The beads on the pin sparkled red, white, and blue in the light of the setting sun. I’d never seen my Bachan (Grandma in Japanese) wear this pin before. When I asked her about the flag, she told me that we should support our country in times of hardship. I agreed, but silently wondered how she could support a country that didn’t support her, as a person of Japanese ancestry, 60 years ago.
In the midst of World War II and the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the United States enforced one of its most controversial policies on the American public: Executive Order 9066. This order called all Americans of Japanese descent, who suddenly posed a threat to national security, to report to relocation centers. All along the western coast, this group of people were forced to leave behind their homes and jobs for a life behind barbed wire fences and armed guards, a life that suddenly put them in the position of the antagonist.
I did not understand that concept back in second grade, when I first found out about the internment camps. Guests were over that day and I remember hearing the adults during their post-dinner talk discussing a camp of some sort. “How come you got to go to camp? How come I didn’t?” was my initial bratty kid reaction. I thought the fact that they were able to go to camp and I wasn’t was unfair and wrong; little did I know how unfair and wrong it really was.
It took two more years for me to finally understand the internment camps. However, my reaction was similar to that of any regular Joe Schmoe: it was a horrible thing, but it was in the past, in the days of yore, when bad things were allowed.
Twelve years passed, and in October of 2001 (a month or so after “9-11”) one of my best friends, who is of Indian descent, told me about something that happened to him. He was on his way to a conference in Columbus, Ohio, by means of a plane when a man seated behind him tapped him on the shoulder and asked him why he was going to Columbus. My friend told him that there was an honors engineering conference there, and that he was to be in attendance. The man then proceeded in asking him two questions: “Did you know that Osama Bin Laden was an engineer? Did you study with him?” After landing, airport personnel conducted a search of his bags, with dogs and all, supposedly due to his “suspicious behavior” on the plane. He added that perhaps it was due to the fact that he had to use the bathroom, and the stewardess told him none existed. “I’m sure I didn’t seem to be the most pleasant of people at that point,” he said.
He might have been relatively calm about the whole deal, but my initial reaction to this was pure anger, disbelief and frustration. I had heard about various acts of violence towards Muslim groups all over the country., but my friend wasn’t even Muslim. How wrong, how dumb, how ridiculous.
It occurred to me then, as a 20-year-old American of Japanese descent, who had known about the effects of Executive Order 9066 for the entirety of my life, that racism on such a deep level, a sentiment similar to that of the one prevalent during World War II, still occurred, even after all that we’ve seen and heard about.
My Bachan talks about the current events like these with a sort of sad look in her eyes. There is a pain there, and it is because, six decades after the signing of Executive Order 9066, these principles of civil liberties and national security are still being debated.
“You never expect such things to happen, yet, it happened to us, and… I do believe it could happen again,” she said.
Aside from the terrorist attacks and acts of racism relating to “9-11”, there have been other instances of blatant prejudice recently. Take instances such as the Wen Ho Lee case or the downing of a US spy plane in 2001 for example. One of the authors on JAinternment.org, a website devoted to educating the public on the Japanese Internment, relayed disturbing information on reactions to the US spy plane incident, including the mentioning of a local talk show host in Springfield, IL, who “urged listeners to boycott all Chinese restaurants and suggested that all Chinese living in America should be sent ‘home’ to ‘their country.’” In addition to the push for of boycotting, another commentator suggested setting up a camp for Chinese living in America, which was followed up by the phoning and harassing of people with Chinese last names.
For most of the Japanese Americans who were in the internment camps, this type of reaction is their greatest fear.
“We don’t want to see this again. We have been there, and we know how it is. To think that similar feelings have risen again is, in some ways, just as bad as it happening to us all over again,” said my Bachan.
My entire family was deeply affected by “The War.”
My Mom wrings her nightshirt in sort of a nervous way. She looks both sad and happy while telling me the stories, and with good reason. “I’ve always thought that ‘The War’ ruined my family,” she says. All was looking up for her family before The War. “Daddy” (my Grandpa) had a good job with George Aratani’s (the founder of Kenwood Electronics and Mikasa) corporations, and was moving up in the ranks. When the war hit, however, my Grandpa was dubbed a “no-no” boy (a slang term for Japanese men who replied “no” on The Loyalty Questionnaire issued by the government, which asked them whether or not they would “forswear their Japanese citizenship and to register unqualified loyalty to the United States”) which meant he was sent of to the Tule Lake internment camp, a different camp then the rest of his family. This upset my Grandma because now she was to raise two young children all on her own (my Mom’s older siblings), in Crystal City, Texas, where the government was busily spraying now illegal DDT to rid the camp of mosquitoes, supposedly, which eventually gave her asthma, which ultimately led to her death.
My Dad talks about his family’s experience in a very straightforward manner. He folds his hands like he always does when he’s talking to me about something serious and rests them on his undershirted stomach. His family wasn’t as bad off as my Mom’s side of the family. Jichan (Grandpa in Japanese) was working in produce (although he had a degree from USC in business) when Pearl Harbor happened. Along with the typical uprooting and having to sell and get rid of possessions, they were sent “like animals” to the Santa Anita race track detention center, and then off to the internment camp in Rohwer, Arkansas, a “muggy, hot and swampy place,” for the next few years. It was there that my Dad was born. My Bachan (who tends to sugar coat things) says that the worst part of it was the dust storms that would rise up suddenly and make the worst messes. After the war, work was difficult to find, and they ended up in Seabrook, New Jersey, where Seabrook Farms, a vegetable packing company and one of the few places hiring Japanese Americans. They stayed there for a couple years doing the extremely menial labor until they moved back to Los Angeles.
After the attacks on “9-11”, a surge of action has risen from the Asian American community in the United States. The renowned activist Yuri Kochiyama is one of the people who has added to the “surge.” As a leader of the Asian American community, she continues to warn heavily against blind following of our nation’s government. In a speech wherein she discussed various incidents of injustice and wrongdoing, such as the Japanese Internment, the Plutonium development that took place between 1944 and 1972 in Hanford, Washington, and the treatment of Arab Americans post “9-11”, she reminds us to not allow things like these to be “swept under the rug.” People need to know about things like this.
Norman Mineta, a former internee and current member of President Bush’s cabinet, was one of many Asian Americans and government leaders who recognized and warned against the potential for racist uprisings: “I think that all of you will understand that, as an American of Japanese ancestry, I find the analogy of Pearl Harbor to be particularly important. It highlights one of the greatest dangers we will face as a country during this crisis -- the danger that in looking for the enemy we may strike out against our own friends and neighbors. As the events of September 11th unfolded just over a month ago, I know that I was far from alone among Japanese Americans in wondering how this Nation would respond. And our greatest fear was that the backlash we had experienced would be visited on our Arab American and Muslim neighbors.”
I ask my Bachan for guidance: “What can I do? What would you want me to, as someone who knows about the camps?” My Bachan smiles a frail smile. “Remind people to be slow to blame,” she says. “And always let history be a lesson for you, so that something like that [Executive Order 9066] can never ever happen again.”