LOS ANGELES — Robin Toma, the executive director of Los Angeles County’s Human Relations Commission, warned about threats to human rights and civil liberties in the National Defense Authorization Act that President Barack Obama signed into law at the end of last year.
Toma sounded the alarm during his keynote speech Feb. 18 at the Los Angeles Day of Remembrance observing the 70th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing on Feb. 19, 1942 of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the expulsion from the West Coast and incarceration in concentration camps of Japanese Americans during World War II.
“Executive Order 9066 was an incredible moment in our history,” Toma told an audience of 300 gathered at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. “When the president signed that order, he put into motion a series of events that resulted in over 120,000 individuals finding themselves uprooted from their homes and their communities, losing all that they had worked for over many, many years … and locked up in prison camps.”
Toma revealed that his mother and eight uncles and aunts were imprisoned at Tule Lake, Calif., then at Minidoka, Idaho, 70 years ago. “Looking back, you can say it was just three years, but at the time, they didn’t know how long they would be there. For all they knew, the war could last for decades.”
It was a very different world in 1942, and nobody could imagine that today President Barack Obama would issue similar legislation, he noted. “But, some of you may have heard that on Dec. 31, 2011, our president signed into law HR 1540, the National Defense Authorization Act. This bill provides funding for the military, among other things, and has provisions that allow our president to sign and authorize the indefinite detention of any person in the United States or abroad.”
When a Congressional committee looked at the effects of Executive Order 9066 in the 1980s, a result of the hard work and lobbying by many organizations and individuals, Toma noted, the committee came up with three reasons why this occurred: wartime hysteria, pre-existing prejudice against Japanese, and a failure of political leadership.
Those same factors are contributing to what is going on today, he said. “Being a Muslim in our world is not easy … I hear all the time complaints about how difficult it is to simply travel across the country because one looks Muslim. If you look Muslim you’ll be pulled off the plane for an extended interrogation and miss your flight. We know that despite the best efforts to educate our community, prejudice — reinforced by media and the lack of contact of many Muslims across the country — leads to instances of people making the most outrageous assumptions about Muslim commonplace.”
What this nation needs today is “a National Human Rights Institute whose job it is to protect the human rights of every individual, of every group, particularly those who can be easily targeted because they are the minority,” he continued. “They have to make sure that what happened to Japanese Americans in this country should not happen to any group in our country.”
Japanese Latin Americans
Toma, former staff attorney for American Civil Liberties Union’s Los Angeles office, served as pro bono lead attorney for Japanese Latin Americans in a 1996 class action lawsuit (Mochizuki vs. U.S.) seeking redress for the forced deportation from their home countries and incarceration in U.S. camps during World War II. The result of the lawsuit was a court-approved settlement that awarded $5,000 to each former inmate.
Thinking about Executive Order 9066, Toma commented, reminds him of the Japanese Latin Americans he represented — Alice Nishimoto, Carmen Mochizuki, Henry Shima and 2,261 others — in their lawsuit against the U.S. government.
“They were living their lives in Latin America when, all of a sudden, they were forced to go to … prisons camps outside of their own country,” Toma related.
“They were put on ships with an unknown destination, put in railway cars with the windows covered, sprayed in a warehouse with DDT like cattle. They were rendered stateless — illegal aliens — who could be sent to Japan in exchange for American citizens who had been captured or trapped in Japan or its territories.”
Toma told the Nichi Bei Weekly after the program that the struggle continues for the 2,264 Latin American Nikkei. They are trying to gain reparations equal to the $20,000 redress given to Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II. “This bill for equal redress that was introduced by Sen. Daniel Inouye and Rep. Xavier Becerra … has been stalled now with the new Congress. We’re going to have to wait for a better day to get some attention to that.”
Reincarnation of JA History
Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California (a federation of mosques and Muslim organizations), who served as program co-emcee with Kei Nagao, stated, “I am here to learn from my brothers and sisters of Japanese ancestry of their tragic recent history which is so relevant for our Muslim and Arab community today in America … I need to teach my children and grandchildren, my neighbors and friends about the parallels between Japanese American history and Muslim American history, and remind the political leaders and those who are in positions of power that we cannot repeat these mistakes again and again.”
The India-born activist noted that things don’t seem to be getting better for Muslims in America. “At the personal level where people come to know one another, there is greater understanding, but unfortunately, at the government level, it has gotten worse than what it used to be, especially now with the immoral and unconstitutional National Defense Authorization Act.”
This act is “literally a reincarnation of what happened to the Japanese Americans,” Syed exclaimed, and now it’s as if we can imprison indefinitely anyone merely on the basis of suspicion. This is bizarre.”
American Muslims will peacefully resist this act as much as possible, Syed promised. “It is incumbent upon all of us to collectively fight and make this repeal, however long it takes. Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Min Yasui took 40-plus years to regain what was rightly theirs.”
Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, the researcher who uncovered documents showing the government knew that the wartime evacuation and incarceration of some 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry — most of them American citizens — was not a military necessity, said the NDAA provisions to detain any suspect indefinitely is “a little scary and brings back memories of what happened to us in World War II.”
The Nisei activist, whose discovery led to the overturning of the wartime convictions of Korematsu, Yasui and Hirabayashi, was incarcerated as a teenager initially at Manzanar, Calif. Then when her father became very ill, she joined her parents at Jerome, Ark., and when that camp closed, they transferred to Rohwer, Ark.
“I’m really delighted that the various Nikkei organizations decided to team up with the Muslim groups,” she said. “What we all ought to do, especially the Nikkei as a community, is sign a petition to Mr. Obama saying, ‘I can’t believe you signed this act that has a provision authorizing the detaining of people without charge.’”
With strong anti-Chinese sentiments developing because of trade competition and U.S. economic slowdown, Herzig-Yoshinaga cautioned, “I’m afraid Chinese Americans are going to get it. We need to team up and let Mr. Obama know there’s a whole bunch of ethnic minorities who believed in him and his promises and we don’t want him to fail.”
Programs like the Day of Remembrance event are “very helpful to educate all of us,” Herzig-Yoshinaga remarked. “A lot of Japanese Americans are not aware of what this National Defense Authorization Act means … It is an echo of what happened to all of us in World War II.”
Colder Than Blazes
Former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, one of several prominent guests attending the event, stated, “It is very important that we commemorate Executive Order 9066 because we have to remember what happened. It only affected 120,000 people but it had implications on the total American population.”
Mineta, also a former Congressman representing the San Jose area, was incarcerated first at Santa Anita racetrack near Los Angeles, then at Heart Mountain, Wyo. “It was colder than blazes when we first got to Heart Mountain,” he recalled. “I’ve always wondered how much business Sears and Montgomery Ward did with people in the camps. Here we were from California, we had light California clothing, so we had to send away for boots and heavy coats to put up with the winters in Heart Mountain.”
Mineta explained that his father was able to pay for mail-order purchases while incarcerated because his lawyer, J.B. Peckham of San Jose, looked after the family home and collected rent from non-Japanese tenants who rented that house during the war. “If you looked at property rolls in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties, you’d see J.B. Peckham all over the place, and you would think that this guy owns a lot of land. He was really holding the land for Chinese, Filipino and Japanese aliens (who were prohibited by California’s Alien Land Law from owning property). Then when the oldest U.S.-born child was 21, Mr. Peckham would change the title from his name to that child. During the war, he was collecting rent and taking care of things for my dad and many others, so my dad was able to write checks while we were in camp.”
The provision in the NDAA allowing indefinite detention of people without charges is “terrible,” Mineta opined. “As long as President Obama is there, it might be OK. But what about in the future if there are presidents who are not similarly inclined? I think it’s got to be repealed.”
The program also presented a performance directed by Traci Kato-Kiriyama, featuring Nikkei and American Muslim community members — Aslam Akhtar, Sean Miura, Steve Nagano, Kathy Nishimoto Masaoka and Kifah Shah — utilizing excerpts from Gordon Hirabayashi’s letters and testimony from the 1984 coram nobis trial. This Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, Japanese American Citizens League-Pacific Southwest District and the Japanese American National Museum sponsored the event.
Herzig-Yoshinaga and Marjorie Lee have co-edited a book, “Speaking Out for Personal Justice: Site Summaries of Testimonies & Witnesses Registry of CWRIC Hearings, 1981,” and will hold a book-signing at 1 p.m. on Sunday, March 18, at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute, 1964 West 162nd St. in Gardena, Calif.