we must remember, every now and then...
Last week, two guest speakers came to my Asian Americans Community class. They were both Japanese Americans who had gone to the Internment Camps during World War II. Their speeches were a reminder to us, of the way their lives were taken from them, the betrayal they felt, the incredible strength of a people to make the best out of nothing and live through whatever odds, and the struggle to move on past hopelessness. In their telling of their lives, it is easy to see all we take for granted in our own lives and our responsibility to open, discuss, defy, and impact general perceptions and stereotypes and what will happen if hatred, misunderstanding, and racism ever cause us as a nation to forget where we’ve been and what we’ve overcome.
It was striking for me to listen to their accounts of one of the most significant events in American and world history. I was incredibly saddened that although there were such great resources and opportunities still available today to teach students what is important not to be repeated, there are so few schools or teachers who would ever take the time to explore Asian American history. Therefore, to understand that Asians have been present in America since before the Revolutionary War, to realize the dehumanizing jobs they were forced to work, to study the laws that prohibited certain races to enter the United States or denied them the right to citizenship, and people like Mr. Ikeda and Mr. Nishikawa are absolutely priceless.
What was particularly distressing about the decision of the American government to relocate all the Japanese Americans in the west was that it made no difference that of the 120,000 people taken from their homes and forced to live in 24 by 24 ft rooms in the scorching desert, most of them were American born and those who weren’t were only denied citizenship because they were Asian. Even though the United States was at war with Italy, Germany, and Japan, why was the loyalty of only the Japanese Americans questioned but not the Americans of Italian or German decent? It is interesting to see how basic civil justice and human rights were ignored on order to satisfy a nervous public and an outdated prejudice, resonating with the post 9/11 situation and those held at Guatanamo Bay and those deported because of the Patriot Act.
Made to wear numbered tags, experiencing their own government promoting rumor and hate programs, having the stigma and shame of being labeled a traitor, and having their education delayed for years can never be repaid or compensated with any amount of money. The fact was, none of those men, women, and children locked up like prisoners were ever charged with a crime. After the war, they came out in a world entirely different than the one they left behind, with no possessions or means of making a living. And the apology and $20,000 dollars the government agreed to pay, came too late for some of the older victims.