The Oregonian: 'We are scarred but not broken:' Hundreds gather to remember Japanese internment

By Samantha Matsumoto

Seventy-five years ago, George Nakata was met by the stench of animal manure and urine when he entered what would be his Portland home for four months. Black flies hovered and pigeons darted overhead.

The Pacific International Livestock Exposition Center, as it was known at the time, was used to house livestock. But it was hastily repurposed into living quarters for Nakata, his family and close to 3,700 other Japanese Americans, and renamed the Portland Assembly Center.

Nakata returned there Saturday. This time, there were no black flies, no odious small. Instead, the hundreds gathered in what is now the Portland Expo Center were there to remember the Japanese Americans who were forced from their homes after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order that permitted regional Army commanders to remove all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast.

They were relocated on May 6, 1942, and stayed until they were dispersed to remote federal camps across multiple states.

Saturday's pilgrimage, organized by the Oregon Nikkei Endowment, was meant to honor Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during the war. Nakata and other speakers praised their resilience. 

Hundreds gathered in the Portland Expo Center on May 6, 2017, to remember Japanese Americans who were forced to live there before they were relocated to internment camps during World War II.

Seventy-five years ago, George Nakata was met by the stench of animal manure and urine when he entered what would be his Portland home for four months. Black flies hovered and pigeons darted overhead.

The Pacific International Livestock Exposition Center, as it was known at the time, was used to house livestock. But it was hastily repurposed into living quarters for Nakata, his family and close to 3,700 other Japanese Americans, and renamed the Portland Assembly Center.

Nakata returned there Saturday. This time, there were no black flies, no odious small. Instead, the hundreds gathered in what is now the Portland Expo Center were there to remember the Japanese Americans who were forced from their homes after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order that permitted regional Army commanders to remove all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast.

They were relocated on May 6, 1942, and stayed until they were dispersed to remote federal camps across multiple states.

Saturday's pilgrimage, organized by the Oregon Nikkei Endowment, was meant to honor Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during the war. Nakata and other speakers praised their resilience.  

"Today we entered this building once again," Nakata said. "We are stronger for the injustices endured. We are scarred but not broken."

But the incarceration affected subsequent generations of Japanese Americans, said Weston Koyama, a law student at the University of Oregon whose great-grandparents and grandparents were detained in the camps.

To avoid the racism faced by their relatives, later generations felt pressure to assimilate, losing ties to their culture, Koyama said. But they were often perceived as "other" by many Americans, he said, as evidenced by the persistent question, "Where are you from?"

"The legacy of struggle to define our identity in the context of American society continues to this day," Koyama said. 

Speakers also urged the crowd to stand up against prejudice so as not to repeat the country's past mistakes.

Dale Minami, a San Francisco-based lawyer who helped get the conviction of Fred Korematsu overturned in the 1980s, spoke of Korematsu's courage in protesting Roosevelt's executive order. Korematsu, along with Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, evaded incarceration and challenged the treatment of Japanese Americans in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Their actions, Minami said, are an example for Americans today. He urged the crowd to stand up for American Muslims and others facing discrimination.

"Let that be a lesson for us that dissent is not the enemy of patriotism," Minami said. "In 1942, America was silent. Very few people dissented, and we had a civil rights disaster. We can't afford to let that happen again today."