LOS ANGELES — The 2017 Day of Remembrance, held Feb. 18 at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, featured guest speakers urging community members not to forget the unjust mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The speakers also encouraged the audience to speak out against President Donald Trump’s administration’s discriminatory policies against Muslims, and its targeting of mostly Latino undocumented immigrants for deportation.
The annual Day of Remembrance commemorates President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, which resulted in the removal from the West Coast and mass incarceration of more than 120,000 persons of Japanese descent — immigrants and United States citizens alike — in American concentration camps and other wartime imprisonment sites.
Must Be Vigilant
Former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, a Heart Mountain, Wyo. concentration camp survivor, couldn’t attend the event because of health problems, but issued a statement delivered by Ann Burroughs, the museum’s interim president:
“As Japanese Americans directly affected by the incarceration, we have a particular moral obligation to remind people that measures like the Muslim ban are not just unconstitutional, they are un-American. They undermine the very thing that sets our country apart — our enduring commitment to freedom and justice for all.
“In 1942, too many people sat quietly by while Japanese Americans were rounded up into concentration camps … It’s true that the very ideals for which this great country was founded are only as strong as each generation’s willingness to defend it. We must all be more vigilant than ever in that defense.”
Portrayed as ‘Subhumans’
Mike Honda, a former Congressman from San Jose, said Executive Order 9066 happened only because people were not speaking up in an era when Asians were portrayed by the media “as subhumans not capable of becoming American citizens … and we knew that our parents could not become naturalized U.S. citizens.”
Merely two California politicians opposed the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, state Assemblyman Ralph Dills, who represented the Gardena-Compton-Lawndale area in Southern California, and state Sen. (and later San Francisco Mayor) John Shelley.
And after the war, only Shelley spoke up to convince the state legislature to allow Nisei veterans and former inmates to return to California. “When people stand up and speak out, things turn out differently,” Honda reminded the standing-room-only audience of around 500.
Even in the 21st century, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the resulting war hysteria gave some politicians an opportunity to revisit 1942 and target another group of people, all in the name of national security, he stated. “We have to go beyond remembering, we have to act, to be vigilant without being vigilantes. Japanese Americans have no reason NOT to stand up for the Muslims.”
The Constitution is well worth protecting, he stressed. “We as immigrants, as second-generation, third-generation, fourth-generation Americans, have to remember what our parents and grandparents went through. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of the undocumented immigrants who are here … every person on this soil has full protection of the Constitution.”
Like A Bad Dream
Haru Kuromiya, a 90-year-old Nisei, received no constitutional protection during World War II. Her parents operated a farm in Riverside, Calif. until 1942, when U.S.-style ethnic cleansing removed everyone of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast into concentration camps.
On Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Kuromiya was a teenager in Riverside. “It was a day I’ll never forget, I felt numb,” she remembered. “The following February, my father was picked up and taken away by the FBI from my eight-months-pregnant mother and six of us children. Why was my father taken like a common criminal? To this day I do not have a satisfactory answer. Why wasn’t he allowed to see my mother when she delivered the baby? I was angry, but what could I do. I was just a kid. Soon the FBI came to our house and searched every room, taking cameras, guns and other items. It was an uneasy and fearful time for all of us … Then the order came to leave. We boarded buses … not knowing our destination. There were guards with guns to keep us in line. We were all very quiet. It was like a bad dream.”
On the bus was a Nisei man in a U.S. Army uniform, she recalled.”He was shouting that he fought for his country, and now he was forced from his home … He scolded us for being so silent and submissive.”
Kuromiya and her family were incarcerated at Manzanar, Calif., while her father was detained in five successive locations — Riverside County Jail, Tuna Canyon, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Lordsburg, New Mexico, and finally Crystal City, Texas. “In June 1943, we left Manzanar and were reunited with my father at Crystal City,” she said. “I saw my mother smile at last.”
Manzanar and Crystal City were entirely different, she remarked. “Crystal City was operated by the Department of Justice and inmates were considered enemy aliens. There were Japanese from 13 different Latin American countries. They were kidnapped from their homes and brought to Crystal City to be used in prisoner exchanges for white U.S. citizens held overseas.”
In June of 1946, the family left Crystal City and returned home, she recalled. “Our house was totally trashed, but we had a home … In Riverside, they didn’t welcome us back with open arms. No one would hire a Japanese with no job skills … I felt like a foreigner in my own country.”
The hardest part of that experience was “losing our freedom, being confined behind barbed wire fences, looking at the guard tower with guns pointed toward us, wondering when we could go home again,” Kuromiya said. “Not knowing … was painful.”
She added, “I sincerely hope that no one will ever be imprisoned like that again because of the color of their skin or their religion.”
Community organizer Adriana Cabrera, Los Angeles-born daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants, was unable to attend the event, but sent this message:
“Upon hearing the horror story of the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans in 1942, I was struck by the similarities of the Japanese experience and the Mexican people who were rounded up and deported indiscriminately (in the 1930s). In this case, just like what happened to the Japanese in 1942, over 60 percent (of Mexicans) subjected to this injustice were U.S. citizens. In both cases, constitutional law was disregarded … Non-white people in this country have yet to attain true equality … Today, what happened 75 years ago is happening again.”
Sahar Pirzada, an anti-Islamophobia activist, said, “As a Pakistani American Muslim woman of color, my mind has been racing, trying to figure out how … how my community is being impacted, and how my nation is being impacted by this administration’s oppressive policies … Will I be able to attend my mosque without fear of disruption or surveillance? Will I be able to wear my scarf and go to the airport … without being stopped and questioned about my loyalty to America?”
California state Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, who introduced a resolution in the Assembly floor recognizing the Day of Remembrance statewide, exclaimed, “People from throughout the state are recognizing the historical connection between what happened 75 years ago and seeing what is happening today to our Muslim brothers and sisters.”
Democrat Muratsuchi, the only Nikkei now serving in the state legislature, continued, “It all started with one executive order, and now we’re seeing it happen again … We must rise up to … ensure that no one is targeted because of their national origin or faith.”
Sponsoring groups included: Go for Broke National Education Center, the Japanese American Citizens League – Pacific Southwest District, the Japanese American National Museum, the Manzanar Committee, the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, the Progressive Asian Network for Action, the Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden and United Teachers Los Angeles. The UCLA Asian American Studies Center provided major sponsorship.