Last August was my second time marching through Little Tokyo as part of an organized action. The only time before was an Ehren Watada rally in 2007 and that had been relatively mellow. This time was not so quiet.
We'd spent over a week watching Ferguson, MO erupt in protests after the murder of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson barely days after the Los Angeles murder of Ezell Ford. Organized by a number of coalitions (#BlackLivesMatter would later lead much of the movement), this march was organized to demand that LAPD hold its officers accountable for the murder of Ford, though to this day those demands have not been met.
It was already crowded by the time I showed up at LAPD Headquarters and the crowd would only get larger and larger. We walked north through Chinatown, looped past Union Station, and finally, to my surprise, ended up marching right into Little Tokyo during the Nisei Week festival.
We stopped in front of Frances Hashimoto Plaza, pausing in the crosswalk for a call and response. The area was more busy than normal, the weekend festival coupled with peak summer traffic. Pedestrians slowed down to watch us, pulling out their cameras and adjusting their shopping bags.
Our arrival marked more than just a disruption of a Sunday afternoon. It marked a link that is often neglected.
I chanted louder.
Today marks the 73rd anniversary of Executive Order 9066, an order that put 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry into 11 concentration camps. Since 1978, February 19th has been commemorated as our Day Of Remembrance, a day in which we recount the camp experience and turn that story into action.
Let's start with the story.
The predominant narrative tells the story of a Japanese American community that sought to prove its loyalty to the USA by going to camp quietly. Husbands, brothers, and sons enlisted in the army. Those who stayed back put on American pageants and said the Pledge of Allegiance behind barbed wire. It was tough, but they acclimated to camp life and did their part as loyal citizens. By 1945, the government saw that the wartime hysteria was lessening and allowed them to leave so that they could restart their lives as the true-blue Americans they proved to be.
There are two key phrases in the Japanese American lexicon: "shikata ga nai" and "kodomo no tame ni." "It can't be helped" and "for the sake of our children." Japanese Americans talk about how these phrases pushed their families through, allowed them to "gaman" (endure) in the face of oppression.
This is how I first understood the camp story. This is not how I understand it now.
Immigration from Japan started in the mid-1800s after the arrival of Commodore Perry sparked a civil war, dividing Japan between those who wanted to Westernize and match the American naval might and those who wanted to retain Japan's policy of isolation.
Arriving in America largely as farmers, coal miners, fishermen, and railroad workers (in addition to a limited number of scholars), the immigrants were given dirty, perilous work that many White laborers would not do. The arrival of this immigrant work force along with other laborers from China, Korea, and the Philippines marked the first large-scale arrival of Asian settlers, further stratified the distance between Native Hawaiian/mainland tribe members and the White colonizers, and would set the stage for Asian American history as we participate in it today. As the Japanese population settled, their businesses became more and more successful, overtaking much existing competition.
Meanwhile, with the dissolution of the shogunate in the wake of the civil war, the Empire of Japan came into power and started building its Asia for Asians campaign that would lead to Japan's horrific force of imperialist colonialism across Asia.
With an eye on Japan's increasing military might, the US government kept tabs on the stateside Japanese Americans who had settled and started to raise families with American-born children. In 1941, Curtis B. Munson, a representative of the government, toured the West Coast to assess loyalties in the Japanese American community. His findings were compiled into a White House-delivered document known as The Munson Report, which reported that Japanese Americans were largely loyal to the US.
"The essence of what [Munson] has to report is that, to date, he has found no evidence which would indicate that there is danger of widespread anti-American activities among this population group. He feels that the Japanese are more in danger from the whites than the other way around." - John Franklin Carter, journalist
Two months later, the Japanese Imperial Army would bomb Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. Despite the findings of the report, President Roosevelt signed EO 9066, an executive order that gave the government power to reclassify areas as military zones. This would set grounds for the imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans in 11 concentration camps without due process of law.
Given weeks to a few months at most to pack only what they could carry, families sold their belongings for fractions of their worth. I think about Nobu McCarthy in the Farewell To Manzanar movie, breaking priceless dishes after a man offers her pennies. There are stories upon stories of parents hurrying to burn Japanese books, music, and art in case the government thought it was coded material.
Leaving houses and property in the care of their neighbors, these families stayed in holding centers like the horse stalls at Santa Anita racetrack and were then shipped off to camps in the middle of nowhere.
Within the camps, prisoners built what they could. Prisoners who were younger will often say that they had a great time as they were with friends; housewives often appreciated life without the pressures of supporting a family, but those families splintered as the cafeteria settings dissolved family dinners and young folks increasingly spent their time outside family barracks.
Guard towers loomed over the prisoners with guns pointed in. Illnesses like tuberculosis ravaged the camps. Deep shame set in for older folks, and a loyalty questionnaire exacerbated an already growing split within the community.
Meanwhile, the US government created the segregated 442nd/100th battalions and the Military Intelligence Service comprised of Japanese American men, asking them to fight for the country that imprisoned their families. While most of these men enlisted with the intention of proving loyalty and paving a better future for their families, they were used by their commanders primarily as cannon fodder in dangerous missions and on the front lines. Of the 4,186 men enlisted, 800 were either killed or missing in action. That's 1 in 5 men (the overall US army WWII casualty rate was around 1 in 35) who did not return home to families who had already lost their way of life. After liberating a Nazi death camp and saving the Lost Battalion, the 442nd regiment would be welcomed back as a model of patriotism to increase public support of Japanese Americans and give one cause for the closing of the camps in 1944.
Though we had allies in the American Friends Service Committee, our friends, and our neighbors, we returned to find our houses vandalized and our property damaged and stolen. Families split up as the government encouraged folks to move inland, away from the West Coast. My grandmother, barely out of high school, was told by an FBI officer not to speak Japanese or uphold Japanese tradition lest she raise suspicion. I suspect this was a common conversation.
We thought we had done something wrong. We held the shame of being put in these camps so tightly that it suffocated us, our communities not dissecting the experience for decades. Unwilling to talk about the war years, the prisoners largely left camp without looking back. As author Julie Otsuka puts it, "I think that, for many Japanese-Americans, the war is just an episode they'd rather forget, because of the shame and the stigma they felt at being labeled "disloyal." And after the war so many families just wanted to get on with their lives, rather than dwell on the pain or the loss." (Indiebound)
It would not be until the late 60's and early 70's that the Yellow Power movement would kick up and our community would, slowly, start to talk openly about the camps. The term "Asian American" was coined by UCLA Professor Yuji Ichioka, creating a unified identity that challenged White supremacy and state violence across Asian communities in America. We used art and organizing to process wounds we inherited from the camp generation, not realizing that we had been working through camp trauma our whole lives. We sought to build bridges.
With the declassification of wartime documents and growing conversation around the camps, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Interment of Civilians (CWRIC), was formed. The CWRIC arranged for a series of hearings at which former prisoners and their children gave testimony, some talking about camp for the first time in heart-wrenching detail.
Also, in the early 1980's, Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Min Yasui reopened their infamous World War II cases. During the war, these three men were convicted of violating the military orders that led to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans and challenged the orders all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In some of the most infamous decisions in its history, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of those orders.
These three men challenged their wartime convictions based on newly-discovered proof that the government had suppressed, altered, and destroyed evidence while their cases were before the Supreme Court. Through the efforts of three Japanese American-led legal teams, their convictions were successfully overturned. However, and this is where it gets tricky, the new lower court cases could not overrule the wartime U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
This means that today, 73 years after EO9066, indefinite detention without due process is still legally viable.
And the rest is the rest. Though the community was not entirely in support of an apology (many people, including my great uncle, saw an apology as an insult), after much organizing and lobbying President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which gave an apology and a token sum to all surviving former prisoners. After the Civil Rights movement, the CWRIC, the coram nobis cases, and finally the apology, our community spoke up more and more.
When our community is painted as a complacent victim, I am quick to remind that we were not silent. There were many voices of dissent. Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Yasui famously defied the curfew and camp orders. Mine Okubo brought her sketchpad and documented daily life while Toyo Miyatake smuggled in a contraband camera and did the same. Mary Oyama published "My Only Crime is My Face" from within the camps while Frank Emi organized the draft-resisting Fairplay Committee. Angered at the loyalty questionnaire, many prisoners called "no-no boys" (though there were women as well) answered "no" to the two questions at hand and went sent to Tule Lake concentration camp. The yearbook staff at Manzanar Concentration Camp ended the compendium with a full-page photo of a hand gripping a wire cutter, poised to break through the fence.
I don't understand shikata ga nai as meaning that nothing can be done and so we must simply endure. I understand shikata ga nai as only my grandmother could have put it -- "We made the best of a very bad situation."
In trying times our call is to understand our context and work around it. The human spirit is imprisoned only when we have truly given up.
We were victims of the state and the state alone, but our victimhood is not what defines our story. Our story is one of endurance, yes, but it is also a story of movement building, collective action, and societal/structural change. Our charge in remembering this story is to hold our world and ourselves accountable for what we do and do not want to see.
Over the past year I feel like I've been invited to vigils weekly. The list of those dead at the hands of the state has grown longer and longer and it is predominately Black folks. The continuing legacy of racialized systemic violence is undeniable, a legacy that has existed on this continent since the first colonizers set foot and enacted systematic genocide/imprisonment of indigenous people.
On this Day of Remembrance, I am thinking about how our community's experience fits into this context and how our stories can help disrupt the cycle while centering Black voices. I am thinking about what it means to recover from the trauma of the camps and use the vocabulary we've learned to fuel further movements, also considering the intersectionality of our experiences. We must remember that the Japanese American community is increasingly diverse with a spectrum of experiences and identities.
Marching through JTown was a reminder of how much we are all tied together in our struggles and how much work we must do to fully understand the different burdens we all bear. The trauma of the camps held by a Japanese American such as myself is a different trauma than the trauma of being Muslim in an Islamophobic society or Black in a historically anti-Black world, but in listening and movement building we continue to learn how to support each other.
This weekend, Los Angeles' annual community Day of Remembrance will be held at the Japanese American National Museum, co-sponsored by JACL-Pacific Southwest, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR), and The Manzanar Committee. Though there will undoubtedly be opportunities to become involved in action at the event, if you (like me) cannot make it, check the websites of organizations like #BlackLivesMatter or NCRR to learn how you can plug in.
If we are to continue remembering the camps, we must remember that the story did not end with the close of the last camp in 1946. We are part of its legacy, and charged with using it to shape the future, one step at a time.
I'd like to thank my amazing friends Narinda Heng and Andrew Ahn for helping me with structure and overall editing. Extremely special thank you to my mom, Kathryn Bannai and my aunt Lorraine Bannai for helping shape the piece.
I would like to give a special shout out to Tom Ikeda and the team over at Densho.org. Without Densho this piece would not have come together the way it did. Please consider making a donation so they can continue their extremely important work researching, archiving, and making available the camp story.