When my Japanese-American family was treated as less than human

December 21, 2015
honda in camp

Mike Honda held by his father when the family was living in a Japanese internment camp. Honda family photo.

In the aftermath of the Paris and San Bernardino, California, terrorist attacks, the dangerous and destructive discourse about Muslims and Muslim Americans has reached a tipping point. Some Republican presidential candidates are calling for a ban of Muslims entering the country, and a Democratic mayor in Virginia is demanding the internment of Syrian refugees.

I can’t help but fear that history could be on the verge of repeating itself.

I am a third-generation American of Japanese ancestry, born in Walnut Grove, California. Yet my family and I were classified as enemy aliens simply because we looked like the enemy. In the days before we were taken from our communities, the life we knew was ripped from us.

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An evacuee with family belongings en route to an “assembly center,” April, 1942. U.S. National Archives

In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States blamed us for the Japanese attack. Because of what the 1988 Civil Liberties Act labeled “war hysteria, racism and a failure of political leadership,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which confined the Japanese-American community in internment camps — and forever changing our lives and our community.

On Feb. 19, 1942, the U.S. government announced that all “aliens and non-aliens of Japanese ancestry” would be relocated. Our government didn’t even have the decency to call us citizens or noncitizens. So the military carried out Executive Order 9066 and confined us to “American-style concentration camps.”

All Japanese Americans were allowed to take only what we could carry. As our community prepared for the evacuation, opportunistic neighbors came to our house to bargain for what we had to leave behind. They would make their best offer for our family heirlooms, or even our knick-knacks for mere pennies.

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Official notice of exclusion and removal. U.S. National Archives

Other residents in our neighborhood barged into our house while we were having dinner. Without a second thought, they took our belongings. In the eyes of these people — and of our nation — we were nothing. We didn’t matter.

The land and prized treasures of my family and of all Japanese Americans were sold, stolen or, in rare cases, preserved by caring neighbors. Families burned or buried ancestral documents for fear the papers would be misunderstood. It was a fire sale of everything we held dear.

My grandfather, for example, had a fledgling gas-station business in a rural area near the levee of the Sacramento River. The first time the U.S. authorities came, they took his radio. They returned the following week and took his flashlights and remaining electronic gadgets. For fear they would return yet again to take more, my grandfather took the wheels off his brand-new pickup truck and pushed it into the Sacramento River. “If I can’t have it,” he said angrily, “they can’t have it.”

My grandfather wasn’t a citizen, on paper (because of the anti-Asian exclusionary immigration laws), but in his heart, he was an adopted loyal American. That is why he had so much hurt, anger and resentment at being distrusted and challenged. Because of his “resistance,” he was separated from our family, and sent to a different internment camp for those considered ‘high risk,’ Tule Lake, California. He was finally became a citizen when he was freed from the internment camp.

MH Family Photo Old

Mike Honda (L) at roughly age 4, his siter, Naomi (C) at age 1 and his brother Art (R) at age 2. Honda family photo.

Our government had told us our relocation was for our safety and protection. But when we saw soldiers with M1s or other rifles coming to our house to take us away, there was no doubt in our minds that they would shoot us if we made the tiniest false move. My family was relocated from the valley to the fairgrounds in Merced, California. On arrival, we were all forced to clean out horse stalls to make them our new home. Many elderly and babies ultimately died because of dysentery from these unsanitary conditions.

After a few months, we were then transferred to the Amache internment camp in Colorado. Soldiers with rifles loaded us onto trains. The shades were pulled down so we couldn’t see where we were going.

Once settled inside Amache, we organized ourselves. We built stores, post offices, schools and even held Boy Scout meetings — anything to regain some semblance of life and normalcy. My father used to tell me, “If we were sent to internment camps for our own protection, then why was there barbed wire and machine-gun posts pointing their machine guns inward, and not outward?”

To pass the time, we even played the good old American sport baseball. But when a ball went out beyond the barbed wires, the guards menacingly yelled at the person retrieving it: “Don’t go out there, or you will be shot.” One man was shot because he didn’t hear the guard in time.

Our constitutional rights were trampled; our loyalty and citizenship ignored. Yet many still wanted to volunteer for the military. At first, we were denied. Then later, the government came back and drafted Japanese Americans. Many served in the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Combat Infantry group, which became the most highly decorated combat regiment of the military.

The military also came looking for people who knew Japanese. My father volunteered to serve in the Military Intelligence Service, where he taught the language to the naval intelligence officers. It was a cruel irony that my father willingly served the same government that locked his family and community behind barbed wire.

honda family

The family of Mike Honda on front of their sharecropper shack on a strawberry ranch in south San Jose in an undated photo from the early 1950s. The future congressman is on the far left. His father is on the far right and his Mom Fusako is second from right. The congressman’s brother, Art, is to his left. His baby sister Yuri is being held (head only) and Naomi, another sister, is in the white shirt. Honda family photo.

At the end of the war, many Japanese Americans returned to their homes, only to find their land and houses occupied, their possessions stolen. For the lucky few, however, some neighbors had faithfully preserved our property and belongings, knowing that our incarceration was wrong. They carefully safeguarded our belongings — and were our true friends. This friendship mattered.

The postwar world greeted us with suspicion. Like many young Japanese-American boys growing up at that time, I was bullied and teased. Many grew up feeling ashamed of our Japanese ancestry.

The trauma of this dark chapter of U.S. history long haunted the Japanese-American community, especially our seniors. Their pain and experiences were unspeakable, and buried deep within.

In 1988, Congress passed, and President Ronald Reagan signed, the Civil Liberties Act, a formal apology to U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry who were unjustly interned. Our government made a mistake, but it apologized and healed many wounds as a result.

Then in 2011, 70 years after the Pearl Harbor attack — the event that changed our lives forever — President Barack Obama signed the bill that awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Japanese-American veterans of World War Two. I was particularly moved because I accepted the award on behalf of my late father.

The United States can do better, and by apologizing for its injustice to our community, it finally did.

This holiday season, many around the world are fleeing their homelands and running from terror. Millions of Syrians are living in refugee camps with only the items they were able to carry with them. Here in America, many Muslim Americans, Sikh Americans and others are living in fear of harassment and violence simply because they happen to resemble and practice the same faith as those who committed the atrocities in Paris and San Bernardino.

We cannot move forward if we continue to repeat the same mistakes. We cannot let racism and bigotry overrun Americans’ conscience and good faith. The tragedy of Japanese-American internment cannot, must not, be repeated.

Ultimately, I don’t want the internment to be a Japanese-American lesson. This should be an American lesson for all those under the protection of the Constitution.


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Very good article, I was always wondering about what happened to the Japanese businesses during their time in the camps. I m so worried that Muslims will face the same fate when Donald Trump becomes the president.

Posted by Kwan002 | Report as abusive

The Confederacy killed far more Americans than the Japanese did. We should have imprisoned the whole white South and made them into a labor colony. Next time.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The current problem is not race related.

Being a Muslim and being loyal to the Islamic State (Caliphate) is a political choice.

The Islamic Caliphate is a foreign government who is at war with us.

Posted by Paul_Sudduth_II | Report as abusive

The Japanese interned where already here and mostly citizens, Mike, so your comparison is a poor analogy from the start. Further, Japaneee-Amercian citizens embraced US laws, they didn’t insist on practicing Bushido did they? Muslim refugees bring all they 14th Century misogynist and Sharia law baggage here and don’t assimilate. let no bring in people who don’t embrace out constitution and laws.

Even the Europeans are having second thoughts after having let them in. One of the terrorists in the Paris attacks came in under a Syrian passport as a refugee. They don’t belong in Western society unless they plan to assimilate. Better that Muslim nations take them than Western nations so they can stay with their 14th century culture and treatment of women.

Posted by Danilushka | Report as abusive

@Danilushka, and I’m sure the treatment of the Japanese Americans at that time was very civil and decent.

Sorry Mr apologist, but racism is racism. And unfortunately just as intolerance is the vice of the Muslim, racism and arrogance is the vice of the white Christian and Jew………

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

@Danilushka, and I’m sure the treatment of the Japanese Americans at that time was very civil and decent.

Sorry Mr apologist, but racism is racism. And unfortunately just as intolerance is the vice of the Muslim, racism and arrogance is the vice of the white Christian and Jew………

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

Why didn’t my previous comment post? Am I being censored?

Posted by CAM2 | Report as abusive

Thoughtful, vigorous, commentary apparently not allowed here. Perhaps this stifling needs to be pointed out elsewhere.

Posted by CAM2 | Report as abusive

Thank you FDR, the father of progressive politics in America. Makes you wonder how any Nissei could stand to be in the same party as that bigot. It also should be remembered that a REPUBLICAN President was the one that officially apologized for these actions. Only in an environment of big government could something like this happen.

Posted by ConservativeWin | Report as abusive

The human suffering and persecution, never ending stories.

Posted by Turi141 | Report as abusive

@Solidar Essentially that is what happened. The North acted immorally after the Civil War and thus this led to resentments that are present even to this day. Had Lincoln not been assassinated, I think the treatment of the Southerners would have been much more just. HTH.

Posted by westsidecougar1 | Report as abusive

My father fought the Japanese from the aircraft carrier, Enterprise. He was told that we would kill Japs until Japaneses was spoken only in Hell. We obviously failed at that job, unfortunately.

Posted by DT60093 | Report as abusive

My father fought the Japanese from the aircraft carrier, Enterprise. He was told that we would kill Japs until Japanese was spoken only in Hell. We obviously failed at that job, unfortunately.

Posted by DT60093 | Report as abusive

It was a racist move. We never locked up law-abiding U.S. citizens with German ancestors in 1942. Or law-abiding U.S. citizens with English ancestors in 1812.

Japanese-Americans were no less American, and no more dangerous than any of the above. Just plain racism.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

only difference i would like to point out, Muslims and Sikhs practice different religions. Due to minor similarity in physical appearance they can’t considered practising same religion as Muslims.

Posted by saarthak29 | Report as abusive

The internments in the US were wrong. We understand that. But they were far, far more humane than the treatment of Americans in Japanese custody.

Posted by prwill2000 | Report as abusive

Thanks for the article, but the history repeated again two days ago:

After terrorist attacks in Paris and USA, the american house of representatives organised a bill which was signed by president Obama couple of days ago for people who have traveled to Iran since 2011 or dual national Iranian citizens. According to the law, the mentioned people need to apply for visa to go to America and can not go there without visa the same as their European or Australian citizen fellows.
Terrorists born in America, Europe and Pakistan who some of them has been traveling to Saudi Arabia and Syria committed terrorist act, Iranian people are getting punished by getting boycott by the tourists and business men all around the world.

Thank you American Politicians!

Posted by P.A. | Report as abusive

I feel you are being very insensitive to others minorities who were treated extremely bad for many decades by Caucasian Americans, in fact, much worse than your American Japanese ancestors, and they are still waiting for an apology,too.

Posted by AnnaBelle15 | Report as abusive

I submitted a couple of comments a few days ago and they have not been posted. Would you post those soon?

Posted by westsidecougar1 | Report as abusive

Reparations were paid. Google “Bataan death march” for info on how Japanese military treated foreigners.

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

The Jews will never let us forget the Holocaust. The Blacks will never stop talking about slavery. The American-Indian will not let us forget the genocide we committed against them. Add the Japanese-Americans to this list of our painful past.

Posted by Menudo | Report as abusive