My great grandparents were incarcerated. My grandparents were born in the camps. My mom was one of only two Japanese Americans in her school and was subject to racial slurs and harassment.
I remember learning about Japanese internment in complete disbelief. My naive little mind couldn’t understand how something like that was allowed to happen, and to my family nonetheless. Hearing the stories, I always considered myself fortunate to have been born in a time when things like that were unacceptable.
As a kid, I never felt out of place or “other,” and I was always taught that discrimination and discrimination-driven atrocities were tremendously regrettable pieces of history. We were all taught that they were completely unethical mistakes, mistakes to learn from and never make again. But today, as history threatens to repeat itself, I realize that lessons from the past are not always learned (even if the similarities are grossly uncanny).
February 19,2017 marks the 75th anniversary of the President Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066. Overnight, he authorized the evacuation and incarceration of all Japanese Americans. This forced over 120,000 American citizens, nearly two-thirds of whom were born in America, to relocate into concentration camps.
This was a fear-based order. There was no evidence to support it at the time, and there has been no evidence to even attempt to justify it since. The US viewed a large Japanese population on the West Coast as a potential security risk, and its solution was to view all people of the slightest Japanese ancestry as the enemy and relocate them inland where they’d have less of a chance to “remain loyal” and take action. We are talking about a population of Americans, a vast majority of whom were women and children, elderly and families.
Families were forced to sell their homes and establishments, leave their friends and give
up their livelihoods with little to no notice. They were incarcerated and moved to temporary “assembly centers” in stables, racetracks or fair grounds and parking lots before being transported to concentration camps.
The ten camps were all located in dry dessert or swamplands with extreme weather and harsh living conditions. Japanese Americans families were confined to military-style barracks surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers armed to shoot at anyone who tried to escape. They shared communal housing, bathrooms, laundry facilities and mess halls.
Life in the camps was physically and emotionally damaging. There was a lack of privacy, poor food quality, and traditional family relations were strained as policy favored American-born Japanese (Nissei) over their parents (Issei).
Internees were given the option to work for little to no money but took on the arduous task of making the camps livable and restoring some type of order to their family lives. They planted gardens, ran schools, prepared food for their fellow inmates.
They did whatever they could to give their
children a sense of normality but the reality is, it was not normal. It was racist and completely unwarranted. As a kid, I genuinely believed that we, as a nation, had moved forward from our so very American way of discriminating against people who are subjectively different.
Though ironically, being “American” means being different. It means that your family immigrated here from somewhere else, and not too long ago. We have all been “other” at some point in history. Though the way we are treated seems to be determined simply by the degree to which our “otherness” differs from that of the majority.
Maybe I was too innocent or oblivious at the time, but with age I came to realize the inequalities and injustices that have plagued the world I once believed to be good and fair. An innocent mind can’t comprehend immoral things. We all eventually grow up and become learned but also scarred. We see suffering and evil in the world in ways we couldn’t even imagine as children. In doing so, we unfortunately lose our innocence but gain the ability to distinguish and stand up for what’s right, to protect that innocence for future generations. It is our responsibility as citizens, not of our home countries, but of the world.
I still have the wooden box that my great grandfather brought to the camps. One day, 75 years ago, he was forced to pack his entire life into that box.
Let us not allow history repeat itself.
***All photos are courtesy of Densho. They are a grassroots organization whose mission is “to preserve the testimonies of Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II… to explore principles of democracy, and promote equal justice for all.”