By Jamison Maeda
Sunday 19 Feb marked 75 years since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order forcibly removing over 120,000 Japanese-Americans from their homes, and sending them to concentration camps. They were sent to the camps, not because they had committed a crime, but because of their Japanese ancestry.
With one week’s notice, American citizens of Japanese decent, allowed to take only what they could carry, were loaded onto trains and buses by soldiers armed with bayonets, and sent to live in the camps for more than three years. These American citizens lost their homes, their possessions, and their livelihoods.
One of the most well-known of these Japanese-Americans is actor/activist George Takei. His grandparents were Japanese immigrants and though he and his parents were American, they were “rounded up” as Takei described it, when he was five years old and loaded onto a train car. After four days they arrived at a concentration camp in Arkansas, far from the California coast where Mr Takei was born.
Bill Shishima, another Japanese-American, now 87 years old, was sent with his family to live in a camp that had previously been a horse race track. His grandparents were forced to live in a stable. Mr Shishima, speaking to the National Youth Summit on Japanese-American Incarceration said”…it is important for us to remember the fragility of our civil liberties and the importance of remaining vigilant in protecting the rights and freedoms of all.”
Yoshiko Uchida of Berkeley, California was sent to the Tanforan camp with her family. She describes in her book “Desert Exile” the horse stall where they lived, still bearing teeth marks from the horses. There was a single electric light bulb hanging from the ceiling of the stable, and a gap between the walls that let in gusts of cold air. The latrines were 100 feet from the stable. Ms Uchida and her sister would walk a mile to the other side of the camp to shower.
After the war, the people in the camps were slowly allowed to leave. They were given a bus ticket and $25 each to start a new life. The last camp closed in March of 1946.
Four decades later in 1988, apologizing on behalf of the United States for the “grave injustice” done to the people in the camps, the US Congress implemented the Civil Liberties Act, and declared that internment was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” Today, forty years after that, the United States is dealing with the exact same issues.
Japanese-Americans endured unthinkable suffering under an executive order not dissimilar to Donald Trump’s executive order today aimed at Muslims. Trump’s Muslim travel ban was temporarily halted by a US federal judge, however the Trump administration is currently working on a new version which could be released as early as this week.
It is remarkable that in what we consider modern times, we see Martin Niemöller’s famous 1940s poem about the Nazi rise to power reappearing. Lines from it appear on banners at demonstrations and on protest placards.
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.”
Today Donald Trump and his administration are coming for the Muslims. And we are most definitely, with every fiber of our being, speaking out. Because we will not allow what happened in 1933 in Dachau to happen again. We will not let what happened in the United States in 1942 happen again. We will remain vigilant. We will protect the rights and freedoms of all. And we will continue to speak out!
Note: Japanese-Americans who were sent to and lived in the camps use the term “concentration camp.” And because their description agrees with the definition of concentration camp in the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary, I use this term throughout this piece.