LOS ANGELES — The 2015 Day of Remembrance program, held Feb. 21 at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo before an audience of 250, explored the interconnection of the Nikkei and black communities in their battles against racism and injustice.
Serving as co-emcees were Dr. Curtiss Takada Rooks, a professor in Asian Pacific American studies at Loyola Marymount University, and Helen Ota, director of development and marketing at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
The Day of Remembrance commemorates the Feb. 19, 1942, signing by President Franklin D. Roosevelt of Executive Order 9066, which authorized United States military forces to forcibly remove more than 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry — U.S. citizens and resident aliens alike — from the Pacific Coast and incarcerate them in American concentration camps.
Although no American resident of Japanese descent was ever found guilty of sabotage or espionage, the executive order “set into motion events that proved devastating to the Issei and Nisei and continued to impact each of the following generations,” stated Rooks, whose father-in-law was incarcerated in a U.S. concentration camp and later served in the U.S. Army’s mostly-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Seeing Executive Order 9066 as a gross violation of civil liberties, some non-Japanese Americans mobilized to aid the Nikkei. One supporter was African American attorney Hugh MacBeth Sr., who joined American Civil Liberties Union attorney A.L. Wirin in defending Executive Order 9066 challengers Ernest and Toki Wakayama. In 1945 they represented another Nikkei couple who challenged the discriminatory California Alien Land Law.
In the postwar resettlement period, Nikkei trying to return to their former neighborhoods faced difficult obstacles as they, along with other people of color, found housing covenants restricting them from living in white neighborhoods. In Los Angeles, returning Nikkei found housing in low-rent areas of Boyle Heights, Little Tokyo and South Los Angeles, living among blacks, Latinos, Asians and other marginalized people.
The Japanese American community shares the history of government-sanctioned incarceration of a racial group, Rooks said, with “the enslaved African Americans and Native Americans that occurred far earlier, and for much longer than the Japanese American wartime incarceration.”
After the war, African Americans and Japanese Americans made progress in integrating the Westside, especially in the previously all-white Crenshaw district. These efforts proved successful with the two groups living and raising their children as neighbors.
Places where blacks and Nikkei interconnected included Holiday Bowl — a popular bowling alley and coffee shop — in Crenshaw Square; 39th Street School, which had a diverse student body, due to the efforts of Japanese Americans and African Americans who broke down color barriers in these particular neighborhoods; the All People’s Church in South Los Angeles, where Japanese Americans, African Americans and children of other ethnicities attended the nursery school.
Many Nikkei, seeing the racism in society, were ready to participate in the Civil Rights Movement. Among them were: Hisaye Yamamoto DeSoto, a noted Nikkei short story writer who, after her release from Poston camp, worked for the Los Angeles Tribune, an African American newspaper, from 1945 to 1948, and compiled reports of lynchings across the country; and Yuri Kochiyama, who moved with her husband to New York after the war, became an activist for civil rights, redress and justice, and comforted her friend Malcolm X on Feb. 21, 1965, as he lay dying after being shot.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Nikkei community members, grassroots organizations and politicians organized efforts to exact redress from the U.S. government for the unlawful wartime incarceration.
Beginning in 1981, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians heard testimony from those involved in the oppression of Nikkei — prisoners, administrators and military officials — and concluded in 1983 that the main factors leading to the forced removal and incarceration were racism, wartime hysteria and the failure of political leadership.
After decades of campaigning, Nikkei activists and supporters witnessed on Aug. 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act that awarded monetary compensation for Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated, and a formal apology from the U.S. government.
The Japanese American Redress Movement might not have been successful, Rooks observed, without the support from non-Nikkei allies like Mervyn Dymally of the 31st Congressional District (Gardena and Compton), who worked with the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations to write the redress legislation; the Congressional Black Caucus, which provided key support for redress legislation; and Rep. Ron Dellums of Oakland, Calif., an impassioned supporter who remembered as a young boy seeing his friend taken away for no reason other than his race.
“On this Day of Remembrance, remember when we were the victims of injustice,” Rooks said. “Remember those who came to stand with us even when it was easier to take the popular road of prejudice and discrimination.”
Black Lives Matter to JAs?
Every 48 hours a black man, woman or child is murdered by police or vigilante law enforcement, according to Rooks, and an estimated 25 percent of black women live in poverty, higher than any other ethnic group. The average life expectancy for black transgender women is just 35 years.
Three activists took part in a panel discussion on why black lives matter: Mike Murase, who oversees social services programs for the Little Tokyo Service Center; Povi-Tamu Bryant, who describes herself as a black queer womyn connected with Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, an organization dedicated to advancing justice and freedom for black people; and Rey Fukuda, an assistant project manager in the East L.A. Community Corporation.
Murase, who was active in NCRR and the Free South Africa movement, declared, “This is not just Day of Remembrance but Days of Remembrance.” His days to remember included Feb. 21, 1965, when Malcolm X was assassinated (“He was one of the persons most influential in shaping my world views”); and Feb. 11, 1990, when the South African apartheid regime was forced to release Nelson Mandela from 27 years of imprisonment.
Murase pinpointed additional days to remember: Aug. 28, 1955 — Emmett Till, a black youth lynched in Mississippi; April 4, 1968 — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated; Dec. 4, 1969 — Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party; July 17, 2014 — Eric Garner of New York; and Aug. 9, 2014 — Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
“These are not just the killing of random individuals,” he said. “It represents the continuation of racism, hysteria and the failure of political leadership.”
‘We Are Intertwined’
Bryant, who moved from Chicago to Los Angeles with her parents when she was 2 years old, said often being the only black person in various places pushed her to learn about other people’s experiences, learn about other communities and build connections.
“That also meant challenging other people to learn about my experiences, about the legacy of anti-blackness in the United States,” she explained. “There are disproportionate ways black people experience harm and violence in the U.S. I need to learn your story to understand you and to feel connected to you, and you need to learn my story to understand me and to feel connected to me … We are all so intertwined.”
Fukuda, a biracial transgender and queer person, came to that identity in his early 20s. “During the time that I came out to my parents, my partner was black and my mom had a lot of issues with me being queer, of me being transgender, but a lot of her issues came from me deciding to be with a partner who was black … Her homophobia and being anti-black shined a light on how pervasive anti-blackness is.”
“Incarceration, liberation and reparations are three words that stand out” in the effort to persuade Japanese Americans to join the campaign for equal justice, Fukuda stated. “How many folks in prison today are black? Millions.”
Noting the Nikkei community’s successful campaign to win reparations from the U.S. government, Fukuda asked, “Is reparations for one community enough? There still needs to be more reparations, for slavery. Being an immigrant here in the U.S., seeing it has not happened, and oppression is still playing out on a daily basis, is mind-boggling.”
Height of Hypocrisy
Rep. Xavier Becerra said, “EO 9066 was about separating, excluding people. What we heard from this panel was about bringing people together.”
In 1942, most people didn’t object to FDR’s Executive Order, he remarked. But today there is “a very vigorous debate” over President Obama’s Executive Order to protect the children who came to this country through no fault of their own — the Dreamers — and the parents of U.S. citizen children who don’t have documents. “Isn’t it interesting that an Executive Order issued by President Obama to keep families together is the same type of power used by President Roosevelt to separate (Nikkei families in 1942)?”
Becerra, who introduced legislation to award Japanese Latin Americans incarcerated in wartime U.S. detention camps reparations equal to that given to Japanese American internees, declared, “I’m going to make the effort to see if we can finally recognize the Japanese Latin Americans that were also interned and our government never recognized. Isn’t that the biggest of ironies, when you become undocumented in this country because the government made you undocumented, and then the government doesn’t want to recognize you for having made you undocumented? That is the height of hypocrisy.”
Also addressing the crowd with a call to action were Mariko Rooks, a 15-year-old high school sophomore, and Alex Kanegawa, 19, a student at the University of Southern California.
Sponsoring this event were Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, Japanese American Citizens League-Pacific Southwest District, Manzanar Committee and the Japanese American National Museum.