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Day of Remembrance 2017

Special remarks on the 75th anniversary of the Japanese-American internment

by Wes Ono

In the Japanese-American community, today, February 19th, is known as the "Day of Remembrance." It is the anniversary (this year is the 75th) of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the incarceration, without due process, of nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans, both immigrant and citizen, including my parents and grandparents.

This year, with what is happening in the nation, many in the Japanese community have been trying to call attention to that period in history. However, some aren't understanding the connection because today, we're not putting people into camps—yet; or they think that the incarceration was justified because of the war.

What these folks are missing is that this was not a standalone event, but was instead the culmination of decades of discriminatory acts, both by ordinary citizens, AND by the government. Some of these were ostensibly economic (because the Japanese were competing in agriculture and other spheres), but were, at their core, race-based. A few of the government actions were:

  • The 1907 Gentlemen's Agreement, which restricted immigration from Japan,

  • The declaration of Asian immigrants (but not European immigrants) as "aliens ineligible to citizenship,"

  • The California Alien Land Laws, which prohibited those immigrants from owning land,

  • And then, the 1924 Immigration Act, which ended immigration by those "aliens ineligible to citizenship."

So, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Japanese who were in the US were either citizens because they had been born here, or had been in the country for at least 17 years. Even so, the discriminatory attitudes and fear amongst the public, press, government and the military led to:

  • The FBI rounding up and incarcerating, without charges, about 2000 leaders of the Japanese community.
    (Apparently, the FBI had been keeping a registry.)

  • Inflammatory newspaper “reports” of sabotage, which were actually unfounded rumor.
    (Can you say “fake news?”)

  • Lobbying by the Native Sons of the Golden West (a California group) for the removal of the Japanese, which is ironic, because there were many California-born Japanese who would have been eligible for membership

  • And, the contention of California attorney general Earl Warren, that the absence of any sabotage by Japanese Americans was an indication that "the blow is well-organized and that it is held back until it can be struck with maximum effect." (Ultimately, no act of sabotage was EVER attributed to the Japanese in America.)

And in that time of fear and hysteria and inflammatory reporting and pressure from anti-Japanese groups, came the executive order, resulting in the wholesale removal of Japanese from the coast to the interior.

The reason this day touches me so is not just that this happened to my relatives, but also that my faith tells me to love my neighbor, to embrace the "other," and, from our baptismal covenant, we are called to "respect the dignity of the every human being." Today, we are seeing increased discrimination against people because of who they are rather than what they have done. Immigrants, refugees, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, minorities of all kinds, women, the poor of every color, and those who simply disagree.

We are also seeing the government claiming threats from without and within, discrediting the press, casting criticism as "espionage" and dissent as “treason," surveilling ordinary citizens, and attempting to subvert the rule of law. These are steps toward creating an authoritarian regime.

We could have a repeat of what happened to the Japanese, to other groups in other places, and in the most extreme case, the Holocaust.

This is our warning—we must be vigilant and we must not remain silent.

When I spoke, KING5 television had just finished broadcasting a series titled, “Prisoners in Their Own Land” by Lori Matsukawa. Episodes can be viewed online here.

Also, that afternoon, the Seattle Public Library, in conjunction with Densho (www.densho.org), the Council of American-Islamic Relations, and the ACLU, held an event titled, "Never Again: Japanese American WWII History and American Muslim Rights Today, a presentation and conversation examining Japanese American incarceration during World War II and how it relates to racism today.” The recorded livestream of this event may be found here.

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