Monday, June 3, 2013

Reflections on Japanese Internment

 Thomas H. Wilson
A Japanese lady lived near me in Berkeley when I was in graduate school.  Mrs. Takahashi would have been an adult before World War II.  Through neighborly chat, we learned that she raised goldfish before the war, and the whole area had previously been a Japanese neighborhood.  Without her saying so, it dawned on us that she lost her little business through internment during the war.  Many ethnic Japanese suffered exclusion from areas that military administrators deemed vulnerable to potential Japanese sabotage and espionage.  Over 110,000 ethnic Japanese were removed to relocation centers, and many permanently lost their homes and businesses as a result.   2012 is the 70th anniversary of the government action that led to the exclusion of all persons of Japanese ancestry from areas of Pacific Coast states and southern Arizona.

Instructions for assembly and exclusion at San Francisco, April 1, 1942 
(National Archives and Records Administration)

Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the Secretary of War to create military zones “from which any or all persons may be excluded,” and “to provide . . . other accommodations as may be necessary . . . to accomplish the purpose of this order.”  Mostly, but not exclusively, the order was applied to persons of Japanese ancestry, the great majority of whom were citizens of the United States.  Many of those excluded from the military zones were relocated to internment camps, the “other accommodations” necessary to accomplish the purpose of the order.

When the military orders of exclusion for areas of Los Angeles and San Francisco were issued in the spring of 1942, heads of households and persons living alone had two days to report and receive instructions, and all persons had to be ready to leave in about a week.  Evacuees could bring with them some bedding, toiletries, extra clothes, utensils, and essential personal effects, securely packaged and limited to the amount a person could carry.  No pets were permitted, and no personal effects or household goods could be shipped to the assembly center.

Arizona hosted two internment camps.  The Gila River War Relocation Center was located on Gila River Indian Community land over the objections of the tribal government.  Towards the end of the war it became Arizona’s fourth largest community.  Poston War Relocation Center was built on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, about three miles from the river in what is now La Paz County, again over the objections of the tribal government.  Poston, build by Del Webb, with a population of 17,000, became the third largest settlement in Arizona at the time.

I worked in the museum program at the National Endowment for the Humanities when a fledging organization in Los Angeles was established to present to the public the history and culture of Japanese Americans.  The Japanese American National Museum is now an internationally renowned institution and one of the premier museums of its kind in the United States.  It was newly minted and had no track record when it first came to NEH for support.  Nevertheless, there was something about the energy of the organization and the people involved with it that inspired confidence, and I became program officer for NEH support that was crucial in establishing the institution.

Processing in San Francisco, April 25, 1942 (NARA)

One day Nancy Araki and James Hirabayashi came to talk to me in Washington about funding a project from the museum.  I was in law school at the time, and after we completed our discussions about the proposal, I summoned my courage to ask a question of Dr. Hirabayashi, a distinguished professor at San Francisco State University and guest curator at the Japanese American National Museum.  “I do not know,” I said, “how common is the name Hirabayashi, but there is a famous Supreme Court case with that name.  Is there any relation?”  I told him I hoped the question was not rude.

“Gordon is my brother,” replied James Hirabayashi.  “He was a good boy, not trying to make trouble.  He was out, forgot about the time, and failed to return before curfew.”  Actually, Gordon thought a lot about violating the curfew and deciding to disobey the exclusion order.  With the assistance of Quaker groups in the Seattle area, he engaged in principled civil disobedience and turned himself in to the FBI.  Gordon Hirabayashi admitted that he knowingly violated the curfew, a misdemeanor for which he was convicted.  In Hirabayashi v. United States (1943), the Supreme Court held that the curfew was constitutional exercise of the war power to protect against sabotage and espionage, and that the order did not unconstitutionally discriminate against citizens of Japanese ancestry.  Gordon served about six months in jail awaiting trial, and after his conviction, authorities allowed him to hitchhike to his area of incarceration near Tucson. Ironically, he served his time at a camp in an exclusion area, where he was forbidden to be.

 Arriving at Santa Anita Assembly Center from San Pedro,
April 5,1942 (Photo Clem Albers, NARA)

About a year later, in Korematsu v. United States (1944), the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion order.  But there were passionate disagreements.  Justice Murphy dissented “from this legalization of racism. Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting, but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States. All residents of this nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land. Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States. They must, accordingly, be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment, and as entitled to all the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Luggage at Salinas, California Assembly Center (NARA)

 Train leaving Santa Anita, California, 1942 
(Photo Julian F. Fowlkes, Library of Congress)

Justice Jackson, struggling with the racial issues of the case, also wrote in dissent:  “Korematsu was born on our soil, of parents born in Japan. The Constitution makes him a citizen of the United States by nativity and a citizen of California by residence. No claim is made that he is not loyal to this country. [His crime] consists merely of being present in the state whereof he is a citizen, near the place where he was born, and where all his life he has lived. . . .  Now, if any fundamental assumption underlies our system, it is that guilt is personal and not inheritable. Even if all of one's antecedents had been convicted of treason, the Constitution forbids its penalties to be visited upon him. . . .  But here is an attempt to make an otherwise innocent act a crime merely because this prisoner is the son of parents as to whom he had no choice, and belongs to a race from which there is no way to resign.”

Not long after my meeting with James Hirabayashi and Nancy Araki, I visited the National Museum of American History, where the Smithsonian Institution presented an exhibition on the Japanese American experience in World War II.  Included was the story of the famous 442 Regiment, composed of Japanese American soldiers, the most decorated unit in American military history for its size and length of service.  21 members of the 442nd received the Congressional Medal of Honor for action in the European theatre, including Daniel Inouye, the United States Senator who lost an arm in the war serving his country and who was called “that little Jap” by a witness at the Watergate hearings.  The exhibition also presented the internment experience.  In one area, videos presented four Japanese Americans speaking of their time in the camps.  To my surprise, Nancy Araki was one of the four.  She spoke about what it was like to be there as a little girl.  In my meetings and discussions with her, she never mentioned that she was interned.
James Hirabayashi was interned with his family at Pinedale and Tule Lake, California.

Hiroshi Hayashida, left, with flag and family, departs Seattle for 
Manzanar camp, March 30, 1942 (Seattle Star)

Susie Ishikawa Sato came to Mesa from Los Angeles in March 1942, in accordance with the exclusion order.  She was eight months pregnant.  The line excluding ethnic Japanese from southern Arizona ran right down Main Street.  The hospital in Mesa, population about 7,000 at the time, was south of Main Street, an area from which Susie was excluded.  The Mesa Police contacted the FBI, and Susie was allowed to deliver her baby in the Southside Hospital.  She could not buy clothes at the J.C. Penny’s store on the south side of the street, but luckily the Basha’s food store was on the north side.  The oil company in Mesa refused to deliver to the Sato farm, so they found a dealer in Phoenix who would sell oil and gas to Japanese Americans.  Similarly, the produce market to sell the farmers’ vegetables was south of the line in Phoenix and the family relied on a compassionate local broker to take their produce to market.  Individual acts of kindness can ameliorate public actions of intolerance.

 A family returns home to Seattle, May 10, 1945 (AP Photo)

The peoples and governments of the United States have not always treated ethnic minorities fairly and honorably.  Discrimination and violence are well documented against African Americans, Native Americans and other minorities.  Occasionally, the justice system, including the Supreme Court, has colluded in this oppression.  The Dred Scott decision, which held among other things that blacks were not citizens and were unprotected by the Constitution (1857), and Plessey v. Ferguson (1896), which upheld the separate but equal doctrine that enshrined segregation, are examples of the darkest days of the Supreme Court.  Perhaps the Court in those cases and other examples was reflecting popular opinion at the time, but history has dealt harshly with the reasoning and effects of those decisions.  Sometimes, the Supreme Court errs.

Public policy is made at state and national levels, but it is executed upon individuals.  Policies are carried out upon our neighbors and friends, as happened to the four Japanese American internees who happened to cross my path.  It is hard for us today to imagine rounding up American citizens and deporting them to concentration camps with only what belongings they could carry, but this is what happened to many people still alive.  Many internees lost their homes and businesses.  In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed federal legislation that apologized to and provided payments for those interned during World War II.

Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012) (UPI Photo, 1985)

In 1987, the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned Gordon Hirabayashi’s conviction.  Gordon passed away on January 2, 2012.  James Hirabayashi died only months after his brother, on May 23, 2012.  On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Gordon Hirabayashi the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

Thomas H. Wilson is Chair of the Arizona Humanities Council and Director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History.

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