By Emily Green
When Ben Takeshita and his family were sent to Japanese internment camps 75 years ago, he said civil rights organizations told them: Don’t fight. Just go quietly.
Four years in an internment camp taught Takeshita, now 86, the opposite lesson. “We realized that you’ve got to fight back and let your voices be heard.”
Seventy-five years ago Sunday, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the incarceration of Takeshita, his seven siblings, parents and nearly 120,000 other Japanese Americans in camps across America. The order, which called for “every possible protection against espionage and sabotage,” didn’t single out a specific class of people. But in practice it applied to all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast.
The parallels between the history of Executive Order 9066 and President Trump’s action against immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries was a common theme at Sunday’s Bay Area Day of Remembrance, an event to recall that chapter of American history.
Roughly 500 people attended a ceremony of speakers and artists at the Sundance Kabuki in Japantown, which they followed with a candlelit march to a nearby community center.
In November, a member of Trump’s transition team cited the internment camps as a “precedent” for creating a registry for immigrants who come from countries with terrorist links. Trump has explicitly called for a Muslim registry. In January, Trump issued an executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. A federal court of appeals blocked that order this month on constitutional grounds.
“Remember for Japanese Americans the loss of their freedom came incrementally. It began as a race-based curfew and culminated in a race-based imprisonment,” attorney Don Tamaki said at Sunday’s event. “Today for Muslim Americans, what begins as a travel ban and calls for Muslim registries may ultimately end in detention. If we allow that to happen, then all over our freedoms are up for grabs.”
Tamaki served on the legal team that pushed to revisit the U.S. Supreme Court case of Fred Korematsu, the Japanese American man who was convicted for evading internment. That decision upholding the internment order was never overturned, but in 1983 a federal judge vacated Korematsu’s conviction on the grounds that the government submitted false information to the high court.
“We see the same stoking of fear today,” said Sameena Usman, government relations coordinator for the Bay Area Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “The time has come for us to come together to join hands and recognize bigotry for bigotry.”
Takeshita vividly recalled his experience in the internment camp. He was 11, living in San Mateo with his seven siblings and parents, when signs appeared on telephone polls informing them they had to go to the camps. His mother told him to wear as much clothing as he could because they could take only what they could carry.
First, they were sent to a camp in San Bruno, which was later the home of the Tanforan Racetrack, a horse racing site. Then they were sent to the Topaz internment camp in the Utah desert. He recalled the government tried to figure out who was loyal to the United States and who wasn’t by demanding anyone over 17 answer an extensive questionnaire.
Question No. 27 asked the internees if they were willing to serve in the U.S. armed forces and engage in combat duty. Question No. 28 asked internees to swear the allegiance to the United States and against the emperor of Japan.
Both felt like trick questions, Takeshita said. How could his parents agree to abandon their children and serve in the U.S. Army at a moment’s notice? Immigration laws at the time prevented his parents from becoming citizens, so if his parents answered yes to Question No. 28 “that meant they are without a country.”
Takeshita spent a total of four years in internment camps. He later joined the U.S. Army and served as a military intelligence officer during the Korean War. Now retired, he spends much of his spare time telling people about the internment camps. He doesn’t want people to forget.
“This happened in our United States,” he said.