Note: No blog post next week. It is mid-winter break for me.
19 February 2022 will mark the 80th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order No 9066 (EO 9066). This was the order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and sent 120,000 West Coast Americans of Japanese descent to internment camps.
The terminology of what we call these prisons changes from person to person. Some people call the camps internment camps, which other people consider marginalization of what they were – they were prisons. They were also called ‘segregation camps’ by the government. Others say concentration camps is more accurate since that is what they were, they held and imprisoned Japanese Americans. The use of the term concentration camp is not meant to be a comparison to the concentration camps in Europe that were used to commit horrendous crimes against Jewish people. The US government ordered its people, its military, to collect people who hadn’t committed any acts of war or crimes against their government to be imprisoned.
This action changed the course of many Japanese American lives. Researcher Mae Ngai said “At the time of the internment, almost nobody opposed it. … There was widespread support for the internment because of racism and because of the government’s claim that Japanese-Americans were a national security threat.”
Japanese Americans lost businesses, homes, financial assets. They lost their freedom, they lost friends, lovers, and communities. While many people today look at Japanese Americans as a model minority, there is a lot to unpack under that label. Japanese Americans who lived through the trauma of being held indefinitely transmitted that trauma to their children – be quiet, study hard, choose ‘safe’ jobs, don’t stand out. Undoubtedly many who lived through the camps experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is research showing worse health outcomes for adults who lived in the camps and earlier deaths.
It is clique to say history matters. In order for history to matter, we need to remember and act on what we know. I grew up in Hawaii among a strong Japanese American community. I learned about the internment in school. I heard stories about it, even though in Hawaii Japanese Americans were not interned. I learned about the injustices of these actions through stories and through books. It confuses me when I hear people didn’t learn this part of American history in schools or really anywhere. How could you not know this painful part of American history?
Learning about the history is important because it prevents the same mistakes from happening again. Immediately after the 9/11 bombing then Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta was instrumental in shaping the US’s response, including not targeting Muslims. He recalled his experience of being held in an internment camp (he refers to them as internment camps) and denied his liberties.
Psychotherapist Satsuki Ina has spoken extensively about the harms family separation at the US Mexico border has on young children. Ina was born and lived at Tule Lake prison camp until she was two-and-a-half. Actor and activist George Takei has also spoken out about the eerie parallels between locking up children and families at the border to his five-years in an internment camp. As he wrote in the journal Foreign Policy “At least during the internment, when I was just 5 years old, I was not taken from my parents.”
Being Japanese American today
Being a Japanese American today means I carry this history forward. While my family was sheltered from the internment because they lived in Hawaii, I am not immune from the effects of the internment. I now live a short distance from what used to be a robust Japan Town in Seattle. The Japanese diaspora is more scattered now, the communities that once thrived in places like Seattle’s International District and Bainbridge Island are no longer held in place. We are here in Seattle and the surrounding region but the haunting of the past are still here.
There are many Japanese American contributions to America that came in spite of the incarcerations. Landmark court cases that protect our civil liberties today were birthed out of this tragedy –Hirabayashi v. United States and Korematsu v United States to name two of many.
Our history is deep and continually building upon itself.
To learn more:
- Densho – An important organization preserving the of those who lived through the camps
- They Came For Us
- Smithsonian video – Righting a Wrong
- George Takei’s graphic novel – They Called Us Enemy, available in English and Spanish
- Booklist for youth by Colorin Colorado
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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice based relations.