power that fear, prejudice and the failure of political leadership can have … As Japanese Americans who were directly affected by incarceration, we’re keenly aware of the parallels between our history and the present — the scapegoating after 9/11, exclusionary policies like the travel bans, and the closing of our borders to people lawfully seeking asylum from persecution … policies that undermine the very thing that sets this country apart, our enduring commitment to freedom and justice for all.
“Our own history has taught us how easily our democracy can be tested and it’s taught us that we have a moral obligation as Japanese Americans to remind our fellow citizens of just how frail the institutions of democracy are if we don’t protect them. In 1942, too many people sat quietly by while Japanese Americans were rounded up and incarcerated.”
At the same time, Mineta explained why a scheduled video message from Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) was being omitted from the program. “We are keenly aware of how easily divisiveness and discrimination create barriers and pit citizen against citizen. We are therefore deeply committed to encouraging dialogue and the inclusion of all voices and opinions, regardless of partisan position or political affiliation. JANM therefore requested that changes be made to the program to allow for all to feel welcomed here, and for all participating organizations similarly to feel welcomed.
“In this spirit, one of the changes you will note is that the video presentation by Sen. Mazie Hirono will be moved online, and we invite you to view it on the websites of several organizations represented here. On this Day of Remembrance that unites all of us, we ask that you respect this. It’s important that we remain united so that the dark chapter in history that we gather today to commemorate is never repeated.”
Speaking on behalf of the 2020 DOR Planning Committee, co-chair Glenn Kitayama said, “Many of us are disappointed that Sen. Hirono’s video is not being shown today. However … I want to remind you that it will be streamed online through the Nikkei Progressives, Manzanar Committee, Progressive Asian Network for Action, and others.”
He continued, “During the 1980s, when Japanese Americans were fighting for redress and reparations, the Day of Remembrance was not only a time to remember Executive Order 9066, but also became a vehicle for us to take action. We stood in solidarity with other grassroots communities of color throughout the decade because we viewed the incarceration … in the context of our collective history that included the enslavement of African Americans and the genocide of Native Americans …
“In our community, the redress movement was never just a Japanese American issue. It was for all who believed in fighting for civil and human rights. Today we stand at a critical juncture in our history. For the past three years, our government has criminalized immigrants, separated children from their families and imprisoned families simply because they were seeking asylum at the border. Muslim Americans have been demonized and a travel ban for Muslim-majority countries has been instituted and upheld by the Supreme Court.
“Over the past few years we have seen the disturbing rise of alt-right nationalism that many had hoped were mere echoes of America’s racist past. But unfortunately, current events are beginning to point to a failure of political leadership in 2020, just like in 1942. So what can we do now when our democracy is in crisis?
“We can stand together once again with other communities of color and voice our support for the movement for … Black Lives Matter. We can fold a crane in support of Tsuru for Solidarity to demonstrate to the world that Japanese Americans are opposed to the detention and incarceration of families seeking asylum at the southern border. We can write letters and call our representatives to make sure our voices are heard in Congress.
“But most of all, we can organize with our friends, families, churches, temples, mosques, and community groups around the challenges that we are facing in 2020 and create a blueprint for the social justice that we want to see. We have the power to change our part of the world, and today we can take the first step.”
The co-emcees introduced the annual camp roll call and procession. “We honor the first-generation Japanese American immigrants, the Issei, who faced racism and discrimination coming to this country to make a living and a home for themselves and their families. We honor their children, the second-generation, Nisei, who often bridged different worlds at home and at work or school and fought for their rights to be U.S. citizens in a country filled with racism and violence. We honor their strength and resilience.
“We think of the generations that followed, the Sansei, the Yonsei and the Gosei like me, who have felt the after-effects of the trauma caused by Executive Order 9066 even to this day,” said Kuida-Osumi.
Banners representing the 10 War Relocation Authority camps and Crystal City and other Department of Justice camps were accompanied by former incarcerees from each camp: Amache (Colo.), Min Tonai; Gila River (Ariz.), George Sugimoto; Heart Mountain (Wyo.), Sam Mihara; Jerome (Ark.), Richard Murakami; Manzanar (Calif.), Marge Kohatsu; Minidoka (Idaho), Norma Jean Yamashita; Poston (Ariz.), Ben Furuta; Rohwer (Ark.), Kanji Sahara; Topaz (Utah), Esther Taira; Tule Lake (Calif.), Bill Nishimura; Crystal City (Texas), Chieko Kamisato. There was also a banner for the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service.
The banners were carried by members of Girl Scout Troop 12135, Nishi Hongwanji; Boy Scout Troop 242, Christ Lutheran Church; Boy Scout Troop 764, Venice Japanese Community Center; Boy Scout Troop 361 and Girl Scout Troop 1521, Evergreen Baptist Church.
Also recognized were Japanese Americans who were not incarcerated but forced to relocate from the West Coast; Nikkei who were brought to the U.S. against their will from Latin American countries; and German and Italian American detainees.
Honoring those who passed away since the last Day of Remembrance, Kay Ochi and Richard Katsuda of Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress paid tribute to 12 individuals who worked on redress, educated the public about the camps, or otherwise contributed uniquely to Japanese American history: Jeff Adachi, Paul Bannai, Hitoshi Harry Kajihara, Hiroshi Kashiwagi, Greg Marutani, Dean Matsubayashi, Wat Misaka, Rev. Dr. Paul Nagano, Lucille Nakahara, Esther Takei Nishio, Dr. Bo Sakaguchi, and Hank Umemoto. A moment of silence was observed.
Connecting with Other Communities
The guest speaker was Satsuki Ina, a Sacramento activist and psychotherapist and co-organizer of Tsuru for Solidarity, a direct-action project of Japanese American social justice advocates working to end detention sites. Born at Tule Lake, she has spent her professional career seeking to understand the long-term impact of collective historical trauma.
Ina dedicated her remarks to the late Sue Kunitomi Embrey, “who had a vision of bringing the Japanese American incarceration story forward, even when our community was still stymied by silence about the concentration camp experience. She was one of the earliest community leaders to establish a pilgrimage to one of America’s sites of shame, which would through her efforts become the Manzanar National Historic Site.
“Inspired by an even broader vision, she was someone who stood in solidarity with labor, women and other underrepresented groups. Today she inspires the work of Tsuru for Solidarity, whose mission it is to educate people about the injustice of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, to gather Japanese Americans for a mass pilgrimage to heal our wounds and stand in solidarity with targeted groups today.”
Ina shared what she has learned from traveling around the country to protest the detention of migrants seeking asylum. “By protesting, by standing up for another group of people being targeted today in the way we were targeted, there was a powerful healing for ourselves. The opportunity to speak out in ways that we never could even decades after our own incarceration, there is something about being empowered to demand justice and to speak out in protest.
“But one of the things that was even more important is we developed connections with other allied groups, with Black Lives Matter, with Bend the Arc. Council for American-Islamic Relations, United We Dream, Brown Berets, and many multiple indigenous organizations … We decided that after each action we would try to gather people together to sit face to face and do something very simple, and that was to share our stories.
“We learned that there were many differences that we shared, different historical periods of time, different ways of viewing the world, different cultural traditions. But we learned that when we came together to stand for one another, there was a healing between our communities.”
Ina recalled visiting a center in Laredo, Texas for mothers and children who had been released from detention and were trying to locate their families. The center was run by DACA recipients, young people who worked or went to school by day and spent evenings and weekends helping the mothers. Tsuru for Solidarity decided to get a washer and dryer for the facility, which housed 250 people.
“I realized these women — some were pregnant, some were still nursing their babies, many had toddlers — had crossed a whole continent. Something had happened for them to decide that it was worth the risk to take this journey so that their children could be safe. And when they got to the border, they were told, ‘Look for the man with the [Border Patrol] hat …. Just put your arms out and say “asylum” and they’ll take care of you.’
“[Instead] they were handcuffed, children were chased by these dogs, they were thrown into these cement blocks with no protection, no bedding, no blankets, until the van came to pick them up to transport them to the prisons, which are called ‘family residential centers,’ much like our ‘relocation centers.’”
During the visit, 15 Japanese Americans sat in a circle with the mothers, along with the students serving as interpreters, to share stories. “One of the Sansei men, who was born in Topaz, stood up … and said that he had spent his first 4½ years as a child prisoner, and how he wanted to be here to give hope to these mothers and children, to say that it was a struggle and yet we persevered and we’re here, alive and well.
“The woman next to him was one of the asylum-seeking mothers. She had her baby in her arms and she stood up and she had tears streaming down her eyes. She said, ‘I’ve just been released after nine months. My older daughter, who is 14, was separated from us and I don’t know where she is now. She was placed in another facility. Nine months seemed like a long time, but when I hear that you were held for four years, I can barely stand the pain.’
“I realized that she was weeping for us, and in that moment of pure compassion there was a connection that I never dreamed could happen, with a person who spoke a different language, who came from a different country, who was in such a desperate condition, she had in her heart space for empathy for what we had experienced. We went around the circle and several times the translator had to stop because she was crying so hard. Because all of us were crying, we were crying for each other and crying for ourselves, what had to be endured when oppression fractures and splits our personal psyches, our relationships with each other, our relationships in our families and in our communities.”
Ina summed up, “My involvement with Tsuru for Solidarity is definitely about protest. It’s about affirming our rights in a democracy to stand up for those who are suffering the injustice being perpetrated today. But it’s also abut healing … To remember is an act of dissidence, because the perpetrator of an atrocity like the incarceration in ’42 and 2020, silence prevailing is what the perpetrator would like. They would like all of this to be forgotten. So Day of Remembrance is an act of dissidence that we must continue every year, every day, every week.”
Tsuru for Solidarity will hold a National Pilgrimage to Close the Camps in Washington, D.C. from June 5 to 7. “We plan to conduct 50 of these healing circles for change during our national pilgrimage … At the same time in the same building there will be 500 people sharing their stories with each other across communities,” said Ina. “So 2020, 75 years since the closing of the camps, we’re hoping also 2020 will mark the beginning of the closing of the camps.”
In closing, Osumi said, “We want to remind everyone to not only remember but to take the energy from this room outside, beyond this space … Our community needs to stand strong and say never again is now, and be advocates for those who are on the frontlines of xenophobic mass incarceration today.”
Kuida-Osumi added, “2020 is a big year for our democracy. We face another election which will shape the future of our democracy in more ways than we can imagine. As a ninth-grader, I can’t vote yet, but you can, and we’re asking you to get out there and make your voice heard.”
Photos by MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo