Rafu Staff Report
SACRAMENTO — A bill declaring Feb. 19 as a Day of Remembrance in order to increase public awareness of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was passed by a unanimous voice vote during an Assembly floor session on Tuesday.
ACR (Assembly Concurrent Resolution) 85 was introduced by Assemblymembers Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) and Mariko Yamada (D-Davis), the only Japanese American members of the Legislature.
The co-authors are Assemblymembers Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), Ed Chau (D-Monterey Park), Paul Fong (D-San Jose), Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) and Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara), and Sens. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), Carol Liu (D-Glendale) and Leland Yee (D-San Francisco). All are members of the API Legislative Caucus.
Muratsuchi noted that Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, authorized the internment and “devastated countless American dreams. Families lost their homes, their farms, their businesses, and most importantly their freedom. Despite this massive injustice, over 33,000 Japanese Americans volunteered to fight for our country on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific … as their loved ones waited behind barbed wire.”
He continued, “A measure of justice was achieved when, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan issued an official apology on behalf of our nation for this tragic episode in American history. However, it is critical that we never forget the victims of this tragic time, just as important that we never repeat the mistakes of our past.”
Yamada, who is in her final year in the Assembly due to term limits, held up a facsimile of instructions to people of Japanese ancestry that were posted by the government in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities — “the instructions that my parents and grandparents read about what they had to do in a very short period of time.”
Those instructions included packing only what each individual could carry and leaving behind beloved pets as well as large possessions such as furniture and cars.
“I’d like you to imagine … if you were given 24 to 48 hours to evacuate from your homes today, what you would carry with you,” Yamada told her colleagues. “In fact, in my mother’s case, she carried my 7-month-old sister — that’s pretty much all she could carry — and a supply of diapers.”
In closing, she said, “Despite the mistakes that our country has sometimes made … for me to be able to have the privilege of serving as a member of the California State Assembly in the same generation as my family had been interned, just a little over 70 years ago, I think speaks to the highest ideals of our democracy … Though we make errors, it is important for us to recover from those, to choose not to be bitter but to be better.”
Assemblymember Marc Levine (D-San Rafael), speaking on behalf of the Jewish Caucus, said, “Every nation has moments in its history for which the country itself is embarrassed and deeply ashamed. It is appropriate and it is necessary that this history be contemplated and remembered lest such tragedies be repeated.”
Assemblymember Steve Bradford (D-Los Angeles), who grew up in Gardena and served on the City Council there, said he has often heard “the horrible stories of internment camps like Manzanar” as well as Nisei veterans’ “stories of bravery, defending this country like no one else.”
He also suggested that his colleagues visit the Palos Verdes Peninsula because “most all that land belonged to Japanese Americans at one point. They farmed almost all the peninsula, only to return back home and never be able to reclaim their lands.”
Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) commented, “As we move further and further away from the war years, it is crucial to increase public awareness of the events surrounding the internment.” She read a poem by a child who was interned, entitled “My Plea.”
Assemblymember Steve Fox (D-Lancaster), pointing out that some of the racial bigotry against Japanese Americans occurred “right here in Sacramento,” stated, “These actions were unconscionable … We Americans must stand up for our neighbors. Let us remember that fear imprisons the innocent.”
Assemblymember Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), speaking on behalf of the Latino Caucus, noted that many of the internees came from the Salinas Valley and Pajaro Valley, and the Salinas Rodeo Grounds became an assembly center.
“It’s a sad episode in American history. However, it’s an important one to remember each year to teach the next generations about the mistakes that our country made,” he said. “Too often the aftermath of a national tragedy clouds our emotions and clouds our judgment. And when fear and paranoia guide our actions, tragedies like the internment … can occur.”
Alejo pointed out that there were positive stories as well, “where our neighbors and our communities stood up for one another … took care of their farms and houses while the families were interned, and once they were released, they had their homes and their property waiting for them. It didn’t happen all the time, but there were those courageous people in our communities who did do the right thing during difficult times.”
He added that the executive order “also resulted in the unjust internment of 3,000 Italian Americans, 11,000 German Americans, and even some Jewish refugees.”
Assemblymember Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata) said that his mother, whose family migrated from Oklahoma, grew up “knowing people of every ethnic background” in racially diverse East L.A. and was filled with “shock and dismay” when her Japanese American friends suddenly disappeared in 1942, “their homes abandoned, their businesses abandoned … It was that injustice that had such a profound impact on her, that caused her to raise her children and teach them about the importance of standing up and speaking out against injustice.”
Assemblymember Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) drew attention to Walerga Park, located about 12 miles from the State Capitol, which commemorates a wartime assembly center with a monument and a grove of cherry trees. He said one of his ambitions as a legislator is to improve the park, “which has sort of been forgotten … has suffered neglect.”
Asssembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles), who also has roots in East L.A., described it as “a very special place … where everybody came to be integrated into a broader community. To have that community completely disrupted by Executive Order 9066 was really a huge impact on everybody.”
His district includes Little Tokyo, where “one of the most offensive reporting locations was … It was the church were so many members of the Japanese American community worshipped at. And the government had come in, taken over the church, and made it the place that Japanese American families were forced to report to before they were shipped off first to Santa Anita Racetrack … before they were sent to a variety of camps. It was something where you still see the scars in this community that I hold dear.
“To think that it was a president that I held in such incredible high regard, Franklin Roosevelt, who many of us credit with doing so many good things, who signed an order that is one of the greatest affronts to democracy that our country has ever seen.”
Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) said he learned a great deal about the Nikkei wartime experience through personal anecdotes. “I had a friend named Paul Takamatsu who was raised in Hawaii, and because of Pearl Harbor it was particularly brutal on the Japanese American population — intrusions into homes, banging on doors. Finally they realized that internment wasn’t a preferable way to go because they needed the workforce.
“So Mr. Takamatsu’s father had to wear a large ‘J’ around his neck identifying himself as Japanese Americans, kind of like the yellow star [that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany] … Paul always told me that his father never got over that shame, even on his deathbed.”
Ammiano worked with former internee Kiku Funabiki, who “spearheaded a curriculum on the internment, a true picture of what happened, for the San Francisco schools, which I was happy to introduce when I was elected to the Board of Education…
“I think one of the reasons that we do love America is when we make these mistakes we’ll stand up and recognize what we’ve done and hope … we will never, ever repeat it.”
Assemblymember Brian Jones (R-Santee) recalled that his knowledge of World War II came from his own family history. “My grandfather … was a flight navigator on B-24s in the South Pacific and was shot down and served 18 months in a Japanese prison camp. I heard the horrors and death and brutality that he and his colleagues had to survive in the POW camps. So until I came to the California State Legislature, that’s all I knew about the struggle between Americans and the Japanese.
“But when Ms. Yamada shared three years ago … and opened my eyes to what Japanese Americans went through in America, and the overreach of our government to attack American citizens on American soil, was the first time that I had gained that perspective and became appalled at the capabilities of our government against our own people.
“And it would be very easy as it would have been for my grandfather to become hard-hearted, cold and revengeful, which he did not do. It would be very hard for Japanese Americans in America today to have that attitude as well.”
Jones thanked Yamada for her service and called her “a very good example for all of us on this floor of class and respect.”
Muratsuchi thanked his colleagues for their support and the resolution passed without debate.