Feb. 19 marks a day that lives in notoriety for Japanese Americans, for Asian American and other immigrants of color in the United States, and for anyone concerned with unjust government treatment of minority populations globally.
Every year, Americans of Japanese Ancestry across the nation focus upon Feb. 19, and the time around it, as an important period of commemoration — to remember one of the most shameful travesties in U.S. racial-ethnic history, so as to avoid similar civil- and human-rights violations in the future.
Feb. 19 was the day that, 79 years ago, U.S. Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had infamously signed Executive Order 9066, which gave the U.S. Army the authority to designate isolated areas of Arkansas, Arizona, California, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado as military zones, so as to be able to remove families, against their will, from their communities and neighborhoods, then incarcerate them forcibly across 10 concentration camps in those remote, desolate areas. Based only on their ethnicity — which the U.S. government had erroneously regarded as proof of possible connections to Germany, Italy and Japan — Americans perceived as possibly loyal to the Axis powers and traitorous to the U.S. were imprisoned in these facilities until December 1944 when Roosevelt suspended the order. Concentration camps were not fully shut down until 1946, and formal termination of Executive Order 9066 did not take place until Feb. 19, 1976, when Pres. Gerald Ford ended it officially and issued an apology for the internment.
While 11,000 German Americans and 3,000 Italian Americans (as well as some Jewish refugees) were also sent to these camps, overwhelmingly and unmistakably, the main target of this effort was the approximately 127,000 AJAs who were made to surrender or leave their homes, abandon their businesses, quit their jobs and give up their property and other financial resources, to become incarcerated without a trial or any kind of due process. Sixty-two percent of those imprisoned were U.S. citizens at the time (about 80,000 nisei and sansei), while many who were not American citizens had been living in the country between 20 and 40 years as longtime residents. Though the incarceration lasted about two years and 10 months, originally when it began shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, it was seen as an indefinite wartime strategy.
“No Japanese Americans were ever charged, much less convicted, of espionage or sabotage against the United States. Yet they were targeted, rounded up, and imprisoned for years, simply for having the ʻface of the enemy,’” states the national office of the Japanese American Citizens League in its introduction to this year’s Day of Remembrance resources (jacl.org/events/day-of-remembrance/).
Early in 1941, Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants in the West Coast were particularly surveilled in a study, conducted before Pearl Harbor, that was commissioned by Roosevelt himself (in which they were found not to present a danger to the United States: for details, see encyclopedia.densho.org/Munson_Report/ or digitalhistory.uh.edu/active_learning/explorations/japanese_internment/munson_report.cfm). This unequal treatment of Japanese immigrants especially, among the three major ethnic populations targeted as possible “enemy” combatants within our national borders (German, Japanese and Italian settlers in the U.S.), came on the heels of decades of institutional and individual racism against Japanese Americans and Nikkei immigrants, and more broadly, against Asian Americans and Asian immigrants, in the United States.
Examples of discriminatory treatment by U.S. institutions were “Yellow Peril” Asian-exclusion laws that limited immigration into the United States from China and other Asian nations at a time when our government had encouraged European immigration (see immigrationhistory.org/lesson-plan/asian-migration for more); economic practices that unfairly taxed Asian American businesses, that exploited Asian labor with comparatively low wages based on workers’ racial-ethnic origin, and that restricted Asians’ and other BIPOC people’s citizenship rights (see examples in immigrationhistory.org/lesson-plan/asian-migration/ and sas.upenn.edu/~rle/History.html); laws that prevented Asian immigrants and Asian Americans from owning land, voting in elections, and testifying against white people in the courts (for instance, see encyclopedia.densho.org/Alien_land_laws or businessinsider.com/when-women-got-the-right-to-vote-american-voting-rights-timeline-2018-10#1952-the-mccarran-walter-act-grants-all-asian-americans-the-right-to-become-citizens-and-vote-10 or law.uci.edu/lawreview/vol3/no4/Chin.pdf); and lastly, but not exhaustively, laws that prohibited marriage between European Americans and people of color. These laws were among the institutional racism that, in Hawaiʻi, took on special colonial forms.
Hawaiʻi Japanese experienced race-based discrimination from the late 19th through mid-20th centuries, which was advanced by the oligarchic plantation system and its Big Five sugar factors that controlled Hawaiʻi’s economic and political structure through the 1950s. While Hawaiʻi JAs were not incarcerated in the same numerical proportion as their Nikkei peers on the U.S. continent had been, due to “local Japanese” residents’ perceived (and actual) importance as civilian and military workers in the American war effort, the islands’ Japanese community would suffer when its institutional, business and religious leaders were selectively targeted by the government as potentially disloyal.
Guilty only of organizing community activities, so as to help Japanese immigrants maintain the language, spirituality and culture of their ancestors and to feel safe and productive in their new home of Hawaiʻi, these knowledgeable, responsible leaders were sent to local internment facilities in Sand Island or Honoʻuliʻuli and/or eventually to one of the mainland concentration camps for Japanese Americans (for more, see guides.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/Hawaii_internment or nps.gov/hono/learn/historyculture/index.htm).
As the JACL national office sums up, “Every February, the Japanese American community commemorates Executive Order 9066 as a reminder of the impact the incarceration experience has had on our families, our community, and our country. It is an opportunity to educate others on the fragility of civil liberties in times of crisis, and the importance of remaining vigilant in protecting the rights and freedoms of all.”
Though some “Day of Remembrance” events are over, many virtual sessions and activities will occur on or after the day that this Herald issue comes out; they are scheduled for Friday, Feb. 19, or in the days following that. See jacl.org/events/day-of-remembrance/ for streamed and online events organized by region of the U.S., including those put together by JACL chapters and ally organizations (museums, colleges, etc.) in the Bay Area; Northern California; Central California; the Pacific Northwest; the Pacific Southwest; the Intermountain region; the Midwest; and the East Coast.
Several DOR events connect the past history of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian racism in the United States with current events in U.S. racial-ethnic history today, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. So young AJAs as well as diverse multiracial members of the Japanese and Okinawan communities can better relate to the survivors of this wrongful Presidential action that happened almost eight decades ago.
Many if not most DOR presentations and talks are FREE and open to people from outside of these regions, so check with organizers for how to register. Promising offerings include:
• [Portland JACL] Saturday, Feb. 20, 2-3:30 p.m., PST: “Redress and Reparations: Yesterday and Today,” a presentation and panel discussion led by attorney Peggy Nagae, the lead lawyer in Minoru Yasui v. the United States, which re-opened the U.S. Supreme Court case over nisei attorney Minoru Yasui violating the curfew imposed on AJAs during World War II. Nagae will be joined by prominent leaders of the African American community to answer questions such as “How did the Japanese American community build a movement for redress and reparations? What would reparations for Black Americans look like today? How can our communities work in solidarity to strengthen support for reparations?”
• [Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience] Saturday, Feb. 20, 2-3 p.m., PST: “We Hereby Refuse: Book Celebration” which features a new groundbreaking graphic novel themed around JA resistance to wartime incarceration, written by Frank Abe and Tamiko Nimura, illustrated by Ross Ishikawa and Matt Sasaki and published by the museum and Chin Music Press. This comic recounts the real tales of Jim Akutsu, a conscientious objector to the draft who argued that “he had no obligation to serve the United States military while classified as an enemy alien”; Hiroshi Kashiwagi who renounced his U.S. citizenship and refused to fill out the mandatory “loyalty questionnaire” required of Nikkei by the U.S. government; and Mitsuye Endo who became a “reluctant but willing plaintiff in a Supreme Court case that was ultimately decided in her favor” (digitalwingluke.org/shop/we-hereby-refuse).
• [University of San Francisco] Wednesday, Feb. 24, from 10:30-11:30 a.m., PST: Day of Remembrance Keynote by USC American studies Prof. Duncan Ryūken Williams, director of the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture and author of “American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War” (2019). Dr. Williams will draw on his background as a religion scholar to speak on “The Irei Names Monument: A Memorial to Persons of Japanese Ancestry Incarcerated in the U.S. During WWII.” Describing the Manzanar Ireito (Consoling Spirits Tower), an interfaith monument built in 1943 that honored the survivors of U.S. concentration camps, Williams will talk about a “new initiative that memorializes the names of all persons of Japanese ancestry who experienced incarceration,” sharing background on the making of the names list, the construction of an installation and the building of an online memorial website.
Parents, grandparents, teachers, caregivers and community leaders are encouraged to attend these mostly free events with their children, organizational members or caregiving charges, and talk about where Japanese Americans have been in the past and where they might go as ethical, compassionate citizens in the future. At a time when COVID-19 restricts community interaction to small bubbles of viral protection, these events might make a substantial opportunity to learn together, a rare chance to talk about history.