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