By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
“Is It 1942 Again? Overcoming Our Fears and Upholding Constitutional Rights for All” was the theme of the 2016 Day of Remembrance (DOR) program held Feb. 20 at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
The annual event commemorates President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, which led to the forced removal and incarceration of all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. Day of Remembrance programs are held by Japanese American communities in San Francisco, San Jose and other cities, and on college campuses across the country.
Co-emcee traci ishigo, program coordinator for Pacific Southwest District JACL, said, “DOR is such a moving community program for me, and it’s always encouraging me to reflect upon my family’s experiences.” Her father’s grandfather, an Issei immigrant in Hawaii, was detained and sent to a work camp on Sand Island because he was a Buddhist community leader.
Co-emcee Bruce Embrey noted that the first DOR event in Los Angeles was held 37 years ago, organized by the Manzanar Committee, which he co-chairs, and his late mother, Sue Kunitomi Embrey.
Following the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese Americans were targeted with rumors of espionage and sabotage, Embrey said. “Stoked by xenophobes and political leaders, our country’s democratic traditions were pushed aside, fear, hatred and racism went unchallenged, and our community suffered. Today in our country, an eerily familiar climate has taken hold … with regard to Muslim Americans.”
Since last November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, ishigo added, hate crimes in the U.S. have spiked, including vandalism of mosques as well as Sikh gurdwaras.
“In 2015, there were hundreds of mass shootings in the United States, the vast majority not involving Muslim Americans but shooters driven by white supremacy,” she said. “However, the tragic shootings in San Bernardino brought the fear close to home and placed unjustified blame on Muslim, Sikh, Middle Eastern, Arab and South Asian communities …
“Recently in Los Angeles, Metro bus driver Balwinder Jit Singh was attacked by a passenger who called him a terrorist and suicide bomber. A member of the Sikh religion, Balwinder’s turban was knocked off. He suffered a black eye, blurred vision and a swollen face. This is just one of many acts against Sikh persons who are thought to be Muslim.”
Speaking on behalf of JANM was Art Director Clement Hanami, who thanked the museum’s many volunteers. “They have worked with us to collect, preserve and then share this tragic story to the next generation of Americans. The Heart Mountain barracks that you can see upstairs was brought (from Wyoming) by a large contingent of volunteers who worked tirelessly …
“Our school tours … are also led by volunteers, many former inmates or relatives of inmates. They share this story of incarceration with more than 10,000 students each year. They do this on a weekly basis and they are so committed that they often contribute funds to our Bid for Education program that provides hundreds of free buses to Title I schools so that more students can come and hear the story …
“Through the incredible power of sharing their experiences and stories, these volunteers demonstrate the power that one individual can have … to transform the perspectives of our visitors on what it means to be an American.”
All attendees were given tags similar to the ones worn by Japanese Americans as they boarded buses and trains bound for the camps. Each tag was inscribed with the name of one of the War Relocation Authority camps, Department of Justice camps, or citizen isolation centers. As the name of each camp was called, those with the corresponding tags were asked to stand up.
Ishigo called for a moment of silence, saying, “We pay our respects to those who are no longer with us … Each of these friends, activists and our leaders left our community and our country a tremendous legacy about the camps, about the Japanese American experience and about fighting for justice.”
Profile in Courage
Embrey praised the American Friends Service Committee as an example of “those who stood up for Japanese Americans during this extremely difficult time … Groups such as the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, the American Legion, the California Farm Bureau were calling for the removal of Japanese and ‘stern measures.’ The Hearst papers had a long history of anti-Japanese political cartoons and in 1942 The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial comparing the Issei and Nisei to vipers. ‘A viper is nonetheless a viper, wherever the egg is hatched.’”
“In this racist and hostile environment, no organizations had the courage to protect the lives and rights of Japanese Americans except one, the American Friends Service Committee,” said ishigo. “Examples of their support included providing Christmas gifts to children in camps, books and materials for camp classrooms … The AFSC spoke out and took action against the forced evacuation and incarceration …
“Most notably, the AFSC formed the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council in 1942 to assist college-age Nisei to escape the incarceration and attend approximately 600 colleges and universities outside of the restricted area. The AFSC raised funds for scholarships and sought housing whenever needed. Some 4,300 Nisei benefited from this program.”
Anthony Marsh, AFSC leadership and planned gift officer, noted that AFSC, which will celebrate its centennial next year, “has been involved in some of the most defining moments of this country and in the world. It provided critical humanitarian relief aid to refugees post-World War I and II, opened offices in Israel and Palestine in 1947. We were also deeply involved in the civil rights movement. In fact, Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ was funded and published by AFSC. We were also heavily involved in California’s farm workers movement. Cesar Chavez’s first job was with the AFSC.
“Today we work in over 13 countries around the world on peace-building, immigrant rights, prison reform, economic justice, racial reconciliation and more.
“Being half Japanese and half African American, working for AFSC brings a point of pride. The Quakers, who founded AFSC, were the first religious group to actually oppose and seek to abolish slavery in the United States. This was actually 300 years before President Lincoln declared emancipation of slaves …
“AFSC was one the first and among the few to stand publicly opposed to Executive Order 9066. Opposing the incarceration and the internment camps was a significant stand that was widely criticized by the American public and government. AFSC’s public opposition came at a great cost, but it was not a singular event. It was a long-term commitment to seek justice …
“AFSC documented the conditions of assembly centers and internment camps, which were described as offering no privacy and little human decency, provided material aid such as household goods and toiletries … The Quakers purchased property — homes and businesses of Japanese Americans — and also returned it to them upon their release. We also assisted with resettlement, college placement and legal cases.”
Marsh described AFSC’s involvement in the case of Gordon Hirabayashi, a Quaker and a pacifist who, as a student at University of Washington, challenged a curfew imposed on Japanese Americans in 1942. “AFSC supported Hirabayashi through many legal battles, all the way to the Supreme Court. Initially he lost his case, but his conviction was overturned in 1987 and the case very much set precedent and brought … attention to the plight of Japanese Americans to the nation’s courts and to the public.”
“We also established hostels which served as way stations for Japanese Americans fortunate enough to receive permission to leave their incarceration,” Marsh said. “For anyone who had been removed from their homes, stripped of all businesses, land, possessions, re-entering society posed a difficult challenge. AFSC’s hostel system, which was in Chicago, Iowa, and all parts of the United States, allowed people to get back on their feet, establish themselves and their family, find employment, earn money to find permanent housing so that they would be able to bring their family members out of the camps to live with them.”
Marsh closed by recalling a program held at JANM in 2010, which focused on AFSC’s relationship with Japanese Americans during the war. Although there was a panel of distinguished speakers, “there was a man in his 80s who stood up during the Q&A session that kind of just stole the show.” As an 8-year-old internee, the man received a Christmas gift from the Quakers, and he felt guilty because he never wrote a thank-you note.
“He reached down into a paper bag and pulled out that gift,” said Marsh. “And it turned out to be this red, tattered book called ‘The Little Engine that Could.’ I think everyone in the room had a little tear in their eye. I think of all the things I’ve done, I remember that story because it captured the spirit of our work so well … We’re here to honor those stories and cherish those memories and pass them on to future generations so we have the courage to continue the fight.”
Memories of Camp
Former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, who opposed racial profiling after 9/11, was scheduled to speak but had to cancel.
Bill Shishima, a longtime JANM docent who was born in Los Angeles in 1930, discussed his experiences. “My dad had a mercado, a small grocery store, in the early 1930s. Being Japanese, he was not able to purchase a store. In the ’40s, he leased a hotel … Today that hotel is part of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, the Mexican American museum. We lost the hotel and market because of the incarceration.”
An exclusion order dated May 3, 1942 stated that all Japanese Americans had to be ready to leave on May 9. “We had one week’s notice to pack up and move out. We could only take what we could carry. We had to dispose of our washing machine, refrigerator and automobile. We boarded buses with police escorts … military police, armed guards with fixed bayonets.”
At Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia, which had been converted into an assembly center, “ my family was fortunate that we lived in the parking lot … I say fortunate because my grandparents lived in the horse stables. As much as I loved my grandparents, I hated to go visit them because of the stench of the prior tenants … We had school sessions in the open grandstands. It was not very conducive to learning.”
The family was transferred to Heart Mountain. “We lived in the largest unit available, which was 24 feet by 20 feet, for my parents, my two brothers, my two sisters and myself. That unit was about the size of a two-car garage … furniture was made from scrap lumber.”
Communal dining in the mess halls “really broke up our family unit … We didn’t each lunch and dinner with our families, so we didn’t have a chance to discuss family matters over the dinner table,” Shishima recalled. “Plus we had peer pressure. We were called sissies if we had to eat with our families.”
He continued, “The women in Heart Mountain complained about the latrines, so they got partitions but still no doors. On the men’s side we had no partitions. We had to do our personal business next to strangers, sitting side by side, the most humiliating experience of camp life … We had two shower rooms … eight people taking a shower, no privacy.”
On the positive side, “We had seven Boy Scout troops that competed against each other in first aid, cooking, fire building, camping and even marching … It really kept us occupied and kept us out of trouble.”
The loyalty questionnaire administered in the camps was problematic, Shishima said. For example, “If my father forswore his allegiance to Japan, he would be a man without a country because he was ineligible to become an American citizen.”
Upon the family’s release, “the government gave us a ticket back to Los Angeles, $8 for meals plus $25 to get settled. After being in the U.S. for over 40 years, my parents were finally eligible to become American citizens in 1952. They got their citizenship … in 1953 and they were able to own property here in America.”
Stressing the importance of DOR, Shishima concluded, “As a museum docent, it’s important for me to continue telling the story so that history does not repeat itself.”
Syrian American Perspective
Maytha Alhassen, a poet, commentator and USC provost Ph.D. fellow in American studies and ethnicity, said that if she had been around in 1942, “I would like to … I would have vociferously spoken out against the incarceration of Japanese Americans. I would like to think that when any group I’m not a part of endures collective punishment, I would swiftly stand by their side … We remember so we don’t forget the evils that rise in response to national security concerns, the evils of xenophobia, racism and fear.”
Alhassen, the daughter of a Syrian American who immigrated from Aleppo to Los Angeles in 1968, discussed the rhetoric directed at Syrian refugee asylum seekers in recent months. “To hear people like (Roanoke) Virginia Mayor David Bowers, who invoked Executive Order 9066, lauding FDR’s foresight to justify his rationale to ban Syrian refugees from his city, it’s no wonder that one of the first communities to express solidarity with the Muslim community in the U.S. was the Japanese …
“I never thought that U.S. political officials would trigger national memories around incarceration to justify having similar xenophobic thoughts more than seven decades later. (Donald) Trump calls for a ban on Muslim travelers … It comes with a dark historical irony that Trump would present a national policy recommendation on the very day of the 74th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Or perhaps it wasn’t so ironic. Perhaps his declaration was strategically designed to stir xenophobic patriotism.”
Pointing out that neo-Nazi websites have lauded Trump’s statements, Alhassen called for “an honest conversation about how ideologies of white supremacy put us at a greater national security risk than vulnerable populations like the Syrian refugees and Iraqi refugees who are fleeing wars initiated by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.”
“The sad part is Japanese concentration is being invoked to justify detention of Arabs and Muslims today (as well as) restrictions on people with Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Sudanese, Libyan and Yemeni national origin from coming into our country,” she said.
In the event of a future international crisis, “I would like to stand with the next community and respond with collective love and collective fear,” Alhassen concluded. “But more so … I hope that there isn’t another next community. So I will work with you all so that we eliminate the possibility of a next time. This is what it means to never forget.”
“Demagogues Are Getting Louder”
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said that protecting civil liberties has been more challenging since the San Bernardino shootings. “The attacks made many people afraid. But while we must ensure that our country is protected from terrorism, we must never forget the lesson that we learned from the Japanese American experience, and that is we must never use fear as an excuse to harm innocent others. Innocent people must never again be victims of demagogues.
“Yet the voices of those demagogues are getting louder and louder. I was shocked last year when the mayor of Roanoke, Va. … said that FDR was justified (and) used it as a rationale for doing the same for Muslim Americans. I immediately issued a statement … He was roundly condemned by many. But his comments show that we still have our work cut out for us.”
Despite what she called “the strongest screening process for refugees in the world,” Chu said, “There are demagogues on Capitol Hill proposing laws targeting Muslim immigrants, most recently regarding refugee resettlement from Muslim countries … I felt this was so wrong and a violation of our country’s values. That’s why I just had to vote no.
“And then there are demagogues among the Republican presidential candidates, who are falling over each other to be more anti-Muslim than the next … The loudest of them is Donald Trump. He’s calling for surveillance of mosques, he’s calling for establishing a database of all Muslims living in the U.S. … But the worst part of it is that there are people out there who are … saying, ‘Yeah, sounds like a good idea.’ …
“There is so much harm when the leaders of a country are saying this, because when they say such hateful things, uglier things happen on the street. Hate crimes against Muslims have tripled in San Bernardino. Just recently in Chino Hills, a woman simply getting her car washed had a knife pulled on her simply because she was wearing a head scarf.”
Chu and other members of Congress have tried to send messages of support for Muslim Americans. During President Obama’s latest State of the Union speech, her guest was Adrian Khan, past president of the Council of Pakistan American Affairs and a business leader in San Gabriel Valley.
“So many years ago there were not enough voices to speak up for justice,” Chu concluded. “Today we must have those voices speak up … We know just how far this country can go if we let hysteria and scapegoating get its way. So let us unite all the people all across this country who believe in the principle of civil liberties. Let’s reach out to our neighbors to make sure that they know that Muslim Americans are true Americans. Let us build bigger and bigger coalitions and lets make sure that what happens to Japanese Americans never happens again to anyone in this country.”
The program also included video excerpts from the documentaries “Something Strong Within” and “9066 to 9/11,” and ended with a reception.