Los Angeles, United States – For Japanese and Muslim Americans embracing a growing relationship in the movement to resist what many consider to be President Donald Trump’s discriminatory policymaking, history isn’t going to repeat itself; it’s going to help inform the present.
The Japanese American community is commemorating a series of anniversaries this year: January 14 was the day, 75 years ago, when then President Franklin D Roosevelt, for whom Trump has reportedly expressed his admiration, issued a proclamation forcing Japanese – as well as Germans and Italians – to register with the Department of Justice. February 19 marks the 75th anniversary of the US’s detention of its Japanese community during the Second World War.
The history behind these dates is preserved with scientific precision in Little Tokyo. At the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, there is a barracks from the Heart Mountain camp in the western state of Wyoming, where many of the 120,000 people of Japanese origin interned during the war were resettled. Unvarnished wood thrown together to form a shack seems to have offered little shelter from the elements.
It was disassembled and moved across two states and 1,751 kilometres, so that people might remember what happened.
Across from the museum is Koyasan Buddhist Temple. There, many Japanese Americans left their belongings before lining up outside, wearing tickets noting their destinations, waiting to be shipped off, first to a temporary holding space and then to camps across the US, museum staff explained. Signs calling for their evacuation were posted down the block on businesses like Fugetsu-Do, a more than 100-year-old bakery that still stands.
In Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, much of what happened during the Second World War is maintained with great care, so that people might remember what happened.
There’s a political power in memory, many here say; they hope it will prevent another such incident after a member of Trump’s pre-inaugural team, Kansas state secretary Kris Kobach, told the media that the proto-administration had been mulling a registry for “immigrants from Muslim countries”.
‘They were too afraid to speak up. I am not afraid’
Trump, on Friday, signed an executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority nations – six Arab League states and Iran. The ban provoked outrage that continues to manifest at airport protests across the US, but reports of detentions persist.
For years since post-9/11, hate crimes against Americans of Muslim faith, Japanese and Muslim Americans have commemorated these events and also organised for social justice together.
And then in December 2015, following Trump’s campaign pledge of a so-called Muslim ban, members of both communities created a coalition called #VigilantLove.
The coalition continues to organise a series of demonstrations for social justice. On Thursday, they organised a vigil in anticipation of Trump’s executive order on the seven Muslim-majority nations that brought out hundreds of participants.
“When this happened to our community, we always talk about people who stood up for us. It’s our duty to do the same,” said Kristin Fukushima, 29, managing director for the Little Tokyo Community Council, whose grandparents were interned.
Fukushima referred to the very singular help of the US Quaker community, which was famously among strikingly few non-Japanese Americans who were vocal in its opposition to detention.
Remembering the past is of particular importance to some in the Japanese American community.
“I think the difference this year is: We’ve lost most of the people who remember the camps,” said Kyoko Nakamaru, 36, an activist who participates in #VigilantLove. Nakamaru’s grandmother, who had been interned at Poston War Relocation Center in the southwestern state of Arizona, recently passed away. “They are no longer here to speak for themselves.”
“During their lives they were too afraid to speak up. I am not afraid,” Nakamaru said.
At the Day of Remembrance next month, Muslim Americans will be there to help non-Muslim Japanese Americans like Nakamaru remember an infamous time in US history – the memory of which, they hope, will have teeth. There will be at least one Muslim American speaker on the roster, according to Japanese American community leaders organising the event.
With a cross-faith, interethnic team at the helm, one thing alone ties all the #VigilantLove organisers, Sahar Pirzada, 27, one of #VigilantLove’s co-chairs notes. Pirzada is an American whose parents are from Pakistan. They’re “all women,” she said. It’s almost as a retort to prevalent narratives of Asian and Muslim American women in US society. “It says that we’re here and we will lead the resistance,” she added.
Her co-chair, Traci Ishigo, 25, a non-Muslim Japanese American agreed.
“Women from a lot of communities of colour have different, but also shared experiences,” she said. “There are so many experiences to talk about it makes it hard to break it down. We need to consider all experiences and not just those that fit into cookie-cutter narratives.”
Ishigo noted, for example, that Islamophobia is often misinterpreted as being synonymous with anti-Arab or anti-Middle Eastern-ness in the US. “We need to be mindful of how people are experiencing Islamophobia. Black Muslims make up a third of Muslims in this area,” she said.
#VigilantLove started with the Muslim and Japanese American communities, Pirzada and Ishigo say, but it aims to be much broader than those two communities in scope, particularly as they and other social justice activists combat what they call unprecedented social injustice in the time of Trump.
The nexus of the two communities is resounding with people, if Twitter is any metric for success. And it may well be an appropriate metric, since the organisers are careful to note the hashtag in their organisation’s name.
The following tweet – and its image – went viral during the Women’s March on January 21 that drew protesters of all ethnic and faith backgrounds around the world.
ACLU lawyer Mitra Ebadolahi tweeted:
— Mitra Ebadolahi (@MitraEbadolahi) January 22, 2017
Women’s March organiser Linda Sarsour tweeted:
— Linda Sarsour (@lsarsour) January 23, 2017
The sight of one in the US’s future generations expressing solidarity between Japanese and Muslim Americans recalled for many a dark time in US history and a community experiencing a lot of similar fears in the present.