U.S. history books tell us of the abominable sin known as slavery and of the genocidal displacement of Native Americans at the hands of European explorers and colonists.
But if you’re like me, your textbooks might not have been as forthcoming about another huge stain on America’s history of human rights violations.
I’m talking about the forced removal and imprisonment of nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II — an action taken against U.S. citizens under the authority of an Executive Order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
I’m reasonably familiar with the overarching narrative.
In February 1942, little more than two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government created a military “exclusion zone” along the Pacific Coast, where it feared an attack by the Japanese military.
Law-abiding citizens lost their farms, homes and businesses and, with no due process, were rounded up in August 1942 and sent to one of 10 concentration camps in seven states, where they lived in hastily built compounds surrounded by guard towers and barbed wire fencing.
The camps were shut down after three years, after Japan’s surrender, with no reports whatsoever of treason or enemy threat from within. Eventually, in 1988, Congress formally apologized and President Ronald Reagan signed a bill authorizing $1.25 billion in reparations – $20,000 to each of the approximately 60,000 internees then still alive.
Knowing the big picture of that mass incarceration is one thing. Learning and absorbing the details of that humiliating experience is another thing altogether.
Thanks to an elegant book I’ve just read, loaned to me by a friend who endured wartime incarceration with her parents and siblings, I’ve got a much better understanding now.
Let me introduce you to “Surviving Minidoka,” a beautifully written and illustrated book examining the legacy of WWII Japanese American incarceration.
There’s no better time to reflect on the lessons of that era than now, given our president-elect’s campaign rhetoric about a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries and possibly a database for all Muslims in the United States.
The Minidoka Relocation Center, also known as Hunt Camp after the nearby town of Hunt, was located in the arid sagebrush of south-central Idaho, about 130 miles southeast of Boise, the state’s capital and largest city.
Minidoka was operated by the U.S. War Relocation Authority and held more than 9,000 people from Washington, Oregon and Alaska in tarpaper barracks. “Surviving Minidoka” tells the story of that shameful period in U.S. history, tracing the long history of discrimination against Asian immigrants and the lingering bigotry that led military leaders to believe — wrongly — that Japanese American citizens living on the West Coast would be loyal to the Japanese Empire
The book’s 10 chapters, written by historians, artists, landscape architects, essayists and camp survivors, give voice to the men, women and children who were rounded up like cattle during WWII.
Poems, paintings, political cartoons and historical photographs document racist sentiments of the times while also chronicling internees’ efforts to make the best out of a deplorable situation.
On Minidoka’s 33,000 acres there were schools, fire stations, a hospital, a library, food stores, ballparks, theatres, vegetable gardens and traditional Japanese-style ornamental gardens and ponds.
Astoundingly, the federal government required all eligible Nisei men (second-generation) to register for the draft. Though dozens resisted and were convicted of draft evasion, nearly 1,000 men and women from Minidoka volunteered or were drafted for military service in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service, Women’s Army Corps or the Army Nurse Corps, according to the book.
The 442nd, made up nearly entirely of Japanese Americans, had nearly 14,000 men serve in the combat unit, and together won 21 Medals of Honor and 9.486 Purple Hearts during WWII. So much for disloyalty.
What’s most troubling about this aspect of our history is that so much of it took place in West Coast cities and communities where I’ve lived or otherwise know very well. It’s painful to see dozens of photos documenting the uprooting of Japanese families and business owners from places like San Francisco, Oakland and Salinas, California; Portland and Hood River, Oregon; Seattle, Everett and Bainbridge Island, Washington.
I’m ashamed that the campus of San Jose State University, my alma mater, served as a processing center for internees in California. I’m appalled that the Washington State Fairgrounds in Puyallup, just outside Tacoma, also served as an “assembly center.” And I’m chagrined to read about racist resort owners mistreating a family of recently released internees from Seattle who had hoped to vacation for a couple of days in Cannon Beach, Oregon.
Though I only recently read the book, Minidoka has been on my mind for months.
A Japanese American friend and his 12-year-old daughter both wrote essays for my blog following their experiences this summer visiting Minidoka and another internment camp in Wyoming.
Not long thereafter, Lori and I went with friends to see a splendid play about Gordon Hirabayashi, the University of Washington student who was sent to prison in 1942 for willfully violating a wartime Army curfew. Our friend Nancy, who was just 3 years old when she and her family were sent to Minidoka, brought her copy of “Surviving Minidoka” and left it with me to peruse at my leisure. I finally got to it this month.
As I prepare to return the book, I’m grateful for the exposure to so many stories of ordinary people who stoically endured the camps and yet emerged with a sense of dignity that no government could stamp out.
I am struck by the wisdom of Frank Yoshikazu Kitamoto, a camp survivor who was 2 years old when the FBI arrested 34 men, including his father, in a 1942 raid near Seattle:
“Anger and defensiveness cause a vicious circle of fear. As human beings we can make the choice of responding in a fearful way or we can overcome our fears to think outward. No matter how hard people may try, they can never, never, never take away a person’s authentic power. Understanding this is a key to being able to look outward from one’s self. Human rights are love based and have no exceptions.”