By AKEMI YAMANE INA
I am a member of Tsuru for Solidarity. I am not an activist, nor am I a trained artist, but I have painted 12 large tsurus of various sizes. I paint because it gives me pleasure and a way to express myself.
Last year, like many Japanese Americans, I began by folding hundreds of origami cranes or tsurus to support immigrant families and children in American concentration camps. I was upset and disappointed in our government’s stand against families seeking asylum. These people, who had left their homeland and came here at great risk and expense to save themselves and their innocent children, were being treated like criminals at our border.
Our laws allow them to legally apply for asylum, but our government, unconcerned with their plight, was unethically and unfairly separating families and inhumanely caging them in American prisons deprived of the simplest basic needs and medical care.
I am a Japanese American born in Topaz, Utah. I spent my first three years in two American concentration camps. I don’t remember much, and it was not until adulthood that I found out to what extent my parents’ loss, humiliation, and suffering had been.
Forced to lose everything but what they could carry was inconceivable to me. They never spoke of it or complained. They were the kindest, most unselfish human beings that I have ever known. Everything was for their children and their grandchildren — kodomo no tame ni.
I never got to hear their story. I will never know the enormity of their loss, the racial hatred and discrimination they suffered, nor their difficulties after being released from camp with $25 and a ticket to no home, no job, with two small children to support. They raised me to be a proud Japanese American citizen, quiet, obedient, law-abiding, and clueless.
However, in March of last year after the Dilley, Texas protest, I met some newly released immigrant mothers and their children in Laredo. I saw frightened children clinging to their mothers, afraid to let go. We shared stories, and I saw their pain. One mother had one of her three daughters taken away. The guards had told her that her daughter was no longer her worry. Who says that to a mother?
It was then that I became committed to protest these terrible prisons. I could not believe that our government could treat men, women and children so inhumanely. Then I remembered what they did to our families. History was repeating itself, and it was even uglier.
The immigration judges, under the executive branch, are pressured to meet a quota. Therefore, the asylum seekers have little chance for fair judgment, and most will be sent back after an indefinite time in these prisons. This should not be the American way. It is offensive, racist, and wrong! Though no one stood up for us 77 years ago, I felt that the children and families in these detention centers should know that people outside cared.
My husband and I are proud to have been there a year ago when Tsuru for Solidarity was born to begin its mission for social justice, joining with other communities of color, building collective support, resistance, and struggling against white supremacy. People of color have been struggling for equality since the beginning of this country. With the last presidency, it was apparent that white supremacy was being sanctioned and becoming more prevalent.
Joining Tsuru for Solidarity felt right. Painting tsurus would release my frustration and express my disapproval. I began by making some larger decorative tsurus from three-foot paper to carry at the Washington, D.C. protest. I made five. They were nice, but not powerful enough. I taped two sheets together and made two larger tsurus.
On the first one, I painted the sad and tortured faces of children and mothers on the wings. On the body, I painted a portion of the face and torch of the Statue of Liberty. To me the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of American freedom and democracy, was now a lie.
After George Floyd’s murder by the police, I painted the other one for Black Lives Matter. Racial discrimination and bigotry has been going on in this country since its inception. Except for the indigenous people, everyone in this country at one time was an immigrant. This is a country of immigrants, but people of color have always faced racism and are still subjected to it.
It is a long-standing and a deeply troubling national problem that needs to end. Racism is wrong. Discrimination of any kind is wrong. We are all human beings with the same innate human traits and capabilities. There is no inherently superior race.
Later, Tsuru for Solidarity gave me four 7.5 foot-wide and one 9.3 foot-wide paper. On three, I drew images depicting the similarity and pain between the Japanese incarceration and what is happening today with the words NEVER AGAIN IS NOW / CLOSE THE CAMPS. The largest paper was black, and I dedicated that one to BLACK LIVES MATTER / END RACISM.
The Civil War freed the slaves, but the dehumanization and discrimination continued. The blacks were terrorized or killed to learn their place in the community. Never allowed to gather or speak to each other with laws made to keep them as near to slaves as possible, they had no choice but to work hard to scratch out an existence with no hope for the future. A terribly depressing state of hopelessness and frustration that is difficult to overcome. I had not realized that this was RACISM LEFT IN PLAIN SIGHT. I wholeheartedly support the BLM movement and hope it continues to grow to end this divide once and for all.
For the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, I painted one in honor of my mother and the hibakusha. I still have one more yet to paint. Reflecting on what I have done, the theme seems the same. Regardless of the words, the message that resonates is INNOCENT CHILDREN ALWAYS SEEM TO SUFFER. So please, America, stop the suffering and treat all people equally and humanely.