On January 12th at the Wesley United Methodist Church in San Jose in the midst of the current political climate where some politicians are citing the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans as a model for policy towards Muslim Americans, Muslim immigrants, and Syrian refugees, a group of Japanese American community leaders organized a panel to address the issues.
The panel consisted of the following, who each made statements clarifying either historical facts or present day realities.
Moderator Tom Izu, Executive Director of the California History Center and the Audrey Edna Butcher Civil Liberties Education Initiative at De Anza College; also a board member of the Santa Clara Valley Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Susan Hayase of the Santa Clara Valley Chapter of the ACLU, who initiated this program and gave opening remarks representing the joint view of the panel: that Japanese Americans stand firmly against any kind of scapegoating and object to the scapegoating of Muslim Americans, South Asians, Arab Americans, Sikhs, and others; that the lessons of the internment should be heard and understood; and that former internees have their experience be never forgotten nor repeated.
Richard Konda, Executive Director of the Asian Law Alliance, reviewed the legal and legislative history surrounding the Japanese American incarceration and refuted the validity of recent statements by politicians and others citing such action as a policy option for dealing with Syrian refugees or Muslim Americans.
Masao Suzuki, representing the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee, gave a historical context of institutional racial prejudice against Asians existing for almost 100 years before Pearl Harbor with laws passed banning inter-racial marriage, land ownership, and citizenship. Such action based on prejudice helps us understand what’s happening today and how scapegoating develops and grows if not checked.
Jeff Yoshioka, President, Silicon Valley JACL, reviewed the WWII incarceration experience of Japanese Americans, since many seem to be misinformed on the experience, and noted that some of the same reasons (fear, prejudice, lack of political leadership) that led to the Japanese American incarceration are again present today.
Tom Oshidari, Co-President, San Jose JACL, explained how government-coined euphemisms (“evacuation,” “internment,” “relocation center”) has for decades obscured the prison-like conditions endured by the Japanese Americans. The JACL has recently recommended more accurate terminology (“forced removal,” “incarceration,” “American concentration camp”) to reflect the reality of the conditions.
Jimi and Eiko Yamaichi, former incarcerees, shared personal stories. Jimi recounted how, as a matter of conscience, since he was effectively a prisoner of the government, he could not agree to be drafted. The judge who heard Jimi’s case studied the draft law and agreed that only a free man could be drafted; so Jimi was exonerated of any draft evasion charges. Other judges at other camps ruled differently; so it was Jimi’s lament that other Nisei men had to serve terms in federal prisons as draft evaders. Eiko recounted how, as a high school junior, immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she was ostracized by her friends, classmates and teachers and made to feel like the enemy.
Athar Siddiqee, President of the South Bay Islamic Association, described his essentially all-American family that still encounters harassing comments and questions, but commented that he remains hopeful because of groups such as the Japanese Americans who have overcome such obstacles and continue to stand up for others.
Mike Kaku, President, Sequoia JACL, explained how “failure of political leadership” was found to be one of the causes that led to the incarceration of Japanese Americans and how the rhetoric in today’s political scene is far too familiar and should not be allowed to lead to similar results.
Brice Hamack, Northern California Civil Rights Coordinator with Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and an attorney, talked about CAIR’s work in providing free legal services in the civil rights arena, networking in the political arena, doing outreach to”humanize” the Muslim image (we’re just like everyone else), and empowering youth to take action on their own behalf.
Following the statements by the panelists, the audience of over 120 strong engaged in a question and comment period. During this time a representative of the International Rescue Committee of Northern California, Igor Radulovic, was given the floor to explain the existing, lengthy process for a refugee to enter this country. The event elicited favorable reviews from the attendees.
The event may be seen in its entirety on YouTube, compliments of Duane Kubo of J-Town Community TV: https://youtu.be/GKmS_RubSTQ
(by Tom Oshidari)