I’ve been struggling with what more to say about the pandemic now known as the worst disaster of our lifetimes. I don’t remember ever feeling this fearful and uncertain about the future, particularly knowing as infection and death statistics grow with steady predictability, this highly contagious virus will most certainly infect someone I love, many of whom are in the dangerous high-risk age group.
In the midst of this immediate fear, I realized that most of us baby boomers and younger don’t have the first-hand experience of that other terrifying time in American history when our families were stripped of their freedom, forced to leave their homes, and hated because of their ethnicity. From our limited vantage point, we can’t possibly know how it felt to go through what our ancestors did more than 75 years ago, but I can’t help but think this pandemic, horrific as it is, still doesn’t compare to what they experienced in 1942.
To get a sense of the panic and distress of those times, one need only read a few first-hand accounts among many found in books like Duncan Williams’ “American Sutra.” Hisa Aoki wrote back then, “How long will we be forced to live like this? We have no rights; our freedom is strictly limited; and if we are only going to be fed, it is the same as a dog or a horse.” She went on, “I wonder if Japan has confined American noncombatants in horse stalls [with] women forced to use toilets with no doors.”
What’s striking about her account is the uncertainty about what is to come and how long these appalling circumstances are going to last. Though the unknowing feels oddly familiar today, how could what she describes even begin to compare with our own elective confinement in our homes faced only with the shortage of toilet paper?
It’s true that we have not yet experienced the worst of COVID-19 as the death numbers continue to rise, but since L.A. is still a few weeks behind, many of us still haven’t been directly affected. Except for those courageous members of the medical profession risking their lives to save others, it’s probably safe to say that those of us staying at home are not suffering just yet as long as Netflix, Trader Joe’s and Amazon are still in business.
Despite the obvious differences, there are uncanny similarities between the wartime incarceration and the war against COVID. These days, we are faced with an eerie sense of emptiness on the once bustling streets of L.A., while in May 1942, Mrs. Aoki writes of the “loneliness with a sunken feeling” of an empty Japantown. The difference is that as 110,000 of our families were being taken away, the emptiness in Little Tokyo was deeply personal. Our streets were the only ones condemned to silence as we became the face of the enemy.
Today, our Asian faces are again being used as scapegoats for the crisis. As long as you can blame someone who looks “different,” you have a face to attach to the fear that has gripped our population. Driven by news that the virus originated in China, all of us —whether Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, etc. — are once again being singled out.
More than 650 incidents of physical attacks and verbal harassment against Asian Americans have already been reported with more than 100 incidents per day currently being logged, according to a study conducted by S.F. State professor Russell Jeung. He says that incidents have been reported that involve Asians being verbally abused, name-called, spat and coughed on, and even physically assaulted. Any of this sound familiar?
Back then and even more today, we were and are hopelessly short on “a leadership of integrity and compassion” (to quote historian Michi Nishiura Weglyn). Just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, while admired by many, ignored his own experts’ reports that concluded Japanese Americans posed no threat in a war with Japan, the current administration has repeatedly ignored the advice of its own medical experts who warned of the severity of the virus. What’s more, the president continues to inflame racist biases by insisting on calling it the “Chinese virus,” even crossing out the word “corona” and replacing it with “Chinese” in notes for a recent White House briefing. He tried to take it all back by calling Asian Americans “amazing people,” but it was too little, too late.
The integrity and compassion missing in our current leadership is further demonstrated by the ongoing presence of detention centers that operate despite repeated warnings of the life-threatening danger to immigrant families crowded in them. There are still 37,000 people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers where social distancing, not to mention basic necessities such as soap and disinfectants, are nonexistent. The first four cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed last week, and despite pleas from civil rights organizations to release high-risk individuals, the courts and the federal government are moving slowly to comply.
My older sister recently reminded me to remember my grandmother’s words, “gambaru” (stay strong, stand firm), in face of what we’re all going through. I’m sure my obaachan used those words a lot while imprisoned with three of my siblings in a 60’x120’ barrack room in the middle of the hot and dusty Arizona desert. Even when things got worse and finally better after the war, I can still hear her daily Buddhist ritual of chanting as meditation giving her strength. Knowing how much more she had to bear, I only hope I can find a smidgen of her strength to help me get by in these troubling times.
As I do my daily YouTube yoga practice or go for a run along the open trails — with no barbed wire to keep me in — I think of her as I gaze out at the wide blue open skies and realize how lucky I am.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.