David Mura on Relevance — Japanese Internment — WWII

Recently, the internment of Japanese Americans was cited as setting a precedent for a Muslim registry.*  Of course we cannot let this happen; of course we must protect our Muslim, Arab and Indian American brothers and sisters. We must make sure that what happened to my parents and grandparents and the Japanese American community never happens again.

But what does a proposed Muslim registry say about our country? What does it say about our supposed belief in liberty and the Constitution? And what does it say about the internment camps themselves? Trump himself has refused to condemn the internment camps saying, “I would have had to be there at the time to give a proper answer.”

This past week, on the website Counter Current News, Jeremiah Jones put up photos taken by Dorothea Lange which recorded the “evacuation” and imprisonment of Japanese Americans in 1942. Though Lange was opposed to the internment, she took the commission because she felt “a true record of the evacuation would be valuable in the future.” After reviewing her photographs, military commanders seized them for the entire war, writing “Impounded” across some of the prints. They remained mostly unseen until 2006.

That the military censored Lange’s photos is not surprising. They record the quiet dignity with which Japanese Americans like my parents and Japanese immigrants like my grandparents withstood the internment orders–the violation of their civil liberties; their forced abandonment of their properties and businesses; being rounded up and sent to assembly centers, many of which were horse stables; and then being imprisoned behind barbed wire and rifle towers in desolate areas of the American west and south. Two thirds of those imprisoned were American citizens like my parents; half, like my parents, were under 18.

But the government did not merely censor photographs about the internment. In the early 1980’s, lawyer and professor Peter Irons was researching the internment cases that went to the Supreme Court. Irons uncovered evidence that Solicitor General Charles Fahy who argued Korematsu case, had suppressed FBI and military reports, reports which determined Japanese-American citizens posed no security risks. The documents proved that the military had lied to the Supreme Court; the government had knowingly used these lies to construct false arguments. This evidence led to the overturning of the Korematsu case, as US District Judge Marilyn Patel pronounced, “I would like to see the government admit that they were wrong and do something about it so this will never happen again to any American citizen of any race, creed or color…If anyone should do the pardoning, I should be the one pardoning the government for what they did to the Japanese-American people.”

Thus, the FBI lied during World War II when it claimed, “It is said, and no doubt with considerable truth, that every Japanese in the United States who can read and write is a member of the Japanese intelligence system.” To anyone truly familiar with the Japanese American community at the time, such a statement would have been ludicrous. Certainly it reflects nothing of how members of my own family felt about America, much less the Japanese Americans who joined the 442nd, the most decorated regiment in all of Europe during the war.*

When I was a child, my parents, like many Nisei, never talked to me about their imprisonment; I think they, like many Nisei, felt a deep sense of shame concerning what happened to them. When I finally learned of the internment camps in my late teens, I thought of them as a singular event that happened long ago. Then redress came and President Ronald Reagan apologized to the Japanese American community and said the real reason for the camps was not military necessity but “racism, wartime hysteria, and a failure of leadership.” I thought, Okay, we’ve recognized that wrong, it’s not going to happen again.

A couple weeks ago I saw “Hold These Truths,” a one person show about Gordon Hirabayashi, one of the four Japanese Americans to take the case of the internment camps to the Supreme Court. Nothing in the play mentioned anything contemporary, no words about Muslims or immigrants, much less Trump, but the play was now allegorical: It spoke beyond the Japanese American experience to the fears of Muslim, Arab and Indian Americans now feel; it spoke to the hate and suspicion that is now being directed towards them–as it was to my parents and their parents and other Japanese Americans.

Confronted with the election of Donald Trump and Trump’s own refusal to disavow the internment camps, I’m forced to this conclusion: The internment camps were not just a one time event, but symptomatic and revealing of what America still is. And when Trump’s minions mention the internment camps as precedence for a Muslim registry, they’re telling us what they mean in saying Make America Great Again. Somewhere in their conscious or unconscious, they believe this is an essential part of that greatness: We used to have the power to do this to people of color and other disenfranchised and we want that power again. We used to lie with impunity about people of color and the disenfranchised. We should be able to do that again.

Given the history of my family and my community, I reject this definition of America, knowing that it may very well be with us for a long time to come.

I start with this declaration: If they are going to take one of us, they must take us all. Put my name down too. I am a Muslim. I am a Japanese American. Never again.


* “Trump Support Cites Japanese Internment as ‘Precedent for Muslim Registry”–Huffington Post: “We’ve done it based on race, we’ve done it based on religion, we’ve done it based on region,” Higbie said. “We’ve done it with Iran back — back a while ago. We did it during World War II with Japanese.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/higbie-japanese-internment-muslim_us_582d2f9fe4b099512f80f7b7

* No Japanese American was ever convicted of espionage.  Two thirds of those interned were Japanese Americans–US citizens.  Half were children (including my parents). All 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were interned.  Though Trump has also referred to the treatment of Germans and Italians during World War II, the internment of Japanese Americans was clearly racially based.  For example, in the US at the time, there were more than 1.2 million people who had been born in German, 5 million who had two native-German parents, and 6 million with one native-German parent.  The US detained 11,000 ethnic Germans, almost all German nationals (.0009).

The Tone and Texture of Shame

Shikata ga nai: It cannot be helped.

Carl Watanabe is a Japanese American, an intelligent,  thoughtful, fun, and earnest man. He has been in public radio and public life for many years.  I first met him years ago in his public radio role.  Once I realized that he and I shared WWII from very different perspectives — he was Japanese American and I am native Californian who lived on the San Francisco penninsula — I had to talk with him.

JCampCarl is a 74 years old Californian, an American citizen who has done a life time of psychological and intellectual reflecting and studies around his early experience as a very young child in an assembly camp (his family of four lived in an 8 x 12 white washed horse stall at the Santa Anita Racetrack) and then in an Internment Camp in Arizona with his family — his young mother, his father and his four year old sister. Both his mother and his sister died in the camp which makes the whole experience even more indelible and difficult to leave behind, not that one ever leaves this experiences behind — they are the threads in the life tapestry. As I spent time with Carl one of the subjects we talked about was the experience of shame in the Japanese American community.

“Wait” I said,” shame is an experience that holds true across cultures and history when there is violence and particularly where there are strong tribal and community ties. The person who has survived violence will often feel shame.  It is a common and shared experience in human beings.

Carl: ” I challenge you to be more nuanced in thinking and talking about shame. “

Me “OK, but Carl, please help. “

We exchanged emails on the subject.  The most important musings on the subject were Carl’s.

Here are some excerpts

Shame: The whole Japanese American community (1st generation immigrants from Japan who were still citizens of Japan, U.S. born American citizens, and the children of Nisei, such as me) was ashamed that the country, from which we emanated and were emotionally connected to, Japan, had attacked the country in which we now lived and loved. People like my father understood why the vast majority of America reacted the way it did to the attack on Pearl Harbor (concerning fear of Japanese people). Any attempts to view the event from a rational point of view were doomed to failure (e.g., that we personally had no connection to the fighting; and that we were American citizens (ironically all treated as aliens), imbued with constitutionally defined inalienable rights; and that Italian Americans and German Americans were, for the most part, spared the racism, anger and hatred. Thus, the adults felt helpless in protesting how we were being treated. We were ashamed that this happened, and even though we were not at fault, we had to shoulder the blame. That was inevitable.
There is also shame connected to being locked up and JapanesNoticeincarcerated even though you know you’re innocent. Similarly, the shame of being evicted from your home, having to sell your belongings at bargain prices, at having your belongings being displayed on the street, etc. The shame and helplessness connected with not even being able to protect the lives of your pets and other animals.

Ultimately, for my father and his generation, the shame was also connected with having allowed this (the Incarceration) to happen.

I wrote Carl again and asked if I could publish this.
I’d forgotten that I’d written this. I’d been carrying these thoughts around for most of my life. The impact of being part of a group that had attacked our country had been pushed down within me and kept under the surface. Otherwise, I’d have become too bitter and self-absorbed with collective guilt that I’d be impossible to live with. It’s as if I had a box of forbidden memorabilia kept in an attic hideaway, rarely looked at, but always retained as I moved from house to house.

Yes, publish this.

Soon we will publish Carl’s search for a narrative different than the narrative of the dominant culture, his own and that of his people. This piece talks about Carl’s clarification of identity, meaning and yes, peace. Along with that, an interview with German’s who were also children during that time period.

Andrea Steffens