Japanese Americans remember internment as Trump orders loom

On the 75th anniversary of the internment of Japanese Americans, the community drew parallels to recent executive orders issued by President Donald Trump on immigration.

Reuters/Handout: Dorothea Lange/Farm Security Administration
Reuters/Handout: Dorothea Lange/Farm Security Administration

A Japanese American business owner in California tries to demonstrate their patriotism after the Pearl Harbour attack.

Wilson Dizard Wilson Dizard is a deputy editor writing about US civil rights, politics and poverty. @willdizard

February 19 marked the 75th anniversary of the executive order that forced more than 100,000 Japanese Americans into camps during World War II.  

President Franklin Roosevelt imposed the order in 1942 in a climate of widespread racism against Japanese Americans in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, carried out by the Japanese Empire. Japanese Americans were under suspicion of disloyalty to the country, despite many of them being born in the US.

A lifetime later, Japanese Americans have drawn parallels between the 1942 order and President Donald Trump’s attempt to impose a ban on travel to the US for citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. The travel bans have been blocked by federal courts but Trump is set to recast, proposing a new edict this week.

The internment of Japanese Americans casts a long shadow over American history. A number of civil rights advocates have invoked its memories many times since September 11 to warn of the danger of writing laws that discriminate against whole groups of people based on their identity, particularly Arab Americans and Muslims. Some Americans feared that people of Japanese origin would act as spies or saboteurs against the US. 

The Supreme Court at the time upheld the internment as legal despite a challenge. But one of the dissenting justices, Owen J Roberts, saw the majority ruling in that case, referred to as US vs Korematsu, as leaving a dangerous precedent. Previous legal decisions guide lawmaking and judicial philosophy in the US.

“Once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalizes the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens,” Roberts wrote in his dissent. “The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.”

The order applied to west coast states, which held significant Japanese American populations. The children of Japanese Americans who were held in internment are some of the most vocal proponents for remembering the injustice today. The camps where the Japanese Americans were sent to were squalid and remote. 

Some people who were affected by the order are still alive. Actor and activist George Takei, who grew up in an internment camp, has expressed deep concern over Trump's recent Muslim ban.

The very fact that he brought that up to justify whatever plans that they have for Muslim people is—shows that he’s not learned the lesson of the internment of Japanese Americans, because if he’s really learned that lesson, if he has studied that, he would know that the lesson is we must never do that again. 

- George Takei on President's Trump's Muslim ban

Testifying before the Oregon state legislature in favour of a day remembering the start of the internment, one descendant of interned parents said her daughter had asked if Trump’s executive order would mean that she would also have to go to a camp.

"Sometimes the words of an innocent child are the ones that affect you the most," said Carol Suzuki, according to an AP report published on Sunday on the hearing.

Yumi Tomsha, who is of Japanese and Jewish heritage, told TRT World that the legacy of the internment didn’t start in February, 1942, but had been with the US long before. Tomsha is an activist with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), and part of its Jews of Color (JOC) caucus.

There is a legacy of trauma. The pain is specific and moves across generations. It’s so important to listen directly to the Japanese Americans who lived this experience, and to keep listening. Erasure happens when the people at the centre of a story get left out of its telling

- Yumi Tomsha on internment

“There is a legacy, too, of treating [the executive order] as an isolated chapter that has nothing to do with the values of the US. Along with the words ‘never forget, there’s ‘never again’ – the urgent and relevant call to make sure we don’t repeat history. These words and their layers are so important. What gets erased sometimes, I think, is that painful patterns of white supremacy and systemic injustice have already been on repeat," she said.

"We have to never forget this history, and we also have to never forget that it wasn’t an anomaly or a coincidence in an otherwise anti-racist country. The US was built on genocide and slavery; the incarceration of Japanese Americans was a painful outcome of a system that did and continues to do what it was built to do.”

In the US, people of mixed identities can sometimes feel as though they have slipped through the cracks that white supremacy creates, but Tomsha said she found a place where she feels a "sense of belonging" in activism for Palestinian rights and on behalf of other minorities in the US. 

"As a mixed race Jewish Japanese American, I had often felt 'othered' in Jewish spaces," Tomsha said. "I had an amazing experience last spring at the Jews of Color National Convening and I truly felt a sense of belonging. I needed to organise from a place of wholeness and being seen." 

Source: 
TRTWorld and agencies