After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, advertisements for “Jap Hunting Licenses” hung in store windows. Life Magazine ran the article, “How to tell your friends from the Japs.” Fear outpaced sense, and nearly 120,000 people of Japanese descent were incarcerated in internment camps across the United States.
In the 1940s, our nation responded to adversity by projecting hate, anxiety, and fear onto a minority demographic. With Trump’s attempts to hold DREAMers hostage in exchange for a wall, it is clear that our nation’s response has not evolved. Xenophobia is as alive today as it was in the last century, and we need to remember the painful moments in our country’s history in order to actively prevent further injustice.
In October 2017, I attended and spoke at the Friends of Minidoka’s Civil Liberties Symposium in Boise, Idaho, about 130 miles from the Minidoka internment camp that held over 9,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. The Symposium’s mission was to “[examine] historic and contemporary civil liberties issues as related to the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans,” and it highlighted the need to remember past racial injustices.
For me, the trip to Boise was deeply personal.
Minidoka – a flat expanse of 210 acres surrounded by barbed wire – was the camp that held my Ojii-chan (grandfather). The woman who would later become my Obaa-chan (grandmother) was held at Heart Mountain in Wyoming.
Boise was the closest I had ever been to either of the camps.
The system of transporting the thousands of detainees into the internment camps lacked both planning and humanity. A few months after Pearl Harbor, Executive Order 9066 was posted in my Ojii-chan’s neighborhood, alerting Japanese Americans that they had one week to vacate – the War Committee preferred the term “evacuate” – their homes, leave their communities, and sell most their personal belongings. They could bring only what they could carry.
The process was so rushed that the government stripped many Japanese Americans of their property before the internment camps had been built. In between their arrest and their arrival in the camps, those detainees were held in “relocation centers” across the West Coast.
My grandparents met for the first time at the relocation center at the Puyallup Fairgrounds in Washington State. They met while they were forced to live out of mucked-out horse stalls, en route to years behind barbed wire.
Beyond anger and confusion, what gives me most pause about my Ojii-chan and Obaa-chan’s experience is that my lineage depends upon their meeting there. Racism and racist actions are so deeply ingrained in our national and personal histories, that without them many of us would not otherwise exist.
However conflicted, our role is to remember their experience.
The Friends of Minidoka is one of many groups dedicated to preserving the memory of the Japanese American experience during World War II. Their symposium included Dr. Paul Watanabe, Director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Tom Ikeda, Director of Densho, a story preservation organization, and filmmaker Jason Matsumoto.
“It is so critical to engage the public in learning the history of the Japanese American incarceration because it gives us a broader understanding of our nation’s past in order to actively prevent a similar tragedy from happening again,” said Mia Russell, Executive Director of Friends of Minidoka.
“The congressional investigation into the causes of the incarceration found that wartime hysteria, racial prejudice, and a failure of political leadership were all to blame.”
Today, a similar hysteria has taken root in a climate influenced by white supremacist ideology.
Turning a blind eye to our nation’s origin, President Trump has directly overturned the futures of nearly one million immigrants. His treatment and disregard of immigrants, especially those of color, show he is operating from a playbook written by white supremacists.
The President is targeting recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, children who arrived in the US – by no fault of their own – as undocumented minors. He has eliminated Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 300,000 people, forcing them back to a country that is not prepared to receive them. He is ordering Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to conduct raids on businesses, neighborhoods, and families.
This wave of hysteria runs deep, and without regard to history: In 2015, before this administration even took power, a Democratic mayor in Virginia cited the Japanese American Internment Camps as a justification for turning away Syrian refugees in need of a home.
Communities of color are living in fear.
And this is not new.
It is easy to peer in, hands cupping our peripheries, and wonder how the US could have reached a moment of such injustice. The answer becomes clearer when we understand that hate and racism have always been a part of the American experience.
My Ojii-chan’s lifespan and my own never overlapped; my Obaa-chan passed away before I reached two years of age. But the experiences endured throughout our country’s history are still relevant, and they implore us to continue fighting for basic rights and dignities today.
You can learn more about the Friends of Minidoka’s work in preserving the memories of the Japanese American internment here.
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