By Noah Griffin
Feb. 19 marks the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. Issued in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt’s exclusionary edict laid the groundwork for the round-up and internment of all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to be relocated to interior states as a “military necessity.”
Families were immediately affected. In some instances, men were seized, arrested and shipped off with no notice to their loved ones. More often than not, families were kept intact. The impact on the American Japanese community was devastating.
Broadside Civilian Exclusion Order 65 was recently on display at Moe’s Books in Berkeley. Issued by headquarters Western Defense Command and 4th Army Presidio, it required persons of Japanese ancestry residing in Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties to report to Third and B streets in Santa Rosa on May 12 and 13, 1942.
It made real what was first told to me by my eighth-grade classmate Ken Matsuoka. I knew his mother to be a domestic and his father a gardener. But one day keeping gin-rummy score on the back of a Matsuoka Cleaners order form, he revealed to me what was never taught in history class. His parents, like so many others, had to sell their business and relocate.
Marin County’s George Omi, in his memoir “American Yellow,” fills in with rich detail the disruption of his family life. A second-generation Nisei Japanese youngster growing up in San Francisco’s Western Addition, he did what all American kids were taught to do: shoot marbles, read Zane Grey, Jack London and Mark Twain, until the day he and his family were shipped off to a camp in Arkansas. His story of growing up American and then suddenly labeled “the other” brings home with brutal reality the difference between his status and that of his peers.
The round-ups were not exclusively limited to Japanese. The government corralled Germans and Italians. Non-native-born Italians, for instance, could not operate coastline businesses, which even barred Joe DiMaggio’s father from their Fisherman Wharf restaurant.
Their internment was of shorter duration.
Sonoma’s Jeffrey Earl Warren, grandson of the former Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, who during the war was California’s attorney general and later became the governor, paints a more contemporary picture of the times. At the war’s outbreak, Warren supported Japanese internment and even lobbied for it.
“The nation was gripped with fear and hysteria. There had been numerous Japanese submarine attacks to the California coast. No one knew what was likely to occur. America was not the only nation to quarantine Japanese,” Warren says.
Then there were the so-called “No-No boys,” the Japanese Americans who would not sign a loyalty oath, later ruled unconstitutional.
And there was Fred Korematsu, who simply refused to report. Convicted, his individual case was later overturned by the Supreme Court, but the executive order itself was never reversed. Korematsu died in 2005 in Marin County at the home of his daughter.
A law school classmate, Ed White, who clerked for Earl Warren, has written extensively on the justice. In an article, ”The Unacknowledged Lesson: Earl Warren and the Japanese Relocation Controversy,” White avers, and Warren’s grandson confirms, Warren’s feelings in his own words: “I have since deeply regretted the removal order and my own testimony advocating it, because it was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens.”
He then articulated his feelings of guilt in terms that, for a father of six and a devoted family man, were vividly personal: “Whenever I thought of the innocent little children who were torn from home, school friends, and congenial surroundings, I was consciencestricken.” On reflection, Warren believed that “it was wrong to react so impulsively, without positive evidence of disloyalty.”
In the words of Fred Korematsu, a year before his death — words that ring with a haunting current relevance — “No one should ever be locked away simply because they share the same race, ethnicity, or religion as a spy or terrorist. If that principle was not learned from the internment of Japanese Americans, then these are very dangerous times for our democracy.”
Noah Griffin of Tiburon is a public affairs consultant, speaker and musical performer. He is a former public member of the IJ’s editorial board.