The Modesto Bee: 75 years after World War II Internments, Japanese Americans Hope History Will Not Repeat

By Marc Benjamin

Seventy-five years ago, the U.S. government rounded up tens of thousands of Valley residents and sent them to internment camps.

Their crime? They were Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans, and America was at war with Japan.

Today as the U.S. battles terrorism worldwide, a new segment of America’s population feels like it has become the face of the enemy – Muslims. One of President Donald Trump’s first executive orders banned natives of seven predominantly Muslim countries from traveling to the U.S., an order now being debated in the courts.

Meanwhile, one of Trump’s supporters recently suggested on a cable television news talk show that a legal ruling made during World War II that kept Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants imprisoned could serve as a precedent today to imprison again.

apanese Americans had hoped that their experience had written such a searing chapter in U.S. history that no American would ever again have to fear such treatment.

During World War II, 120,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were held in internment camps. Nearly 20,000 were confined at temporary detention centers in Fresno and Pinedale and others in Tulare and Merced. But no Japanese American or Japanese-born relative ever was implicated in a plot against the United States.

Now in their 80s and 90s, some travel long distances to speak about the humiliation of their imprisonment and how they are adamant about ensuring it won’t happen again.

Howard Zenimura, 89, of Fresno said America’s confinement of Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants should serve as a lesson.

“I don’t care what nationality or religion a person is,” Zenimura, a retired teacher, said. “There are good Muslims and bad Muslims; catch the bad ones, not the good ones.”

Saburo Masada, a retired pastor whose family was relocated from Caruthers to the Fresno Fairgrounds before being sent to Arkansas, said nobody he knew was loyal to the Japanese emperor.

“Most of us didn’t even know who the emperor was,” said Masada, 86, of Fresno. “They didn’t ask the Germans about [Nazi leader Adolf] Hitler or the Italians about [dictator Benito] Mussolini … Our only crime was our face.”

But when the government ordered the Japanese families to the camps, they knew they had no choice but to go.

“I felt that it was very unfair, I didn’t feel like an American citizen,” said Missy Hikiji, 96, whose family was moved from Oregon to the Pinedale Assembly Center. She was sent to camps in Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas, before moving on to Heart Mountain, Wyoming. “But when the government tells you that you have to go, what are you going to do?”

The precedent

Japanese Americans and their parents, some of whom were born in Japan, were an easy target when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942. Under the order, 120,000 Japanese immigrant and Japanese American residents of the West Coast were imprisoned.

“It was done out of fear and discriminated against American citizens,” said former 5th District Court of Appeal Judge James Ardaiz. “As a precedent it was not conscionable.”

An interned American citizen of Japanese descent sued to end internment on constitutional grounds, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the order in 1944. Legal experts described the decision in Korematsu v. United States as a stain on American judicial history.

It was easy to imprison the Japanese because they looked different and could easily be isolated, said Ardaiz, who served as a consultant in an unsuccessful effort in the 1970s to overturn the Korematsu decision.

“I have always thought that the Korematsu decision ranks … as one of the worst decisions in American judicial history,” he said. “It was a failure of the judiciary to rise to the occasion when the going got tough.”

Tony Mauro, a reporter for the National Law Journal and author of “The Supreme Court: Landmark Decisions,” listed Korematsu as one of the 20 most important cases in American legal history.

He wrote that “approving the evacuation of U.S. citizens based on their race and heritage, (Korematsu) is widely viewed as an embarrassment that tarnished the reputation of the Supreme Court.”

Mauro acknowledges that the case set a legal precedent that could be used today.

In an email, he told The Bee that “since Korematsu has not been formally overturned, it still stands as an opinion of the court. There is really not a mechanism for the court to overturn an old case like this one because the court doesn’t just issue proclamations out of the blue. They only overturn precedents in the context of a new case that involves the same issue.”

But even so, Mauro said, there have been efforts to ask the court to make an exception because the decision is “such an embarrassment.”

Historic parallels

Over the past 75 years, Japanese Americans became one of America’s most successful and tightly knit communities, and were quick to aid others they saw facing similar obstacles.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the first group to offer support for Muslims living in America was the Japanese American community, said Kamal Abu-Shamsieh of Fresno, a former Muslim Public Affairs Council spokesman in Los Angeles.

In subsequent years, rhetorical attacks on Muslims have continued. But rhetoric was replaced by action when President Trump signed the executive order halting admission of Syrian refugees indefinitely and barring entry for three months for residents of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

Carl Higbie, the author of “Enemies, Foreign & Domestic: A SEAL’s Story,” told former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly in November during a discussion of a possible Muslim registry that the United States has taken similar actions in the past.

“They say it will hold constitutional muster,” he said. “I know the ACLU is going to challenge it, but I think it will pass … We did it during World War II with Japanese.”

Abu-Shamsieh, who travels the world as a chaplain for Muslim Spiritual Care Services in Fresno, is concerned that America is headed for a slippery slope.

“Will history repeat itself? I hope not,” he said. “But I see parallels that are important to reflect on.”

The administration has focused on barring refugees from the most seriously war-torn nations of the Middle East from entering the U.S.

But those concerns are unfounded because the refugees are extensively examined before visas are issued, Abu-Shamsieh said.

“A Syrian family that came to Fresno in September was vetted for 18 months while in Jordan by members of our military and every branch of intelligence,” he said. “They were taken to hospitals to make sure they were free of all communicable diseases. It may sound extreme, but that’s what people were willing to go through because they see hope in the United States.”

Fears of Muslim extremism are heightened in America, said Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, but the victims of terrorism are usually Muslims. He said they are 3,000 times more likely to be killed than Americans, which is why they are so desperate to leave their homelands and emigrate to countries such as the U.S.

The Rev. Akiko Miyake-Stoner of the United Japanese Christian Church in Clovis said the environment for Muslims now in America is similar to the one that led to Japanese internment. She recently held a service where she introduced a Syrian refugee to her congregation.

“We are just trying to extend solidarity because we know what it’s like to be discriminated against over race and based on inaccurate information,” she said. “The hysteria right now is what really worries me and troubles me. It sounds very similar to the anti-Japanese rhetoric after Pearl Harbor.”