World War II. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs into law Executive Order 9066, the first measure taken, which would see more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans removed from their homes along the west coast of the United States and held in incarceration camps. This is a story of those who held dignity against a country that had branded them an enemy. This is a story to commemorate those who challenged the government for what was right.
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall deprive any person of live, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (US Constitution Article I, Section 9, XIV. Citizenship, Representation and Payment of Public Debt)
Three years ago, while attending the University of Washington, Seattle as an undergraduate, I worked as a student reporter for the student newspaper. Fascinated by people’s stories, and (then) an aspiring historian, I took it upon myself to use my writing skills to convey issues I was eager for people to care about.
On Tuesday 21 February 2012, the UW held an annual event to remember the legacy of the Japanese-American internment on the local community in Seattle. Having grown up in the United Kingdom, and only read a little about this historical injustice (let alone never experienced it), I felt compelled to attend the event to share its significance with the community, as well as broaden my understanding. What I learned from this event made me ashamed, and still bothers me, as an American citizen. Particularly, such that a country built on the ideals of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (and a constitution built from such) could deny all rights to a group of people, in this case the Japanese-Americans, simply due to race prejudice and war hysteria. While attempts have been to right these wrongs of the past, such efforts can probably never heal the damage done to those who were affected by the internment.
Building from this, I have become increasingly concerned with some statements coming from US politics. Rhetoric from the far-right about deportation of Hispanic immigrants and increasing scrutiny and travel bans of Muslims, only serves to instil fear and bitterness towards those who are perceived to be different. While it might be a common perception to dismiss a lot of statements as bluster and irrelevant given the nature of US politics, I believe it is incredibly harmful to the US as a country, but more particularly, especially harmful to those people residing within.
The Japanese have a saying of “Shikata ga nai”. Translated into English, it translates to “it cannot be helped” or “nothing can be done about it”. Many writers have pointed out how the Japanese-Americans kept their dignity during the internment, despite all the irreversible damage caused to themselves, their families and their lives. And perhaps, with the failure of all constitutional safeguards, this was the best course of action in a country that had turned on them and branded them the enemy.
However, I write this story as the anti-“Shikata ga nai” in the context of the Japanese-American interment. I believe that in this day of age, we can do things to prevent such a thing happening again. As a country, we have a shared responsibility to ensure that each and every one of us is given the same opportunities under our constitution, and that no person is denied the right of “life, liberty and happiness”. Thus, everyone should criticize and speak out against such xenophobic statements from people like Donald Trump, and as a country we should stand against fear and anger.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge that I don’t believe this is my story to tell. I am not Japanese, Japanese-American, nor personally experienced the internment first-hand. From this, I will sincerely apologize in advance if I misspell, mispronounce or cause any offense to anyone from this story, as that is not my intention (although I hope my research will mitigate this). Rather, as a writer and storyteller, I only seek to address and convey present issues I feel strongly about by placing them in the context of the past. As former President George H.W. Bush states:
“In remembering, it is important to come to grips with the past. No nation can fully understand itself or find its place in the world if it does not look with clear eyes at all the glories and disgraces of its past. We in the United States acknowledge such an injustice in our history. The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated.” (President George H.W. Bush, Dec. 7, 1991)