I got it all wrong of course. That camp in the Mojave Desert wasn’t a summer camp where my parents went to play and have fun, it was an internment camp where they were imprisoned behind barbed wire and guard towers. Soldiers, who supposedly were there to protect them, pointed their rifles inward at the residents, not out toward the townspeople. Soldiers, in a moment of panic shot into a boisterous crowd, killing five people instantly and wounding three more, two of whom later died.
I don’t know if there were ever Quonset huts there. At some point, there were barracks where my parents were housed. However, when we drove by in the late 1950s they were all removed and evidence of the camp was gone. But I always imaged that there must have been Quonset huts there.
Then, when I was in college, I learned the truth. I read the book “Farewell to Manzanar” and learned about what camp meant to my parents. The place where they met and married was not some romantic summer resort camp, but a camp where they were imprisoned for being Japanese American.
Later, I discovered photo books on the camps and the other historical accounts of the events, riots, loyalty oaths, work furloughs, all those things, I neglected to ask about when I was a naïve child. The stark landscape and the row upon row of barracks that resembled P.O.W. camps in the movies, shocked me. I had no idea that our government could do something so contrary to the U.S. Constitution. I was not unfamiliar with acts of racism committed by individuals. However, I was astonished when I learned that the government betrayed my people -. Citizens and permanent residents alike – rounded them up like cattle, tagged them and relocated them to temporary holding facilities behind barbed wire in isolated geographical areas with the most inhospitable climate.
At first, I was angry. How could this happen? This is America, the country where I was born and raised. My country founded on principles of equality and freedom. How did this violation of civil rights occur? And worse still, how is it that my parents did nothing to challenge the government? In fact why didn’t everyone rise up and protest their unconstitutional treatment?
Again, I was naïve. There were people who protested: some resisted the draft and were sent to prison, others chose to repatriate to Japan, even though they’d never been there before, but held dual citizenship.
I had to ask myself, what would I have done? How would I resist if I were placed in a similar situation? How would I affirm my constitutional rights?
How does one resist during a time of war? Would any resistance be viewed as a treasonous act and punishable with prison time? Or would any act be viewed as anti-American and be suspect or considered an act of sabotage?
That was in the past. It was time to look at what authority legitimized the mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans with due process. It was the legality of the authority that needed to challenged and overturned and the internment needed to be brought to light for the American public to learn of this grave stain on our country’s history.
Two things happened in the 1980s: The commission hearing on the Wartime Relocation of Internment Camps began in preparation for presenting legislation to Congress that provided for Redress (an apology) and Reparations($20,000 per person) to all internees who spent time in one of the ten Wartime Relocation camps alive at the signing of the bill; the second thing was the legal challenge – a coram nobis challenge based on false evidence presented by the War Department to the Supreme Court to justify the threat of Japanese American persons on the west coast as a potential threat to the country.
The hearing proved cathartic for the Nisei, American citizen populace who spent decades ashamed of this part of their history. By bringing the stories and suffering to the attention of others, the shame could be turned to anger, then, transformed into energy and directed at something positive, not just for the individual but for the nation. It turned a shameful internalized experience into a call to action and duty to defend others similarly situated in the future.
The Supreme Court overturned the Korematsu case, but not the authority to incarcerate, which was affirmed in the National Defense Authorization Act, passed December 2012.
My father once said to me – where were those people when we needed help? Who was speaking out for us? I had to ask myself, would I be the one to speak out when someone else needed help? If I did not then, like my father asked, who was going to speak out?
- By Patricia Takayama, JACL Board Member