When I was a college student a man of Japanese-American descent told me about his family’s incarceration in World War II. Today I want to tell that story as a reminder that history is to be learned from. May the mistakes of the past not be repeated in the present. Also to what extent are Evangelical Christians going to own this current mess with those with Visas or Green Cards being turned away?
“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 as part of a formal apology on December 7, 1991.
“We saw all these people behind the fence, looking out, hanging onto the wire, and looking out because they were anxious to know who was coming in. But I will never forget the shocking feeling that human beings were behind this fence like animals [crying]. And we were going to also lose our freedom and walk inside of that gate and find ourselves…cooped up there…when the gates were shut, we knew that we had lost something that was very precious; that we were no longer free.”
Mary Tuskamato on being Interned
At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2 (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.
Luke 2:1-5 NLT
Oral history by a Japanese-American who was interned in World War II
I attended Carroll College from 1993 until 1996 and while there I majored in history. People often asked me, “What are you going to do with a history major?” It is a valid question, and I struggled with figuring out my future. I loved history and I bury myself in it regularly. You see it here in this blog as I have frequently wrote about history in many posts. One year when I was at Carroll I had to take American History from Professor Bob Swartout. He was a professor who made a deep impact on my life at the time. There were two sections of the class which spread out over the year. The first class took place in the fall, and was from the earliest days of the United States until the end of the Civil War. The second class (in the spring) was from 1865 until modern times. In addition to the regular text books he also assigned additional books to read. One of them which I still have in my large book collection is called “Desert Exile. ” Its the story of a Japanese-American family that was uprooted from the Bay Area into the Tanforan Assembly Center before being sent to Topaz, which was an internment camp in Utah. What was their crime? They were of Japanese descent and in the wake of Pearl Harbor there was fear about an attack on the West Coast. In addition people speculated and asked the disturbing question – “Can they be trusted?” Like many history books I have read, I processed it, and moved onto the next one for class or personal leisure. I was disturbed by the topic and didn’t think much of it until a disturbing conversation took place in my summer job either that summer or the next. When you read something in history it stays with you in that context until it can personally come alive to you.
A Difficult Conversation at Work
During my summers in Fresno, California I worked in a hobby shop to save money for college. I always returned to that job each summer. The store I worked at was a pool, toy, bike and hobby shop called Arthurs Toys. I worked in the hobby department. This was during the 1995, 1996 and 1997 time frame. At the time I was 21 or 22. The bicycle shop was worked by an elderly Japanese-American man whose name was Ken. Ken’s wife was actually a patient of my Dad, as my father was a practicing neurosurgeon in Fresno, California. My Dad loved Ken and his wife. I have forgotten Ken’s last name, and trust me I banged my head on the wall trying to remember it. And my Dad has forgotten them as well, my Dad had a brain tumor and some aspects of his memory were affected.
Ken’s family had deep roots in Fresno if I remember correctly. His family owned the first Honda – Suzuki motorcycle center in Fresno if I recall. I believe it was on Belmont Ave. It made the family successful, but there was a darker side to their family history as well. It was before their motorcycle business took off. I was not prepared to hear what I heard one day at work. One day Ken started to talk about his internment during World War II. He was a young boy, and he remembered when the United States government seized his family’s business, and property. In Fresno, Japanese-Americans were sent to the Pinedale Assembly Center and the Fresno Assembly Center. Ken told me what it was like to be in the Fresno Assembly Center. He lived in a barn with other people. He was confused by what was going on. There were weeds everywhere and this was going to be his new home. From the Fresno Assembly Center’s Japanese-American citizens were then sent to internment camps in the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona and the Jerome War Relocation Center in Arkansas.
I was uncomfortable as I heard this conversation. As I said it was something I was not prepared to hear. I had no idea likewise what to say to Ken at the time. I remember him looking at me and saying that he couldn’t blame the American people for what they did, after all he said they acted out of fear. When it came to the Japanese being rounded up I recall him looking me in the eyes and saying, “What can you do?” But he said that some people in the Japanese-American community never recovered from that betrayal. People were shocked, and hurt that they would be rounded up and placed in internment camps and guarded by American military with rifles. Some of the Japanese-Americans died frustrated over the situation. And after saying that Ken changed the conversation and it was over. I fell out of touch with Ken and I am sure today he has passed away. After all when this conversation happened I was 21 or 22 and he was in his 70’s. At the Fresno Fairgrounds there is a memorial that remembers Ken and the other Japanese-Americans who were interned there. When I am back in town and I drive by the Fresno Fairgrounds this occasionally pops in my mind. I attended many Fairs there as a kid growing up. But what does that site mean for those of Japanese-American descent? What tragic and horrific memories does it stir? This my friends, is why you learn history…you learn the past so you will not make the same mistakes in the future.
The Internment of the Japanese in World War II
The internment of the Japanese-American’s in World War II is one of the darkest stains on our national history. On February 19, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which authorized the deportation and incarceration of Japanese-American citizens. The United States was at war and two month prior the Pacific Fleet was attacked at Pearl Harbor. Many in the United States lived in fear, with some even wondering if the Japanese were going to invade the west coast. After Pearl Harbor 5,500 Japanese-American community leaders were already in custody. The goal of the internment was to evacuate those of Japanese ancestry from all of California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona. The exception in Arizona were those in government camps, plus Japanese were incarcerated in California as well. By the spring of 1942 130,000 Americans of Japanese descent were forced from their homes and relocated. The War Relocation Authority was responsible for the forced internment of the Japanese. It administered and ran all the internment camps. The Wartime Civilian Control Administration was established by the Western Defense Command to coordinate the forced removal of Japanese-Americans. Japanese-Americans would be told to report to Civilian Assembly Centers. There were 15 to 18 centers in all. From there they were sent to internment camps that were spread around the country. In Arizona there was the Gila River War Relocation Center, and the Poston War Relocation Center. In Colorado there the Granada War Relocation Center. In Wyoming there was the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center. Arkansas had the Jerome War Relocation Center and the Rohwer War Relocation Center. In California there was the Tule Lake War Relocation Center and the Manzanar War Relocation Center. In Idaho there was the Minidoka War Relocation Center and finally you had Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. In these camps Japanese-Americans were guarded by guns and protected by barb wire fences. Conditions varied from camp to camp and on the inside children were educated, and fed but it was all done behind the power of force. Despair was felt by many Americans of Japanese descent and the saying “it cannot be helped” was how Japanese-Americans looked at the situation.
On December 18, 1944 the United States Supreme Court ruled on the legality of incarceration in Korematsu vs. United States. In a 6 to 3 decision the Supreme Court ruled that the removal of the Japanese-Americans from the West Coast was Constitutional. But the incarceration was not legal, as such they could not be held without cause. This ruling led to the eventual release of people from the Japanese-American internment camps. Many Americans of Japanese descent lost property, and ultimately everything. When they returned back to their homes they faced discrimination, anger, sometimes violence. It was a dark period in American history. Many Japanese wanted the wrongs to be amended and reversed. In 1978 the Japanese American Citizens League became the tool to seek redress by the United State government. In the 1980’s Congress determined that what drove the incarceration of Japanese-Americans was racism and fear. Congressman Norman Mineta and Senator Alan Simpson sponsored the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which was signed by President Reagan. It provided redress giving each surviving detainee $20,000 for their loss and pain. On the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor George H.W. Bush issued a formal apology which I have part of listed above. The lessons from places like Topaz and Manzanar stand firm. Often there are the claims of “never forget” and this issue hits closer to me as I knew someone in my life who was deeply impacted by this issue. I write all this to introduce the next section.
The Level of Fear I Have Noticed and Felt
This past year there was a profound amount of demagoguery that I have not felt or seen before in my lifetime. I have talked with some older people as well who have told me that they have not seen this as well. The fear that is being floated is irrational and causing profound harm to our country, people’s lives and our reputation in the world. I didn’t write about this but on Christmas Eve I walked out of church. I can’t tell you what it was like to listen the narrative of Mary and Joseph, and the decree by Caesar Augustus for a Census and contrast that story with all the rhetoric over the past year about immigrants. I felt sick in church and walked out of the service convinced I was going to vomit. I spent Christmas Eve in a restaurant, until I was kicked out, thinking about all this. I was going to write about this and then scrapped it. Because I didn’t want this blog to show hints of becoming political. But as I write all this my mind keeps going back to that conversation with a Japanese-American who was interned in World War II. What happened to Ken reminds me as to how destructive fear can be.
Shortly after the election in November I went and knocked on the door of a Muslim neighbor. He’s here for work I believe and he comes from Saudi Arabia. I knocked on his door and apologized for the hate, the fear and all that he heard this past year. I thanked him for living and working here and expressed my gratitude that he was my neighbor. I wrote about it on Facebook and you can see the response I got in return. Interesting enough the people who pushed back against several of the commenters below was a pastor who feels strongly convicted on this stuff. And a friend who was a missionary in Kenya. Some of those who haven’t been outside the country as much had more of a fear and the systems they were in fed that fear.
Are Evangelical Christians Going to Own their Mistakes?
In the last 24 hours I have been taken back by what I heard. When I heard about those with visas and green cards being blocked it took my breath away. At first I wondered if I heard the news incorrectly because it seemed so far fetched. When I realized that I was not hearing the news wrong I was stunned. As I was thinking things over I got a text message from a close friend of mine in the Midwest. He said that he is watching all this play out on the news and he is profoundly disturbed. He also texted me that he is saddened and confused. I texted him back saying that I appreciated his heart, and that as a friend I loved him. As the news wore on I read about how this was being viewed in the world. I read the European news on my Android and I continued to process what I was reading. It felt surreal and like a dream. In the process I learned of the despair of those who were vetted being turned back or prevented from flying. I also read about a recent suicide attempt who was distraught and didn’t want to go back. It was because of all this that I delayed working on another post.
In German history Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about Christian responsibility in regards to the German state. How much were the Christians collectively responsible for what happened in Germany? Today we are in this situation because 81% of evangelical Christians supported Donald Trump. And I am going to wonder when this is all said and done, will evangelical Christians own their mistakes? Will they say they are sorry and admit it? Or will they act like The Gospel Coalition and stick their heals in the ground and refuse to admit their error? This post is a personal one to write but these are questions that I believe must be asked. Eric Metaxas book on Bonhoeffer is popular among evangelicals but if you know how Bonhoeffer felt and acted, well there would be a problem for many Christians. After all its easy to do the right thing when all is well. But its in times like this that I want to ask will Christians do the right thing? Will they speak up? Or will they stay silent and be embarrassed for their mistakes. Or will they defend their behavior due to cognitive dissonance? As I said I was working on a couple of other posts but due to the news and the texts I received I felt like I had to step back and deal with the issue at hand. For me in the next day or two I will knock again on my Muslim neighbor door and apologize for what is happening and hope that he can stay. Anne Frank is a popular story that many children learn in school. Perhaps you may not know this but part of the reason Anne Frank was eventually killed is because her family at one, point tried to enter the United States and they were turned away for national security reasons. But when the times change will we ignore the lesson of Anne Frank? If this post is uncomfortable for you, well its designed to make you uncomfortable. What Ken told me as a young college kid in the back of a toy store needs to be remembered by all. History is to be learned from, and if you don’t learn from it, then repeats itself in differing ways. The situation that Ken told me about in regards to living on the Fresno Fairground before being sent to an Internment camp, well I don’t want that to happen again in our history. While World War II is a far cry and in the history books the names and situations vary. In one case it is hysteria during World War II over fears of invasion by the Japanese, today its hysteria over Islamic terrorism. But what links them both is fear. And if we are acting on that fear then people are going to be hurt and major problems will be created. These last 24 hours have reminded me of that lesson. This is a difficult topic but we shouldn’t turn our back on such situations. This post is dedicated to the memory of Ken and that conversation at work which occurred years ago. I hope that people will learn from the pain and scars of those of Japanese descent who were rounded up and forced into Internment camps. I hope that we remember the past so that it is not repeated. When it comes to such profound injustice one must not remain silent. I can’t…as I type this post I can think of Ken standing and having this conversation with me. Likewise I can recall his smile, and I can even hear his voice. Let’s take a lesson from the Japanese-American community and learn from them. That is my challenge to you.