On February 19, 2012, members of the San Jose community will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 at the 32nd Annual San Jose Day of Remembrance event. The executive order eventually led to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The San Jose Day of Remembrance program, entitled “Civil Liberties Under Siege,” brings different communities together to remember the signing of the executive order—which many people now acknowledge to be a great civil liberties tragedy—and attendees are encouraged to reflect on what that historical event means to their lives today.
Many people, especially within the Japanese American community, feel that important lessons can be extracted from the incarceration of Japanese Americans and that those lessons are pertinent to the issues of today.
Last week, President Obama signed the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which has a provision that allows for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens without trial. Civil liberties groups, human rights advocates, and members of the Japanese American community have vehemently protested the signing of this bill. Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA), a former internee from Camp Amache and a frequent speaker at the San Jose Day of Remembrance event, voted against the NDAA and said that the bill did not have sufficient changes “to ensure the Constitutional rights of every U.S. citizen. For these reasons, I voted against the FY12 National Defense Authorization Act.”
Susan Hayase, a Nihonmachi Outreach Committee (NOC) chairperson during the redress movement and vice chairperson of the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, commented about the dangers of the provision and drew parallels with internment. “Due process is something that my family holds precious,” Hayase said. “My entire family was detained indefinitely without charges, without a chance to defend themselves in court after being declared ‘enemy non-aliens’ by the U.S. government. We suffered deeply for this, but our American Constitution suffered even more.”
Floyd Mori, national executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), wrote about his concerns over the Senate bill in an op-ed for the San Jose Mercury News. Mori claimed that the bill “raises the question of whether the Senate has forgotten our history.” Mori wrote, “Although the details of the indefinite detentions of Japanese Americans during World War II and the proposed indefinite detentions of terrorism suspects may differ, the principle remains the same: indefinite detentions based on fear-driven and unlawfully substantiated national security grounds, where individuals are neither duly charged nor fairly tried, violate the essence of U.S. law and the most fundamental values upon which this country was built.”
In the legal arena, the significance of Japanese internment has risen in a post-9/11 world. In an article for the Kansas Law Review (“Raising the Red Flag: The Continued Relevance of the Japanese Internment in the Post-Hamdi World”), University of Colorado Law School professor Aya Gruber, a daughter of a former internee, wrote that the “reminders of the horrors of internment remain highly relevant, as the United States continues to engage regularly in armed conflict and detain thousands of people without regard to constitutional safeguards or criminal process.” She concludes that, “Defenders of civil liberties must therefore continue to raise the red flag, be vigilant about government overreaching, and passionately invoke the caution of the internment.”
In the post-9/11 world, the Japanese American community has also been one of the most ardent supporters of embattled Muslim Americans. Last March, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) launched controversial hearings on radical Islam in the United States. Congressman Honda stated in an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle, “Hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese Americans were unjustly placed under scrutiny and suspicion because few in Washington were brave enough to say ‘no’.” Honda claimed that, “Representative King’s intent seems clear: To cast suspicion upon all Muslim Americans and to stoke the fires of anti-Muslim prejudice and Islamophobia.”
Several months before the congressional hearings, the plans to build an Islamic center near the site of the World Trade Center—which some people called the “mosque near ground-zero”—stirred many powerful emotions on both sides of the heated debate. Within the Japanese American community, there were many visible signs of support for the center and for the Muslim American community. The JACL compared the current debate to the fiery controversy surrounding the establishment of a New York City hostel that housed Japanese Americans who were trying to resettle after leaving internment camps. The JACL stated that, “In the face of war and the tragedy of September 11, it is too easy to place blame on others and allow intolerance to prevail. We must do better than to leave Muslim Americans with the impression that intolerance has no definite end. We must begin by not reinterpreting our emotions over September 11 but instead by affirming the ideals that have defined our democracy.”
There are also echoes of internment in other areas that concern civil rights and discrimination. Some people have called the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equality the next great civil rights battle of this decade. Many legal observers have claimed that California’s battle over Proposition 8 will soon be headed to the United States Supreme Court. Japanese American individuals and organizations, such as the National JACL, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR), and San Jose’s NOC, have strongly endorsed marriage equality and have made direct comparisons to past discriminatory laws directed toward Japanese Americans. Actor and activist, George Takei, drew personal comparisons with this act of discrimination to his own incarceration in an internment camp in a 2006 interview with Scott Simon on National Public Radio. Takei said, “I went to school in a black tar-paper barrack (as a child in internment camps) and began the day seeing the barbed-wire fence. Thank God those barbed-wire fences are now long gone for Japanese Americans. But I still see an invisible, legalistic barbed-wire that keeps me, my partner of 19 years, Brad Altman, and another group of Americans separated from a normal life.”
Over the last several years, references to Japanese American internment and discrimination have recently made their way into many diverse issues such as airport racial profiling, the USA Patriot Act, the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, the Federal Intelligence Security Act, presidential wartime powers, and even the Texas Board of Education textbook controversy. It is not surprising since the trauma of internment has indelibly shaped the values, attitudes, and political beliefs of many within the Japanese American community.
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Each year, the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee (NOC) hosts the San Jose Day of Remembrance event. The San Jose Day of Remembrance event will be held from 5:30 p.m to 7:30 p.m, on February 19, 2012, at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, located at 640 N. Fifth Street, San Jose, California.
For more information, visit www.sjnoc.org.
* This article was originally published on JAMsj Blog on January 6, 2012. The Japanese American Museum of San Jose’s (JAMsj) mission is to collect, preserve, and share Japanese American art, history, and culture with an emphasis on the Greater Bay Area.