By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
“The Victory and … the Unfinished Business” was the theme of this year’s Day of Remembrance program, held Feb. 17 at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
While last year’s event marked the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the incarceration of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast, this year the focus was on the 30th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. The result of a decade-long campaign, the bill provided $20,000 payments and an official apology to those impacted by EO 9006.
While celebrating this milestone, each speaker warned that activism is needed now more than ever in today’s political climate.
Following a performance by Yuujou Daiko, the audience was welcomed by co-emcees Chris Komai, board chair of the Little Tokyo Community Council, and Kristin Fukushima, LTCC managing director.
“Today we gather to reflect on our community’s ability to persevere against the gutting of their civil rights and reaffirm our commitment to justice for all,” Komai said. “My grandfather, H. Toyosaku Komai, was the pre-war publisher of The Rafu Shimpo. He loved his adopted country, America. But the FBI came for him on Dec. 7. Held incommunicado in jail, he was transferred from Missoula, Montana, to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to Fort Livingston, Louisiana, and finally ended up in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“Imprisoned until 1946, well after the war ended, my grandfather was never charged with a crime and never received a trial. A changed man upon his return, he died before I was even born. It strikes me that the lack of due process or any recourse for an immigrant who chose America as his home is a tragedy, an incredible waste of a life.
“Yet despite all of that, my uncle returned and restarted **The Rafu Shimpo.** Little Tokyo was reborn. Our community regrouped. And eventually we demanded an accounting for its treatment.”
Speaking as a Yonsei, Fukushima said, “I heard of redress growing up, kind of vaguely. I knew there was an apology, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I really began to understand just how much this effort really took … and really just how significant it is for elders in our community, folks who went through this trauma, to really talk about it and have that chance to speak about it at the [Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians] hearings … It really is incredible that we were able to get those hearings and then finally the actual passage of the bill and then the signing of the Civil Liberties Act. So this is something that we like to talk to younger people about — that it seems like it takes time [but] with the strength of our entire community nationwide, we are able to get things done.”
“Turmoil and Divisions”
Praising the values of the Issei and Nisei who endured years in camp, fought in the war and rebuilt the community after their release, JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs said, “It’s those same values that led me in my youth to join the fight against apartheid in my native South Africa and to join in the struggle for liberation from one of the most unjust regimes of modern times. They are values for which I was willing to sacrifice a great deal … I served time as a political prisoner under martial law without the benefit of due process.”
Recalling what has happened in the U.S. since the last DOR program, Burroughs said, “It’s very hard to think that the turmoil and divisions in this country could be even further deepened … It’s the year in which we’ve seen Nazis marching unchecked with swastikas and torches through the streets of America. It’s a year in which we’ve virtually closed our borders on refugees. It’s a year in which we’ve seen our neighbors and friends rounded up, separated from their children and families, and forcibly ejected from this country.
“We’ve seen the travel bans and we’ve seen the talk of the war and we’ve seen how that climate of prejudice and bigotry and exclusion is rising again. It’s also a year in which we’ve seen the truth perverted and bent in service of discrimination and exclusion, and that gathering again are the clouds of bigotry and prejudice. So we know that at this time there is an enormous amount of unfinished business …
“There’s also been a time of great coming together, a time great of great hope when people have come together to organize, to think, to re-examine, to look at the challenges we face and to understand what the business is before us and what we need to do … We understand how important it is to stand for the truth to stand for the facts, to stand for the truth of history, how important it is to honor the past, to remember the past, but also primarily to ensure its mistakes and injustices are never repeated …
“When we see what is happening in our country, many of us fear that the fabric that glues us together is somehow fraying, and we know we have an enormous amount of work to do — on our own, as communities, as colleagues.”
JANM will continue this theme later this year with exhibitions on the Arab American experience and the anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act.
Komai recognized special guests, in particular Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, who was an archivist and researcher for the CWRIC in the 1980s. “She incredibly uncovered the only existing copy of the Western Defense Command’s Final Report that proved there was no military necessity to incarcerate Japanese Americans. If it wasn’t for Aiko, there would be no redress.”
Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) also shared memories of a noted redress activist. “Thirty years ago, I was just a college student at Berkeley, but I will always remember my very first Day of Remembrance. It was 1987 in the Japantown of San Francisco, and that’s where I first met Tsuyako ‘Sox’ Kitashima (1918-2006). Sox looked like a typical Nisei, a tiny lady probably around 70 at that time. I remember she always had a beautiful head of white hair … She was a fighter. As a former internee, she was fighting for redress.
“I will always remember Sox as a symbol of the redress movement of what we can accomplish when everyday, regular people stand up and come together to fight for justice and for a better world. I hope today’s DOR will inspire all of you, as it always does for myself, to keep fighting for a better world just as I was inspired 30 years ago.”
As the only Japanese American currently serving in the State Legislature, Muratsuchi said, “I do feel a special obligation to represent all Japanese Americans in the state of California. Next week I will be introducing a resolution to declare Feb. 19 of 2018 as a Day of Remembrance throughout the state … This is a resolution that I have introduced every year that I served in the State Legislature and that I will continue to introduce as long as I serve in the State Legislature.
“Last year I was happy to get another one of my bills, AB 491, signed into law. This law allows the Civil Liberties Public Education Program to encourage the teaching of the lessons of the Japanese American incarceration experience by connecting our community’s experience with the experience of Muslim Americans, Dreamers and other communities so that the rest of America can learn from the Japanese American experience. I was also pleased to have my budget request for $3 million for this program to continue to be funded.”
Muratsuchi presented the event organizers with a framed DOR poster, which is being distributed to all offices in the State Legislature and the Governor’s Office.
Hannah Cho, senior field representative for State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), presented certificates to the sponsoring organizations.
“In the 30th District, we represent parts of Sawtelle and West L.A., which have vibrant and wonderful populations of Japanese Americans, and we just stand united and stand together remembering that we should always fight for racial justice and fight against atrocities like Executive Order 9066,” Cho said.
An excerpt from the documentary “Justice Now, Reparations Now,” which includes testimonies from the 1981 CWRIC hearings in Los Angeles, was shown, followed by a ceremony in which Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts from Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple carried colorful banners representing the 10 War Relocation Authority camps — Amache, Gila, Heart Mountain, Jerome, Manzanar, Minidoka, Poston, Rohwer, Topaz and Tule Lake — as well as Crystal City and other Department of Justice camps.
All of the former incarcerees present, including veterans and resisters, were asked to stand and be recognized. This was followed by a roll call in which each camp was named and audience members who were in that camp, or whose family members were, stood up. Then a moment of silence was observed.
“We all remember family members, friends, activists and leaders who have passed but who left our community and our country a tremendous legacy connected to the Japanese American World War II experience,” said Komai. “They also taught us the importance of fighting for justice for all.”
“Not the Time to Retire”
The keynote speaker was Alan Nishio, founding co-chair of National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (now known as Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress), former president of the Little Tokyo Service Center, and a leader in the Asian American movement in Los Angeles.
In addition to the other anniversaries, Nishio pointed out, “This is the 40th anniversary of the Day of Remembrance program. The first one was in 1978 in Seattle … as a precursor for the efforts we were going to be doing around redress. In Los Angeles, this is our 39th DOR program.”
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of his involvement in the Free Speech Movement as a student at UC Berkeley as well as his activism for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.
“I’m very proud to be able to look back at this engagement … and know that I was a part, a very small part, but a part a movement for change and to see what the impact of those movements has been upon a changing society. None of those movements are more significant in my personal life than that of redress. What this 50 years has taught me is a true appreciation for the power of the grassroots movements and the ability of individuals working together to create social change. And that power of people’s movement is best exemplified as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.”
While the law was not ideal — anyone who died before the signing of the bill was ineligible, as were Japanese Latin Americans brought to the U.S. and interned — “it was, however, an official government acknowledgement of a wrong that had been committed,” Nishio said. “And if you think it’s easy to get the U.S. government to admit that they made a mistake, it’s probably about as easy as getting Donald Trump to admit that he ever lied.”
Stressing the grassroots nature of the redress campaign, he said, “Many will tell you it was a phone call to President Reagan that got him to sign the legislation. They’re going to point to politicians and say they were the ones that were key in us getting redress. Believe me, it was the people’s movement. That got us redress. And let’s not forget that.”
Born in Manzanar, Nishio said he didn’t find out that his birthplace was a concentration camp until he was a senior in college. “When my family talked about camp, they only talked about the people they knew, the good times they had, but they never wanted to talk about why we were in camp in the first place … We need to appreciate the depths of shame and humiliation and the feeling of powerlessness many Nikkei felt as they were rounded up and put in camp … It’s important for us to understand that as a community because of the feeling of frustration and powerlessness that many today, particularly Muslims and immigrants, feel under Trump Administration.”
After the commission hearings, he said, the camps “became something that we could talk about and became very important because the feelings of shame and embarrassment turned into feelings of righteous indignation and anger, and turned to a fighting spirit that understood that what happened to us was wrong and we needed to make the effort to make it right. That was our community coming together.”
Nishio imagined what the community would be like if redress had not been achieved. “Many Issei and Nisei who have passed on now would have died without a sense of redemption … The incarceration would have remained a little-known chapter in U.S. history and the revisionists would continue to insist that we were put in camp for our own protection or because our loyalty could not be assured. Most importantly, the incarceration would not be cited as an example of what can go wrong when a group is scapegoated and their rights denied under the guise of national security.”
At the same time, he stressed, “Redress would be a hollow victory for our community if we chose to stand idly by while others are threatened. Given our community’s experience, we must be at the forefront of standing up when others are attacked. In the current environment of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim scapegoating, we understand that we cannot as a community remain silent …
“During World War II, who stood up for our community and opposed the camps? There is only one group that stood up nationally, the American Friends Service Committee, the Quakers. No other church groups. No other civil rights groups … Silence is consent. It’s the authorization of those in power to continue doing the things they’re doing.”
While the late 1960s are thought of as pivotal time in U.S. history, Nishio said that 2018 is even more important. “We hear the hateful rhetoric directed toward women, immigrants and people of color. We see the rising incidents of hate violence, scapegoating, disdain for civil liberties … Twenty years from now we’re going to look back at 2018 as a turning point in this country’s future … and say this was a key time when this nation either turned to authoritarianism and demagoguery or turned to reaffirm the democratic principles of this society.”
Speaking as an “old guy” to young activists in the audience, Nishio commended them for “being engaged in the issues of this world, politically and otherwise,” and told them, “It is a life that is truly worth it, and it’s one that you can look back on 50 years from now or 30 years from now. I can see one of you being on the podium talking about the 50th anniversary of the CLA and what role you played in sustaining this effort.”
While applauding his comrades from the early days of the movement, Nishio emphasized, “This is not the time to retire. This is not the time to look back and talk about the good old days … There’s too much work to be done. You know we’re living longer. We have no excuse … This is the time to use our experience and our wisdom and to be engaged and use that as part of creating change … We’re not too old to sit in, to protest, to do things like that. Trust me, it is not the time to retire.”
Explaining that his “new hairstyle” (bald) is due to chemotherapy, he said, “I’ve been battling cancer for 10 years now. It’s been a battle that has allowed me to truly appreciate life and what it means and the opportunities that I’ve been able to be a part of. It is truly for me a life of meaning and significance that has been exemplified by the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 …
“Each year there are fewer of us that are camp survivors. We’re having to rely on others to keep the story alive and to ensure that future generations know what happened during World War II … Take a stand … and join us in making sure Feb. 19 is not only a day of remembrance but also a day of resistance.”
“Keep Our Families Together”
The next speaker was the first-place winner in the Manzanar Committee’s student awards program addressing the themes of a 1942 Rafu Shimpo article titled “Keep Our Families Together.” Due to the political climate, the student and his family asked to remain anonymous.
The student said that he could relate to the article. “In 1942, Japanese communities are being torn apart just as the immigrant communities now are being torn apart. Our new president has stated that Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists, just like many government authorities thought that all Japanese were spies against the country in which many were born. Now President Trump wants to start mass deportation because of all the labels with which we are tagged without even knowing the reason why we came in.”
Just as many Japanese American families were separated during the war, immigrants today are having similar experiences, he said, citing the story of his uncle. “He came to the USA for a better life. After a while he started a family and had a wife and children. One day Immigration Control came and took my uncle … My uncle lost contact with his wife and children.” Although he later re-entered the U.S. and remarried, the uncle “is still trying his best to locate his children so he can be reunited with them.”
The student concluded, “The government’s immigration policy often causes the separation of immigrant families because they think they’re doing the right thing even though they’re doing wrong … Children who do nothing wrong often pay a brutal price.
“No matter what ethnicity you are, never let yourself be labeled with something you know isn’t true. The Japanese Americans weren’t at all what the government labeled them as and they didn’t let themselves be identified as that. Nor should you let yourself be identified by the labels others put on you. Families should always be kept together because no matter how diverse our country becomes, the family unit will endure and fill our lives with love and strength.”
The event closed with the traditional Call to Action from community organizations. Komai and Fukushima discussed LTCC’s efforts to preserve Little Tokyo as a historic Japantown in the face of new development, including the Regional Connector and other Metro projects.
Vivian Matsushige of Progressive Asian Network for Action talked about efforts by PANA and other immigrant rights groups to get the San Gabriel City Council to rescind a controversial agreement between the city’s police department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Richard Katsuda of NCRR outlined ongoing efforts to obtain justice for Japanese Latin American internees who were denied redress. Those who opted out of a government compromise settlement of $5,000 per person have taken their case to the courts and to an international body, the Organization of American States.
Stephanie Nitahara of JACL said that the Trump Administration’s budget proposal eliminates funding for the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites program and urged everyone to contact their representatives in Congress to prevent this form happening.
Carrie Morita of Nikkei Progressives announced that there will be an API contingent in a women’s march on March 3 in Los Angeles to mark International Women’s Day. Her group has also participated in rallies protesting the Trump Administration’s immigration policies.
This year’s DOR organizing committee included members of Go For Broke National Education Center, JACL Pacific Southwest District, JANM, Manzanar Committee, NCRR, Nikkei Progressives, OCA-Greater Los Angeles, and PANA.
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo