SAN JOSE’S DAY OF REMEMBRANCE: A new generation of activists

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Community members at San Jose Japantown’s Day of Remembrance light a candle in remembrance of the U.S. government’s unjust mass incarceration of prisoners in concentration camps. photo by Andy Frazer

Community members at San Jose Japantown’s Day of Remembrance light a candle in remembrance of the U.S. government’s unjust mass incarceration of prisoners in concentration camps. photo by Andy Frazer
Community members at San Jose Japantown’s Day of Remembrance light a candle in remembrance of the U.S. government’s unjust mass incarceration of prisoners in concentration camps. photo by Andy Frazer

SAN JOSE — The 35th annual Day of Remembrance, held at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin Feb. 12 in the city’s Japantown, marked the infamous day in 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the illegal incarceration of some 120,000 Nikkei during World War II, drastically altering the path for generations of Japanese Americans.

The focus of this year’s event, “Stories from the Past: Lessons for Today,” brought together speakers who were transformed in hearing stories from Issei and Nisei of the wartime incarceration, and are actively committed to the continuing struggle for social justice and human rights for all.

Kent Carson, a Yonsei and volunteer docent at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, related the story of his great-grandfather, Rinban Chonen Terakawa, who was a high-ranking Buddhist priest living in Utah when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Shortly after, the FBI began rounding up Nikkei community leaders, including the rinban. An account written by Carson’s grandfather, Terry Terakawa, revealed that as a child, he witnessed the FBI coming to the house, “rummaging through our things” looking for weapons or anything suspicious that connected the rinban to Japan.

Even though the great-grandfather was severely ill at the time, hospitalized in an iron lung (ventilator), the FBI pursued him, trying to remove him from the hospital, but a doctor ordered the FBI to leave. Once the rinban was well enough, he was whisked away to jail and later incarcerated in the Department of Justice camp in Bismarck, N.D. The family didn’t see him for a long time.

“It took the last 10 years for this story to come out,” Tess Terakawa Carson, Kent Carson’s mother, told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “And it came in bits and pieces.” These were not easy times. And for her father, the revelations were difficult, but once out, it made a difference to the family, she said.

“Hearing that story really opened my eyes,” Carson remarked. “This was a period of time when many families and communities were torn apart and so it’s important that we take the lessons we learn from back then, and apply … them to nourish our own families and communities today.”

Three generations of the Terakawa family — Ruth and Terry Terakawa; children, Bruce Terakawa and Tess Terakawa Carson; and grandson, Kent Carson — lit the candles in memory of those who were incarcerated in the War Relocation Authority concentration camps and Department of Justice camps during World War II.

My Father’s Story

Will Kaku, member of Nihonmachi Outreach Committee, which held the event, provided an overview of the Japanese American community’s road to redress in his commentary. He has heard numerous accounts over the years of the indignities inmates who served during the war suffered, accounts from those who rioted or protested their incarceration, experiences of those who resisted the draft and even stories from those who lived in the camps as children.

Kaku offered a poignant recounting of his father Shogo Kaku’s story, one that was filled with pain and psychological agony. Even to the day his father died, Kaku recalled, “the morphine helped remove his physical pain, but I knew that there would be no drug to remove the emotional pain he endured all these years,” Kaku said.

Mystery of the Photograph

Believing that his Constitutional rights had been unlawfully abridged, “My father actively protested against his confinement and his brothers took the additional step in refusing to report to their army induction and for that some Japanese Americans called them traitors, called them ‘un-American, disloyal and unpatriotic,’” Kaku said. Because of the humiliation, psychological hurt and pain he suffered, Kaku said, it took 62 years before his father’s secret was revealed. During a Tule Lake Pilgrimage with the family, Kaku recalled, “I wanted to know why he was missing from a particular photograph taken at Tule Lake showing the family gathered at his grandfather’s funeral.” For a long time, Kaku’s father refused to answer the question, but eventually he broke down.

“He said, ‘I wasn’t in the photograph because I was sent away to Bismarck, N.D.,’” Kaku said. “My father said that he … actively protested against camp authorities. He took the drastic step of renouncing his citizenship of the country that he loved.”

Kaku discovered later that his father rescinded his decision to renounce his citizenship, agreed to selective service and “ironically served in the U.S. military during the Korean War.”

What is Loyalty? What is Patriotism?

“What is loyalty and patriotism?” Kaku asked. “Can you not protest against the policies of our government, not because you hate this country, and not because you’re an enemy of this country, but perhaps because you love this country and you just want this country to uphold its very ideals, beliefs, and all that’s under this Constitution?

“I think about the lesson here. Whether you are for or against war. Whether you’re for or against the use of military force, we need to listen and respect dissent and not resort to hurtful discussion ending platitudes.”

The Road to Redress

“The Day of Remembrance not only reminds us of stories of wartime exclusion, expulsion and imprisonment, but keeps them alive so that others can learn from it. It also reminds us of why we fought for Redress,” said Tom Izu, the executive director of the De Anza College California History Center. He said that the remembrances that former wartime inmates shared about their imprisonment, along with the testimony they provided to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, and the work of grassroots organizations like the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (later renamed Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress), helped pressure Congress to pass the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, a formal presidential apology that gave reparations to the living survivors of the wartime incarceration.

According to Izu, Day of Remembrance events keep these survivors’ stories alive, which helps “create meaning out of a complex history and give us purpose and direction.” During the Redress Movement, these stories and eye-witness accounts were often shrouded in silence. Izu, working for NCRR at the time, encouraged survivors to “speak up; and talk about those dark days of incarceration.” He recalled hearing stories of resilience despite pain and humiliation that many had suffered due to the choices they made, being met with name-calling and harassment.

Izu also spoke about many community members’ commitment to redress.

“I met Nisei who were Nihonmachi Outreach Committee members, mostly working class people who didn’t worry about status or position, but who just felt that what happened was wrong and that something needed to be done,” he recalled. “And for whatever reason, whether it be personal attributes or unique experience, they possessed the courage and determination to speak out and I never ceased to be inspired by them.

“How we respond to this will test our story of redress as told by our Nisei. Will it keep its purpose by defending civil liberties for all, or will it become history and something to forget?” he asked, adding, “during the Iranian hostage crisis and the multiple wars in the Middle East as well as the aftermath of 9/11, our community immediately understood the parallels between the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the treatment of Arab Americans and Muslims. Today, we see the parallels of our stories as Japanese Americans and others, including African Americans and Latinos, as they seek redress for injustices for past and present violations of their civil liberties.”

Bullyism Racism and all-isms

Keynote speaker Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose) challenged the Yonsei and forthcoming generations to build upon the lessons people have learned from the Japanese American mass incarceration and redress experiences, and to “end racism, bullyism and every other ‘-ism.’”

Honda added, “That next generation has a large task before them. It’s the digital age in terms of our understanding of the Constitution and how that applies to your lives.” He also warned against complacency. “Don’t be fooled by nice terminology like the Patriot Act. We know that after 9/11, the Asian American community, particularly the Japanese American community was out there in the morning the day after standing together shoulder to shoulder with the Sikhs, the Muslims, with the Arabs, with those who looked like the enemy.”

Honda reminded the audience that, “in spite of the passage of H.R. 442 (the Civil Liberties Act), that post-9/11, there were thousands and thousands of people who were taken into custody, swept away secretly, chained together, for weeks, months, and years.” He encouraged the audience to make these current events personal, “because when it is personal, it is the most powerful story we can tell one another it’s the one that stays with them. That’s where we practice citizenship. That is where we practice fighting oppression, fighting bullyism, fighting racism — that is to be put into practice every day.”

Among those who have heeded Honda’s words is Franco Imperial, San Jose Taiko’s artistic director. After being inspired by what he experienced at a Day of Remembrance event years ago, he was inextricably changed. According to one of his taiko group members, Stewart Kume, having grown up in Texas, Imperial knew nothing about the Japanese American incarceration experience until he joined the group. Inspired by Nisei stories he heard at the 2002 Day of Remembrance, and the events following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Imperial created and choreographed “DOR,” a solemn tribute that was performed at this year’s event.

Other participants at the event were: Olyli Bantuas of the South Bay Islamic Association, who expressed appreciation for the NOC; Vernon Hayashida, who read a poem he wrote during the Tule Lake Pilgrimage; Rev. Ken Fujimoto of the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, who began the program with a reflection; and Jon Visitacion, a Yonsei and Wesley United Methodist Church pastoral staff member, who gave the benediction.

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