A lesson from America’s Japanese internment camps

‘Japanese Americans will be allies of Muslims. We know civil rights can be overridden in a climate of fearmongering.’

Japanese-American Mochida family

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, my grandmother, Aiko Nishi, was an eager 18-year-old sophomore at San Francisco State University who dreamed of becoming a teacher.

She was a “Nisei”, a second-generation Japanese American born in the US to Japanese immigrant parents.

Two states away in Washington, my grandfather, Matao Uwate, was enrolled in college classes after his graduation from Everett High School. He was a “Nisei-Kibei” – an American-born Nisei who spent most of his childhood years in Japan.

He had returned to the US a few years earlier after being raised by his grandmother in a quiet Japanese fishing village.

A photo of Aiko Nishi (married name: Aiko Nishi Uwate) taken just before internment [Photo courtesy of Ashlyn Nelson]
A photo of Aiko Nishi (married name: Aiko Nishi Uwate) taken just before internment [Photo courtesy of Ashlyn Nelson]

The day after Pearl Harbor, the US declared war on Japan and my grandparents’ families became the subject of extreme anti-Japanese hostility. Unable to continue her education, my grandmother returned home to Florin, California, where her family’s strawberry basket factory was burned to the ground by arsonists.

Military officials questioned my grandmother’s parents and searched their home for any evidence of Japanese loyalty, confiscating Japanese cultural objects and destroying their radio’s shortwave capabilities.

In Washington, my grandfather stopped leaving the house alone because he feared physical assault.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. Citing national security interests, the law broadly authorised the Secretary of War to “prescribe military areas” and to determine the “right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave” those areas.

Within a few short months, the military designated the entire West Coast a military area and forced the relocation and mass incarceration of approximately 120,000 residents of Japanese descent. My grandmother, her parents and her six siblings sold nearly all of their belongings at big discounts, and each packed the two small suitcases they were allowed for relocation.

Meanwhile, my grandfather painted banners to protest against the forced evacuation and loss of his constitutional rights. As anti-Japanese animosity increased, fear seized the Japanese American community. Many feared forced labour and mass execution while incarcerated.

The military first evacuated my grandmother’s family to a temporary relocation centre in Turlock, California, and then to an internment camp on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona. There, her family inhabited hastily constructed barracks with tar paper walls that offered little protection from the extreme elements.

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Already considered suspect owing to his childhood in Japan and protest activities, my grandfather was incarcerated in the Tule Lake Segregation Center in Northern California. Tule Lake – the largest and most controversial internment camp, heavily patrolled by more than a thousand soldiers and surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and guard towers – housed Japanese deemed disloyal for resisting incarceration.

The War Relocation Authority registration record of Matao Uwate [Photo courtesy of Ashlyn Nelson]
The War Relocation Authority registration record of Matao Uwate [Photo courtesy of Ashlyn Nelson]

Conditions in both internment camps were deplorable. They were severely lacking in basic amenities such as health and sanitation services.

At Tule Lake, guards subjected internees to tear gas and other forms of abuse, such as placing internees in stockades. In a later federal court case, a Ninth Circuit judge wrote that Tule Lake internees experienced “unnecessarily cruel and inhuman treatment” and characterised the camp conditions as “… as degrading as those of a penitentiary and in important respects worse than in any federal penitentiary”.

By the end of World War II in 1945, Congress had considered measures for repatriating Japanese immigrants and successfully implemented a plan to strip some American-born Nisei of their citizenship via a confusing loyalty questionnaire.

Fearing for their personal safety outside Tule Lake, my grandfather’s parents repatriated to Japan but subsequently faced a decade-long travel ban that prevented their return. Despite their prior legal residence in the US, zero evidence of any disloyal activity during the war, and formal petitions made by their American citizen children, they were unable to return until 1955. My grandmother’s family returned to Florin, California amid a local petition to prohibit Japanese, where her father attempted to rebuild their lives by picking grapes.

The Japanese-American internment now flickers at the edges of America’s political consciousness.

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The climate of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab fear and hostility that has pervaded the US since September 11, 2001 resembles anti-Japanese sentiment following Pearl Harbor. Both then and now, wartime hysteria has led to the racialisation of conflict based on generalised claims that entire groups defined by national origin, ethnicity, or religion pose a threat to national security.

The War Relocation Authority registration record of Aiko Nishi [Photo courtesy of Ashlyn Nelson]
The War Relocation Authority registration record of Aiko Nishi [Photo courtesy of Ashlyn Nelson]

The racialisation of conflict has led to the perception of cherished cultural objects and traditions as suspicious, precipitated hate crimes, and enabled the erosion of civil liberties – by undermining the rights of legal residents already subject to rigorous vetting procedures, employing racial profiling for security searches and screening, and imposing travel bans.

Also troubling is the invocation of concerns for national security and incitement of fear to advance or protect economic interests. Mass incarceration effectively dismantled the agricultural hegemony established by Japanese-American farmers on the West Coast, disrupted the education and employment trajectories of an entire generation, and led to long-term adverse effects on human capital formation, industry participation, and family economic stability.

Today, economic anxieties among large portions of the American electorate fuel general anti-immigration sentiments, creating a fertile environment for acceptance of the Trump administration’s recent executive actions. Those actions are likely to have negative economic consequences for some Arab and Muslim families.

More than 70 years later, the spectre of internment continues to haunt Japanese Americans descended from Nisei.

In the coming days and years, we will serve as advocates and vocal allies of Arab and Muslim communities in America as they face increased scrutiny, extreme vetting, travel bans, and potential registration requirements. We know all too well how quickly constitutional rights and civil liberties can be overridden in a climate of fearmongering, and that eternal vigilance is the price of our own fragile liberty.

Source: Al Jazeera