Frances H. Kakugawa
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
A Caucasian woman approached me in Sacramento. “You’re a writer,” she said. “You need to respond to this article in today’s Sacramento Bee. Tell the Sansei and Yonsei to stand up and question this. They are the only remaining voices.” I promised her I would.
She was referring to Carl Higbie, the former Navy SEAL and spokesman for the pro-Trump Great America political action committee, who said the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was a “precedent” for the then-president-elect’s plans to create a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries. “We’ve done it with Iran back a while ago; we did it during World War II with the Japanese,” he is quoted as having said. (Sacramento Bee, Nov. 18, 2016)
I think of a woman in Pähoa on Hawai‘i island, who never told her children about having been interned. “I didn’t want my children to know how their country shamed us so much. I wanted them to be proud of their country and to become very good citizens,” she confided to me.
A friend and her family here in Sacramento never spoke about their time in camp. They do not want to relive the indignities and humiliation they experienced, the homes and farms that were confiscated by neighbors and strangers and their parents’ struggle to restart their lives after the camp ordeals were over.
If only this silencing of past inhumane experiences, authorized and imposed by the United States, had resulted in what Japanese Americans had sought: dignity, respect and full acceptance of Japanese Americans as American as any other citizen. If only our country had learned to never again use fear and ignorance to dehumanize fellow human beings.
But this is not happening, not even after the government in 1988 officially recognized that a horrific injustice had been perpetrated and apologized to those who suffered with the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. This law won congressional approval only after a decade-long campaign by the Japanese American community.
But that apology becomes meaningless when internment camps are being cited as precedent.
This silence has been there, but not the resolve. This recent resurfacing of hostility and xenophobia towards those of different races, faiths and nationalities tells us the silence of our families has only been a mask to hide the practice of declaring those who are different do not deserve the basic rights and respect due every American.
So I offer this caution to the Sansei and Yonsei: Gaman, to suffer in silence, may do more damage than good today. We cannot ignore what our ancestors suffered at the hands of our own government. We cannot bury and ignore the present leaders’ fear, ignorance and plain inhumanity with silence. What our families thought was over and done with is rising again and again, and we need to be a voice — a loud and clear voice — to stop the recurrence of the horrors of internment camps in any form and the rhetoric that announces its arrival.
Our ancestors who quietly suffered this inhumanity cannot be honored by our silence, complacency and ignorance. Yes, ignorance. Get out those history books, visit the Japanese cultural centers and museums, hear the voices and stories of our ancestors, see the images of their faces, read their poetry, and then use your voice to stop this from ever happening again. Use your voice to those who represent us in Congress and in public offices.
This is not simply because we are Japanese by ancestry, but as much because we are Americans. Once we allow the internment camp to become a “precedent,” will slavery become our next “precedent” for implementing human trafficking and indentured servitude?
We owe this to our ancestors and you are their last remaining voice. If you don’t speak, our ancestors remain victims in a country they so honored and respected, and their suffering and loss of dignity and humanity would all have been for nothing. This is not the country we inherited.
Frances H. Kakugawa is a writer and poet. She also pens a monthly caregiving column for the Herald called “Dear Frances.”