By SHARON YAMATO
Whenever February rolls around, Nikkei everywhere begin a month-long commemoration of the signing of EO 9066, the presidential order that caused Americans of Japanese descent to be put in camps by specifying certain areas in which designated military officials could exclude “any or all persons.”
Because this infamous executive order was originally signed by Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, only a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, this date is now referred to as the Day of Remembrance (DoR), to call attention to that other day of infamy that started the ball rolling on the mass detention.
Even though EO 9066 was signed 80 years ago this month, the first Day of Remembrance was not even held in February, but rather on a Thanksgiving weekend in 1978. It was humbly organized by a small but mighty band of mavericks, Seattle JACLers known as the Evacuation Redress Committee, consisting of Nisei Boeing engineers Frank Miyatake, Chuck Kato, Mike Nakata, and Ken Nakano, issei retired securities analyst Shosuke Sasaki, and then itinerant Sansei Frank Abe (more on Frank later).
Though I’m not quite old enough to qualify as a camp survivor but old enough to remember when camp was a highly guarded secret among Japanese American families, I also know that this first Day of Remembrance received hardly any attention outside of Seattle, or at least not in the Pasadena community where I grew up.
All that has changed dramatically over four decades as I counted roughly 37 DoR activities throughout the U.S. this year, everywhere from Dallas to New Mexico, D.C. to New York. (A compiled list can be found at jacl.org/day-of-remembrance). Whether this proliferation has burgeoned as a result of an overabundance of online or virtual programs, it’s hard to say since Zoom has quietly but successfully given us access to programs and speakers from all over the country in greater numbers than ever before (much to the dismay of those of us who feel inundated by them).
Still, from a single event to more than three dozen is a mighty jump for a self-proclaimed JA observance that was not even conceived by a Japanese American, not to mention a camp survivor, but by none other than the outspoken Chinese American writer Frank Chin. Chin dared to ask the question of Issei, Nisei and Sansei, “What’s your history worth to you?” and dared to give redress their voices.
If you can continue to transport yourself back 44 years, remember this was 10 years before the passage of the Civil Liberties Act that granted monetary redress and a formal apology to all camp survivors. As Densho’s content director Brian Niiya describes, “It started before the Commission on Wartime Internment and Relocation of Civilians (CWIRC) hearings, so I think there was some element of the first ones serving a similar function of people talking about camp for the first time or hearing people talk about camp for the first time that helped to encourage others to talk about it.”
I asked Frank Abe, lead author of the critically acclaimed graphic novel “We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration,” how he got involved in that very first Seattle DoR, and he told me an inside story that credited Chin. Even though they weren’t on the best of terms after a falling-out at S.F.’s Asian American Theatre Workshop, Abe admits that when Chin knocked on his door that fateful day in August 1978, he heard his adversary say, “If you lose redress, you lose history. And if you lose history, you can kiss Japanese American art goodbye.”
That did it, and the long, rocky artistic alliance between the two Franks was rekindled. Ten weeks later, the nation’s first Day of Remembrance was born.
Most of us know Frank Abe as a media-savvy communicator, not only for “We Hereby Refuse” and his award-winning book on writer John Okada, but also for his landmark film on the Heart Mountain Resisters, “Conscience and the Constitution,” just to mention a few accomplishments in an illustrious career. But how many knew that just prior to that first Day of Remembrance, Frank was an out-of-work merchant marine taking a break from making his fortune along the Alaska Pipeline?
Needless to say, Frank and three generations of Japanese Americans subsequently gathered enough forces among their Seattle brethren to stage a massive protest from downtown Seattle to the Puyallup Assembly Center, never to look back. Joining them were Asian American luminaries such as actors Pat Morita and Mako, writers Lawson Inada and Monica Sone, and Seattle’s own pioneer protestor Gordon Hirabayashi, in a seemingly endless caravan of cars, trucks, and buses.
All told, 2,000 people gathered in breakout numbers that year ready to share, many for the first time, about what happened 26 years earlier. They were brought together by a poster with the potent plea, “Remember the concentration camps, stand for redress with your family.” The fight for redress and reparations was taking shape.
As Frank describes in a nutshell, “We showed we could win over public opinion and get the media on our side by assertively reclaiming a true and accurate view of our history, while taking a principled stand for redress as a means of healing the violations done to the Constitution. That made it an issue that all Americans could rally behind.”
Perhaps the most important thing that came out of that first DoR was not just the community of Japanese Americans coming together to fight for redress. It laid the groundwork for all future DoRs to dare to give justice a voice. The screams came from those who felt the sting of injustice first-hand and now goes out to all those who continue to suffer the pain — be they immigrants, detainees, Muslims, Jews, African Americans, LGBTQs, and so many others who need experienced back-up forces more than ever. Who better to lend a hand than those who understand inequality personally and have fought for justice boldly?
As for this year’s DoR in Los Angeles, be sure to tune in to JANM’s YouTube channel this Saturday, Feb. 19, at 2 p.m, when our own traci kato-kiriyama and Kathy Masaoka join forces with Dreisen Heath of Human Rights Watch to talk about what we can all do to support ongoing reparations work for racial justice. Remember, this is a day to remember that other marginalized communities need our knowledgeable help so that we can be the voices that weren’t there for us 80 years ago.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.