By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
GARDENA — “Alternative Facts” — those used to justify the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and those making headlines today — were the theme of a film screening and panel discussion at the 2019 Day of Remembrance program held Feb. 23 at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute.
The program opened with flag detail by Boy Scout Troop 683, a welcome by GVJCI Program Manager Nicole Sato, and a spoken-word piece by Kyle Toyama.
Alvin Takamori, GVJCI board member, served as emcee. He noted that under Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, Japanese Americans on the West Coast were deprived of their freedom, livelihoods and property without charge or trial.
“How did this happen? The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians blamed race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” he said. “… At the time there were headlines saying immigrants who worked for cheap wages were taking away American jobs. Does that sound familiar? This argument resulted in 1908’s Gentleman’s Agreement between Japan and United States putting limits on the emigration of male Japanese laborers …
“There were other headlines warning of the horrors posed by these immigrants. Hordes of them are coming into this country and they breed like rabbits. They don’t speak English. They’ll never assimilate. In 1913, the Alien Land Law prohibited non-citizen Asians from buying land … Despite these efforts to discourage immigrants, fears of Japanese takeover persisted and led to a complete travel ban on immigration from Japan in 1924 …
“After Pearl Harbor, The FBI immediately seized community leaders, business leaders, religious leaders, teachers, and any others among the Nikkei population they regarded as potentially dangerous. These people were ripped away from their families. They were left not knowing where their loved ones were taken or what had happened at them.
“At the time it was said the Japanese, immigrants and Americans alike, were dangerous. They were sneaky. They couldn’t be trusted. They were bad people. Many of them were thought to be spies and saboteurs. In the event of a Japanese invasion, they would turn on America. This was a national emergency. There wasn’t time to sort through and determine who was good, who was bad. So in the interest of national security, for the safety of the country, anyone of Japanese ancestry needed to be locked up.
“To this day, as we’ve seen in a recent letter to The Los Angeles Times, there are people who still believe the Nikkei were a threat … and that their imprisonment was justified. The problem is it was all fake news. Not only was the danger posed by Nikkei a lie … but worse yet, the U.S. government knew these accusations were false and tried to cover it up.
“We know this with the hindsight of history and through the heroic efforts of some very determined individuals. Thanks to them, we have proof that led to an apology and redress and reparations.”
“The Lies of E.O. 9066”
Filmmaker Jon Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Community Youth Council in San Francisco, was on hand to introduce his latest documentary, “Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066.” He had to catch a plane right after his speech because there was another screening that evening at the “Films of Remembrance” program in San Francisco Japantown.
Osaki started with news that shocked some in the audience. “Some of you may have heard that my friend and the only Japanese American elected official in San Francisco, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, passed away very suddenly last night. I think it’s appropriate to reflect on Jeff for a moment while making this introduction for a couple of reasons …
“I once heard him say that the reason why he became such an ardent supporter of justice, why he wanted to make sure that everybody got due process, was because his parents were incarcerated in 1942 and that drove him to make sure that everybody got a fair shake and that nobody was falsely accused of crimes they didn’t commit …
“In addition to being a total badass social justice advocate, Jeff was also a very accomplished filmmaker. I think I can relate to how he must’ve felt when he first got started … I’m a longtime executive director of a nonprofit organization, and it was a challenge to get people to take me seriously as a filmmaker. I applied and reached out to many groups that fund documentaries, and pretty much all of them didn’t give me the time of day …
“So I did what I’ve been doing my entire adult life. I reached out to this community. I reached out to this community in Gardena, in San Fernando Valley and East San Gabriel Valley, of course in the Bay Area and Sacramento and the Central Valley … I told them, ‘If you support me, I will make this film and I will make something meaningful, not just for events like Day of Remembrance, but something that young people can relate to.’
“And the response was overwhelming. People were opening up their checkbooks and coming up to me … and thanking me … If any of you here in this audience wrote a check for this project, I want to say thank you because one of the things that I’m most proud of is that this project truly was a product of this community in every sense of the word.”
The film shows that government and military officials at the time were well aware that Japanese Americans had not committed espionage or sabotage, but gave the Supreme Court a falsified report in order to get a ruling in the Korematsu case that supported the “military necessity” argument. One of the interviewees was the late Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, whose archival research was invaluable to the redress campaign both in Congress and the courts.
“Nobody impacted me more or was more memorable … We spent pretty much all day with her, and my daughter was by my side,” Osaki recalled. “At the end of our shoot, my daughter approached Aiko and there were tears welling up in her eyes and she just kneeled beside Aiko and she said, ‘Thank you.’ Because at that point she understood how much she impacted this entire community.”
The daughter, Mika, is one of the youths who appear in the film.
“In times like these, it is especially important to remember her legacy of confronting the truth about our nation,” Osaki said. “It is becoming increasingly clear that this country will still turn on you in a second if they don’t like the way you look, or where you’re from. Stay informed about the present. Stay aware of the past and stay woke. That’s exactly what she would have wanted.”
Making a pitch for additional funds, Osaki said, “We want to take this film across the country. As much as I enjoy sharing it with all of you here today, what I want to do is to take this film to the South and I want to take it to the Midwest and I want to take it to parts of this country where people know nothing about what happened to this community …
“My father passed away in 2015 and all of his siblings are gone. My mother is one of five and she’s the only one left from her family. We are rapidly approaching a day when there will be no more living incarcerees. As ignorance about our story grows in the years to come, we have got to figure out a way to tell this story because this story is not just important to remember for our community; this story is about the preservation of democracy and what can happen to our society, what is happening to our society right now.
“So I’m planning to spend the next two years until November 2020 making sure that people know our story and making sure that people understand that it’s not just about the deprivation of civil liberties, but it is about the failure of democracy and we cannot let that happen. That is not what our country’s about.”
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Gardena) congratulated the Day of Remembrance Committee for “finding this important film and assembling an impressive panel to discuss them, allowing all of us seniors an opportunity to share our embarrassment, our anger, and our pain about what our government did to its own citizens in 1942 and giving younger generations an opportunity to hear from their elders how important it is that we never allow something like President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 to ever happen again …
“I love the title ‘Alternative Facts’ … By looking back at this ugly chapter in American history, which was only 77 years ago, it is a perfect reminder of the perilous times we’re living in right now with this president … Yes, the president of the United States is divisive. He’s dangerous. He does not respect the Constitution. And he’s participating in undermining our democracy. I’m never going to give up on making sure that he is no longer the president …
“I know there are some who said that I started talking about impeachment too early, but ladies and gentlemen, not early enough … Yes, there are parallels. I was at LAX when we all got together to really push back on the president … He called it just a travel ban, but it was a ban on Muslims.”
Referring to Herzig Yoshinaga, Waters said, “That beautiful lady … at the end of the film … said, ‘If you see something, say something.’ Maybe I talk too much, but I’m going to keep on saying it … This democracy is in danger and we must all stand up.”
Waters, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, has called for an investigation of the Trump Foundation, which she says is a front for tax evasion.
To be continued
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo