“The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”
— Aung San Suu Kyi (1945- ), Burmese activist and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize awardee
Saturday was supposed to be mundane — laundry, sleeping in, an hour of zumba, afternoon latte at Starbucks. Then it dawned on me, it was the Day of Remembrance (DOR). I wasn’t expected to attend, but for some reason, I was determined to make it this year.
Entering the Japanese American National Museum was like coming upon an alternate universe. I saw people that I first met during the ’60s and ’70s. Ironically, it is they who are now in their 60s and 70s. This year’s program focused on the journey to obtain redress for Japanese Americans. Elsewhere in The Rafu, there will be first-rate coverage of the event by J.K. Yamamoto with photos by Mario Reyes, so I will try not to be redundant.
The program was both enlightening and moving. There was a healthy generational mix and the program seamlessly tied the past to the present. A video composed of clips from the 1981 pre-reparations hearings held by Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) saw Issei and Nisei choking back tears as they conveyed the loss and betrayal they felt as a result of their World War II experience. The video also reminded us that, sadly, so many of those gutsy first witnesses and redress movement leaders have passed on.
The late Sue Kunitomi Embrey, best remembered for tenaciously working to preserve the Manzanar National Historic Site, would have been proud of her son, moderator Bruce Embrey. As co-chair of the co-sponsoring Manzanar Committee, he deftly framed the discussion.
Also impressive was University of Southern California student April Nishinaka, whose photographic presentation on the JA wartime experience revealed a sophistication and perceptiveness well beyond her years.
Yet, no one could match the courage exhibited by the Issei witnesses. They talked of feeling helpless and bewildered as they were being hustled off to places unknown, of trying to shield their children from a reality they didn’t fully understand themselves, and of trying to make the best of a profoundly unfair situation.
When the war ended nearly four years later, the newly emancipated Nikkei faced another dilemma. Many no longer had jobs, homes, or a way to locate relatives, and literally had nowhere to go. In addition, the embers of prejudice still smoldered on the West Coast after the war. One Nisei, who was a child at the time, recalled being turned away by the attendant at a public swimming pool who said, “We don’t allow Orientals here.”
Among those featured in the clips was a Sansei, Bill Shinkai, who along with his family spent the war years in Manzanar. “The Japanese never did get out of camp in 1942, ’43, or ’45. They're just now beginning to get out. We are still in camp!” he asserted in 1981. His powerful message to the CWRIC and, indeed, to his fellow Nikkei was that neither money nor an elegantly worded apology could ever make up for the indignities wrought upon our community.
I thought about Bill’s words long after I left Aratani Hall last Saturday. He’s a long-time friend, so I phoned him to let him know I’d seen him on the 1981 video. He remembered testifying very late in the day and knew what he wanted to tell the commissioners, but didn’t recall his exact words. “I wanted them to know that discrimination still exists and as long as it does, we are not free.”
I asked, “Do you feel we are still in camp?”
“Yes. I think we are,” he said, then went on to explain, “Although things are better now. Interracial dating is more accepted, for example, but there are still so few Asian Americans in movies and television, and that needs to improve.”
For Bill and for many in our community, “camp” has become a metaphor.
• When major universities limit the number of new admissions of Asian ancestry in order to maintain “ethnic balance” in the student population, we are still in camp.
• When issues facing the rapidly aging Japanese American population go unaddressed in the hope that families will bear the burden themselves, we are still in camp.
• When the needs of our newest immigrant population, the Shin Issei, are ignored, including the undocumented, we are still in camp.
• And, as long as we continue to argue among ourselves over terminology and impact of the wartime experience, we are still in camp.
The laundry still needs washing. Zumba-ing can take place another day. Starbucks will somehow survive without my $3.50. As for sleeping in, there’s always next Saturday.
“President Eisenhower was a fine general and a good, decent man, but if he had fought World War II the way he fought for civil rights, we would all be speaking German now.”
— Roy Wilkins (1901-1981), civil rights activist and former executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
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