By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Following is Part 2 of a report on the 2019 Day of Remembrance program held Feb. 23 at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute. Jon Osaki’s documentary “Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066” was screened, followed by a panel discussion.
Panelist Traci Ishigo is a therapist, community organizer and co-founder of Vigilant Love, an organization that promotes solidarity between Japanese Americans and Muslim Americans. Her reaction to the film: “There were just so many parallels that came up for the organizing work that we’re doing to challenge Islamophobic policies happening in Los Angeles and that are happening across the nation …
“There was a range of emotion [for me], from a lot of rage, a lot of frustration, a lot of sadness, and also really heartened by the work of Aiko [Herzig Yoshinaga] and so many people in our communities who’ve been just doing so much to resist and challenge what happened to our community.”
Panelist Nicole Oshima, president of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union and a marketing intern for Kizuna, found the film “very educational and it was also very personal. I did recognize a lot of people that were involved … and I think that it was just really refreshing to see everything explained … especially since I myself am not too knowledgeable about the specifics or the legal terms … in a way that I actually understood.”
Panelist Dale Minami, who appears in the film, hails from Gardena, is a partner in the San Francisco law firm of Minami Tamaki LLP and was the lead attorney in the reopening of Fred Korematsu’s Supreme Court case in the 1980s. He liked the way that the film “really connects our experiences as Japanese Americans to other communities of color, and that’s critical for us to have the kind of coalition we need to change this country.”
Although Minami is well-versed on the subject, he was impressed that Osaki tracked down and interviewed descendants of wartime officials such as Edward Ennis, director of the Department of Justice’s Alien Enemy Control Unit, who said at the time that the incarceration was wrong, but was overruled.
Asked how she first learned about the camps, Ishigo responded, “My first experience was actually in high school and it was just half a page about E.O. 9066. And to be honest, during that time … I read it and really did not think much of ‘Does this apply to me?’ … I feel like that might be the case for a lot of younger Japanese Americans who are growing up with educators who aren’t making history relevant to the experiences of young people …
“It wasn’t really until I got more politically active as an undergraduate at UC Irvine that my dad finally begin to have conversations with me. I feel like it came through in a way that was comfortable for him, so it came through an email. ‘This is some historical information about your great-grandfather’ …
“It was an article that was titled ‘When Having a Japanese Flag Could Land You in Jail.’ It explained more of my family’s particular camp experience because my dad’s side was in Hawaii during the war and my great-grandfather, being president of a Japanese Buddhist temple who had to help start that Buddhist temple on the Big Island … was in particular targeted for being Buddhist or seeming less American for that reason.”
“I actually am pretty privileged in that my family does like to talk about these things,” said Oshima. “My jii-chan likes to talk about himself a lot … I think that kind of got the ball rolling and got my baa-chan to talk … She was in Jerome and Rohwer (Arkansas) and they also volunteer at JANM (Japanese American National Museum). So I knew about it before I went to high school.”
She added that Kizuna, a youth leadership organization, “encouraged us to really ask and do final projects about our own personal family histories. So that’s when I learned more about the negative side and the bad things about camp, when I actually had to interview her for a final project in 10th grade …
“I’m also really lucky that we had an Asian American club on campus at my high school and I was able to have a platform to talk about it … Now I’m talking about it with kids at school, at Nikkei Student Union. Other Nikkei student unions hold their own Day of Remembrance, and I think it’s still really important to keep this alive.”
“My parents didn’t talk about the incarceration, like most Nisei,” said Minami. “They went to Rohwer, Ark. as well. So we didn’t learn much about it from our parents. I had one paragraph in high school, I had a page in college, and it wasn’t until almost exactly 50 years ago, when a momentous event occurred, and that was the Third World Strike at San Francisco State. It was an outgrowth of the civil rights movement that was led by African Americans …
“And when we got to understand our own history, we started to learn about what happened in these prisons and the incarceration of our own parents. Then I finally read the Korematsu, Hirabayashi and Yasui decisions in law school and they were treated as abstract principles. There wasn’t anything that had the human drama or the loss of lives, broken homes, lost dreams, any of those.
“So I thought the decision was a travesty and it impelled me, along with the inspiration we got from the Third World Strike in the development of ethnic studies … to really learn about the depth and breadth of this whole terrible dark page in American history.”
Vigilant Love is focusing on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). “It’s a policy that was actually started under the Obama Administration … This is a program that comes from the Department of Homeland Security and is … very similar to what we saw happening to the Japanese American community,” Ishigo explained. One criticism of the program is that it targets Muslims as potential threats for simply practicing their religion or being politically active.
She continued, “We’ve been … doing more community education, starting at the ground level, of how our Muslim communities are being impacted, of holding listening sessions, of focusing on how can we get more information … We noticed that a lot of [L.A.] City Council members are also unaware of the impacts of this policy … [which is] so weaponized and oppressing Muslim communities today …
“Japanese Americans in particular have such an important place and role to play … in solidarity with Muslim Americans and a lot of other communities of color who are being watched or surveilled and impacted by racist stereotypes.”
Minami cited the legal precedent of bans on Chinese and Japanese immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. “The massive racial profiling of Muslims as evil and its simple connections are this. These actions are taken against some marginalized group that is not well understood, that are people of color and are generally politically powerless.
“So when you combine that with the racist rant of a president who’s anti-immigrant … and talks about using national security as a phony basis for … a wall that goes nowhere … what we’re seeing is … an echo of history. If we keep allowing this to go on … those are the first steps in the establishment of a dictatorship and the loss of our rights.”
The film included a quote from Col. Karl Bendetsen, one of the architects of the incarceration, who claimed that Nikkei were not behind fences and could go wherever they wanted.
“That’s an outright lie,” Minami said. “You have pictures, they’re all over the place, showing fences. So it’s exactly what the president is doing right now. They’re telling outright lies and they’re saying that there’s this huge security threat at the border when immigration has been reduced over the years … A security threat about drugs being transported across borders when they’re really coming in through ports of entry … Essentially this whole foundation of national security is built today on lies, just like it was against Japanese Americans.”
Minami added that checks and balances between the branches of government are threatened. “In Korematsu vs. United States … the judiciary, the Supreme Court, abdicated its role and did not even look at the president’s declaration that Japanese Americans were dangerous. It’s doing the same thing in Trump vs. Hawaii. It refused to look beyond the president’s declaration and examine whether there was any rational basis, any factual basis for keeping the Muslims out … essentially deferring completely to the president.”
Another echo of history is talk about changing the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil, Minami said, noting that Earl Warren, as governor of California, advocated stripping Nisei of their U.S. citizenship.
On the subject of children being separated from their parents at the border, Ishigo said that Japanese Americans experienced similar grief when Issei community leaders were picked up by the FBI immediately after Pearl Harbor and separated from their wives and children for months or years.
“What we’re seeing today with children being detained, they’re being removed from their primary caretakers, the people who brought them into this world and they’re incarcerated … They’re terrified,” she said. “I wish that more people would understand … the impact of what that does to a person in the long haul.”
One way to reverse anti-immigrant policies is to elect a new government, Minami said. “I hate to be too polemic here or too partisan, but I’m sorry, I’ve just seen the worst in my life … I’m 72 years old now and for me to see this type of degradation of our country, it just makes me crazy …
“Other than that, I do really think that we need to honor immigrants. If you think about it, all of you here … unless you’re Native Americans, we’re children, descendants from immigrants …. That is really critical for us to understand that we’re a nation of immigrants, and immigrants really create more for this country than they ever take away.”
Oshima called for more empathy. “You can’t force people to care, but by helping them practice empathy in realizing why it’s important to understand these things, eventually that might breed action and support.”
Ishigo recommended “having shared space together to build actual relationships where we can practice that empathy … or have an opportunity to understand what are people going through, because it’s really easy to be insular … For us as Japanese Americans, how do we continue to apply what’s happened to our community with other people?
“You all are invited to the ‘break the fast’ Iftar that we have in May, where we bring Japanese Americans and Muslim American communities together … We are also just trying to create more spaces for our communities to connect through our college fellowship program.”
Yusra Khafagi, an immigrant rights advocate with the Council on American Islamic Relations, shared her reflections on attending the Manzanar Pilgrimage last year.
“The bus ride was my favorite part of the pilgrimage,” she said. “I got to bond with Muslims and Japanese Americans and we got to share our stories of immigrants. We got to address misconceptions and we listened to spoken word by Kurt Ikeda, a community organizer that I had the honor of organizing the trip with.
“On our way home, about 20 miles away from Manzanar, I remember seeing a bus with two flat tires that stopped on the side of the road … We found out that they never got to arrive at Manzanar because the bus had the flat before they actually arrived …
“There were three elders and a child on that bus who needed to catch a return flight to Hawaii the next day. We were able to make room on our bus, and not one of our passengers minded the delay. In fact, I remember the passengers welcomed our new guests with cheers, and I’ll never forget that the children offered these guests origami cranes and the Arab aunties offered home-cooked meals …
“One of the guests shared her story of incarceration. She had been living in L.A. when E.O. 9066 was put into effect. She, her mom and her siblings were sent to an incarceration camp in Arizona. Her father was sent to another incarceration camp and as a toddler, her family was torn apart just as families continue to be torn apart today by manmade borders and policies such as the Muslim ban.
“Years later, her family was released from imprisonment, but they had lost their car, their home, their pride and dignity as humans. But her mother left the incarceration camp determined to make life work … When she told the story, I broke down in tears.”
Remembering that her mother went through hard times as an immigrant from Egypt in the 1980s, Khafagi said, “From a young age, I had always wanted to be involved in doing civil rights work, but today I share these memories with you so that we remember the strength and resilience of our people. You have overcome … poverty, discriminatory laws, and so much more, and you’ve done it through love, sacrifice, determination, and by supporting one another.
“I hope you remember to reflect on our past because it allows us to learn about the truth of our history and to take pride in who we are. It allows us to be critical of our present and ensure that the dark parts of our past never happen again … And it helps us to be hopeful for an America that embraces us all.”
The program, emceed by Alvin Takamori of GVJCI, included a display of camp-related artwork by Mary Hatsuko Higuchi and Don Hata, and literature tables staffed by volunteers from the Manzanar Committee, Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, Okinawa Association of America, Little Tokyo Service Center, Little Tokyo Historical Society and other community organizations. Food was provided by Gardena Bowl and @Home Kitchen.
Among the officials in attendance were Rep. Maxine Waters and her aide Hamilton Cloud, Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, former Assemblymember Warren Furutani, State Sen. Steve Bradford’s aide Nital Patel, Gardena Mayor Tasha Cerda and City Councilmembers Rodney Tanaka, Mark Henderson and Art Kaskanian, and Torrance City Councilmember George Chen..
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo