By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Parallels between the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and current events were explored at the 2019 Day of Remembrance, whose theme was “Behind Barbed Wire: Keeping Children Safe and Families Together,” held Feb. 16 at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
The program began a performance by L.A. Taiko Ichiza and actors Edward Hong and Kelvin Han Yee reading letters written by members of the Kondo family — correspondence between a Nisei son, Henry, serving with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and his Issei father, Yasaku, in camp. Henry was killed in action in France in 1944.
Co-emcee Carrie Morita of Nikkei Progressives noted, “This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first DOR held in Los Angeles. Sue Kunitomi Embrey [of the Manzanar Committee] attended the actual very first DOR in Seattle in 1978. She recognized the importance of DOR and the following year, the very first DOR was held here right out on this plaza … We welcome Phil Shigekuni, who is here in the audience … Phil was a member of the very first planning committee of that DOR 40 years ago …
“At that time it was a program meant to bring the community together to reflect on the harsh impact and the legacy of the executive order issued on Feb. 19, 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it was during the 1980s and 1990s the DOR also served to update the community on the campaign for reparations and to involve them in the continuing fight for redress.”
On a personal note, Morita said, “My mother’s family was from the small farming community of Parlier near Fresno and they were incarcerated at Gila River, Arizona while my father’s family and many of their friends from San Diego were sent to Poston, Arizona. My father was denied enlistment and was declared an enemy alien in spite of being born in California, but he was later drafted out of Poston and joined the 232nd Engineers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.”
Co-emcee Hideki Fukusumi of Kizuna described himself as a Shin-Nisei who is half Japanese and half Thai. “So my experience is very different than Carrie’s, but we both share a lot through community work, through Nikkei Progressives and other activities … This is actually my first time emceeing any type of community event, so it’s quite an honor to be here.”
JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs, who fought against apartheid in her native South Africa and was recently elected chair of the General Assembly of Amnesty International, said, “Our theme for this year … could not be more appropriate given the strong racist parallels between the past and the present. Two years ago we gathered here in this hall to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 under the pall of the Muslim bans. And this year we mark the 77th anniversary in the face of a national emergency, barely 24 hours old. Each is an example of executive action based on false and misleading information.
“The incarceration was based on a deliberate lie, a lie that people of Japanese ancestry were a threat to national security, a lie that was fueled by bigotry and prejudice, and this is no different. Asylum seekers, migrants and refugees are no more a threat to national security than your families were in 1942. The similarities and the parallels are stark — a climate of naked racism … a false national security threat that incarcerated over 120,000 people 77 years ago, and then today the impetus for a wall that will close our southern border to people fleeing violence and persecution.
“The real crisis is the assault on the right to asylum. It’s a fundamental human right that is upheld in the laws of this country, which state very clearly that people have the right to seek asylum from violence and persecution. Instead of affording them the protection that our law and international law requires, they have been demonized and their lives and safety used as pawns in a political game. The real crisis is the separation of children and their families at the border. The real crisis is the incarceration of between 14,000 and 16,000 children in detention centers across the country.
“It’s this crisis and the policy that gave rise to it that history will surely recognize as a crime against humanity. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will uphold this manufactured emergency as it did the incarceration and the Muslim ban. And it remains to be seen whether it will once again ignore the underlying racism and prejudice that breathes life into these deeply abhorrent and discriminatory policies. Our job is to make sure that there is no mistaking the tragic and dire consequences of unfettered and irresponsible and unlawful executive action.
“This is a community that understands it better than most and I’m so proud that we’ve all chosen to make this stand under JANM’s roof.”
JANM was also represented by Gene Kanamori, a member of the Board of Governors.
Fukusumi added, “Last September when the DOR Committee began to meet to develop today’s program, we were bombarded with news about the harsh treatment of refugees and asylum seekers at our southern border. It was incredibly tough to watch as we saw children forcibly separated from their families and housed in cages. For many of us, it felt too familiar, like many of our parents and grandparents who were torn from their homes and communities during World War II and whose families were often separated into different camps.”
“After our community waged a historic campaign to demand justice and got the support of many other justice-minded individuals and communities, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and President Ronald Reagan apologized to Japanese Americans for that executive action that was determined to be based on racism, wartime hysteria and the failure of political leadership,” Morita said. “Over 82,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese Latin Americans received a letter of apology from the president and individual monetary reparations. We must continue to tell the Japanese American incarceration story in the hope that it can be a cautionary tale for all Americans about the violation of human rights.”
A camp roll call and procession were held to remember those who were incarcerated, particularly the Issei and Nisei whose sacrifices and accomplishments were cut short. Banners representing the camps were carried by members of Nishi Hongwanji (Boy Scout Troop 738 and Girl Scout Troop 12135), Venice Japanese Community Center (Boy Scout Troop 764), and Christ the King Lutheran Church (Boy Scout Troop 242). The War Relocation Authority camps — Amache, Gila River, Heart Mountain, Jerome, Manzanar, Minidoka, Poston, Rohwer, Topaz, and Tule Lake — were represented along with Crystal City and other Department of Justice camps.
Veterans and former incarcerees were asked to stand and be recognized. Those with family ties to a particular camp, as well as those without a direct connection to the camps, also stood.
“Let’s take a moment to honor all who were forcibly removed and lived in America’s concentration camps as well as those Japanese Americans who lived outside of the military zones and suffered from the racism and hatred heightened by the executive order,” said Morita. “We also pay tribute to the thousands of Japanese Latin Americans, German and Italian Americans who were incarcerated by the U.S. government.
“And we pay respects to all of those who are no longer with us, family members, friends, activists, leaders who left our community and the country a tremendous legacy about the camps, about rebuilding lives and communities, about the Japanese American experience and about fighting for justice.
Kay Ochi and Richard Katsuda of Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress paid tribute to notable individuals who have passed during the past year, including redress activist Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, who attended the 2018 DOR.
Fukusumi pointed out a quilt displayed on the wall. “When we see the current administration’s relentless push for a Muslim ban and demonizing refugees and asylum seekers, we know that we must speak out and let our concerns be known. There is a national network of Japanese Americans called Never Again Is Now that is coordinating efforts to speak out as part of this effort. Nikkei Progressives here in L.A. just completed their ‘Families Belong Together’ quilt …
“This quilt is a tangible show of support for immigrants and refugees who suffer from detention, family separation and harsh conditions at the border. Funds have been donated as a part of this … All the money donated will go to the detainees and families who have been separated.”
First of two parts.
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo