By John Wilkens
There is a saying, often attributed to Mark Twain, that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
For many Japanese-Americans, it’s rhyming now, as President Donald Trump continues to push for a halt on refugees and immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries tied to terrorism.
Seventy-five years ago today, two months after Japan’s aerial attack on Pearl Harbor ushered the U.S. into World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt approved his own ban, signing an executive order that cleared the way for more than 110,000 residents of Japanese descent — two-thirds of them American citizens — to be sent to 10 prison camps scattered around the United States.
When the order was enforced less than two months later, about 2,000 people in San Diego County were forced from their homes and allowed to bring only what they could carry. Most went first to an “Assembly Center” at the Santa Anita racetrack, sleeping in horse stables, and then spent three years at a “War Relocation Center” called Poston, in the Arizona desert.
At its peak, Poston imprisoned about 18,000 people. They lived in barracks with tar paper walls, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and a withering heat that regularly topped 100 degrees. Wind and dust were frequent visitors, along with scorpions.
“I was 10, and I didn’t know why we were being uprooted,” said Mitch Himaka, whose family lived in downtown San Diego and ran a tofu shop in what was then a small but vibrant community known as Japantown. “It’s only later, when I got older, that I started thinking about how unconstitutional it was. The Bill of Rights, all that stuff — it failed us.”
The constitutionality of Trump’s proposed ban is also in question. He signed an executive order on Jan. 27 that barred refugees from entering the country for 120 days; refugees from Syria indefinitely; and citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days. A federal judge in Seattle suspended the order, and a three-judge appellate panel refused to lift the stay.
On Thursday, Trump said he will rescind the order and issue a new one this week tailored to address the court’s concerns. Some critics doubt that will halt the legal wrangling.
Although it’s now widely seen as a shameful mistake, Japanese internment passed muster with the courts in its early years. Fred Korematsu, a Bay Area resident who was convicted of defying the evacuation order, challenged the mass incarceration all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He lost in 1944. There was very little public or media opposition to the round-up as it was happening.
Korematsu and two other Japanese-Americans petitioned successfully to have their convictions voided in the mid-1980s, right around the time a federal commission studying internment concluded it was “a grave injustice” caused by “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
Congress approved a bill providing for a formal apology and $20,000 in reparations per person. “We admit a wrong,” President Ronald Reagan said as he signed the legislation. “Here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”
At the time of the signing, about half of those who had been sent to the camps were still alive.
‘A unifying force’
The lessons of internment have been passed on to subsequent generations of Japanese-Americans.
After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, leaders from community groups, including the Japanese American Citizens League, were among the first to warn against indiscriminately singling out Muslims for retribution. They formed alliances with Arab American organizations that continue to bring groups of children together for discussions and field trips to Manzanar, the internment camp in the Eastern Sierra foothills.
On Friday, when the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles held a news conference to discuss a new exhibition on internment that opened this weekend, one of the speakers was from the Arab American National Museum in Michigan.
“There is a deep shared experience in terms of representing ethnic communities that have been vilified,” said Ann Burroughs, interim president and CEO of the Japanese-American museum. “One of our roles is to look clearly in the eye of history and understand what its lessons teach us.”
The museum’s new exhibit, “Instructions to All Persons,” includes two original pages of Roosevelt’s typewritten Executive Order 9066, which authorized internment. On loan from the National Archives, the pages, which include Roosevelt’s signature, have never been displayed before on the West Coast.
“Internment was a unifying force for the Japanese-American community, so these documents have a powerful resonance,” Burroughs said.
Japanese-Americans were also among the first to hear echoes from 1942 in Trump’s immigration proposals, which started when he was campaigning for president.
In December 2015, he called for a ban on all Muslims entering the country and refused at that time to say whether he would have opposed the earlier internment. Last November, Carl Higbie, a prominent Trump supporter, cited the Japanese camps as a precedent to “do things that are not politically popular and sometimes not right, in the interest of national security.”
At UC San Diego, history professor Michael Provence watched all this unfold and “noticed that older Japanese-Americans seemed to be especially attuned to the language of exclusion.”
“They were upset and drawing obvious comparisons with their own experiences. I thought that was interesting and we should underscore that for people,” Provence said.
He helped organize a discussion panel called “From Japanese Internment to the Muslim Ban: History Forgotten & Remembered.” He will appear on the panel with UC San Diego colleagues Wendy Matsumura and Simeon Man, both history professors, and Wael al-Delaimy, a family medicine and public health professor.
The event, free and open to the public, is scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m in the multipurpose room of the university’s Student Services Center.
Matsumura is participating in the panel in part because her own family got caught up in the anti-Japanese fervor that gripped the country after Pearl Harbor.
Her grandfather was considered an influential member of the Japanese-American community in Hawaii because of his involvement with a Buddhist temple and a Japanese language school. He and his family, including Matsumura’s father, who was 8 at the time, were sent to a camp. They eventually moved to Japan.
“The lesson of the internment is that it’s possible for our government to enact these kinds of discriminatory orders in the name of national security or a national emergency,” she said. “It’s important to remind people not to be swayed by these kinds of justifications because they have proven to be erroneous.”
Matsumura’s father never talked about his internment, beyond a visceral, lifelong distaste for chicken, which he associated with his time in the camp, she said. She found out about his incarceration after discovering among his papers documents related to the 1980s reparations.
That kind of silence was not uncommon. Himaka said one of the things he learned in the camp was to keep a low profile. “We were labeled as the enemy, and I think that stuck with us,” he said.
After he graduated from high school, the Korean War started and he enlisted in the Air Force. “A lot of us did that,” he said. “It was a way to show our loyalty.”
After his four years in the service — he was a radioman on B-29s and KC-97 tankers — he studied journalism at San Diego State University and worked as a reporter for the San Diego Union for 30 years. Married, he has two sons, one a school principal and the other a sheriff’s deputy, and two grandsons. He tries not to dwell on what happened on this day in 1942, but sometimes, he said, it’s hard not to.
Like when a new president signs an executive order excluding certain people from the country.
“I think what he (Trump) is trying to do is illegal,” Himaka said. “I agree with the courts. I wouldn’t want to see anybody put in camps like we were just because they’re immigrants.”
He’d rather remember what happened after the war. His parents, who came together from Japan to the U.S. in 1918 were barred by exclusionary laws from becoming American citizens until 1952, when the McCarran-Walter Act passed. Himaka’s father was too ill to go through the naturalization process, but his mother did.
He was in Louisiana, in the Air Force, when she called.
“Now,” she told her American-born son, “I am your equal.”