Has the Internment Transcended Japanese-American History?

By S. D. Ikeda, Asian-American Village


Every February 19, IMDiversity’s Asian-American Village commemorates the Day of Remembrance by recalling the signing of Executive Order 9066, and the mass exclusion, relocation, and detention of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during WWII. We summon related articles from the archives and news items from the previous year. Like everything else this year, however, February 19 is a little different.

There’s much to remember, and some two decades ago, after a half-century of willful forgetting, our nation gradually did begin to remember, acknowledge, and ultimately apologize for that era’s wartime hysteria, racial prejudice, and failed political leadership. Remembering culminated in the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and a decade of reparations and public education activity. Not that a token government check and form letter would make up for lost years, homes, businesses, family members, and community centers, but redress provided a meaningful sense of vindication, closure, even reconciliation.

When we called the 2000 Day of Remembrance 2000 section “Is the internment finally over?” we were not merely recognizing that the Clinton Department of Justice had determined to “close the book on the internment” by shutting down its redress office. We were also reacting to a deeper, psychological and spiritual sense that JAs might finally feel able to more-or-less forgive if not forget, and to move on. After decades of not talking, we’d had the dialogues, we’d connected as families, we’d learned where we’d come from and what we’d lost. The movement had succeeded. We got our apology. So what now?

Like other commemorative days and months, February 19 has increasingly offered only modest opportunities to remember its significance. The local JACL chapter sends out octogenarian ambassadors to talk about their experiences at the neighborhood middle school, college student associations invite a JA poet or activist to campus, NPR interviews a historian like Ron Takaki, the public library hosts displays poster session featuring photographs by Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, book clubs might discuss Snow Falling on Cedars. There’s nothing wrong with these gestures, but they begin to feel…so small, like buying a 10-book of Lunar New Year stamps or renting Roots. Like a holiday.

For me, both the Act and the Day of Remembrance have long felt like “just a Japanese thing,” too: quirky, irrelevant or even vaguely offensive to other Americans, if indeed they even knew about them. For us JAs, who remember these policies well enough, the commemorations are often preaching to the choir, of diminishing personal importance, and increasingly difficult to sustain. The Nisei generation that experienced the events are aging and passing. Those of us younger folk who tend to do a great deal of public writing, teaching and speaking on the topic began to feel like records stuck in the same groove. Internment apologists occasionally write angry response letters to the editor; or people thank you politely for filling them in a topic they didn’t know anything about. Often, the audiences are mostly filled with nodding, elderly Asian faces anyway. For most of us Japanese Americans, redress changed everything – including the fire of our remembrances.

Then last year, of course, “the world changed” again for us all.


Not “Just a Japanese Thing”

It would pointless and unnecessary to detail here the many explicit ways in which wartime civil liberties, ethnic scapegoating, racial violence, due process, treatment of immigrants, and the rest of the new world has imbued our internment history with renewed currency and relevance. The obvious parallels between Pearl Harbor and 9/11, between JAs and Arab Americans were drawn quickly, clearly, and forcefully in the news and in the street, in the pulpit and the Capitol starting September 12. Is there an American today who doesn’t better understand the kind of fear and suspicion and political pressure that led Franklin Roosevelt to issue EO 9066? Or recognize that there will be slippage in the rights and liberties, privacy and protections that we have come to take for granted in the war without a foreseeable end?

What rings as most significant to me this Feburary 19 is that calls for fairness and restraint, specifically citing Japanese-American history, were not only – nor even primarily — issued by Japanese Americans at all. They were spoken by Americans of all walks, races, parties, and religions. And to a considerable degree they were heeded.

By contrast, I am reminded of the start of the Gulf War, when the effects of the recently passed Civil Liberties Act were not yet fully apparent. The first round of reparation checks and apologies were just going out to the oldest surviving recipients; the Public Education Fund had not yet reaped fruit in public programming and school curricula. The Japanese American National Museum had not opened its doors. In 1991, when public officials scored cheap political points calling for reserve military presence in Detroit’s Arab areas, and federal investigators singled out Arabs, relatively few voices rose in concern. The general public, most of the media, and the government itself had not yet learned the vocabulary of the internment now in such wide use.

Ten years later, the internment has become a broad frame of reference to help all Americans articulate and debate complex issues of security, rights, patriotism, and race. The memory of internment as bad government policy and baser tendencies within us as a populace seems at last to have become lodged firmly in the collective American consciousness. The memory has created, I think, real social pressure with direct and apparent effects.

Another who seems to think so is Mohammed, a first-generation immigrant from the Middle East, a Muslim, and a neighborhood shopkeeper in Milwaukee, where 9/11 had soon brought threats against Islamic School students and assaults against South Asians. Likening the climate to “what happened to you Japanese,” Mohammed told me that his customers had nonetheless treated him fairly. He also found reassurance in a visit by Justice Department representatives to the local mosque, who insisted that any and all hate incidents would be investigated and prosecuted. He attributed these more positive reactions, in part, to “what happened to the Japanese, too.”


Facing the Test

What Do Other Villagers Think?

“An event like the WWII internment of civilians could never happen today. It is impossible even during wartime.” Oct. 2001

Agree – 11.54%
Disagree – 61.54%
Not Sure – 26.92%

“We must surrender some civil liberties and privacy to improve national security.”

Agree – 61.54%
Disagree – 23.18%
Not Sure – 15.38%

I hope this is true, because it would mean that what began as the movement for redress and reparations for wronged Japanese Americans in particular has evolved into the larger, more far-reaching and hopefully lasting force that it was intended to be. It means that the Day of Remembrance is no more just a Japanese thing than MLK Day is just a Black thing, or that Holocaust remembrance is just a European Jewish thing. It means that by remembering EO 9066, we’ve all learned something about our civil liberties here in America.

To me, September 11 provided the first real test of whether or not the Civil Liberties Act had sunken in. It’s probably fair to say that most would acknowledge that the post-9/11 backlash, as with Pearl Harbor, “could have been much worse.” And I believe, with reservations, that we fared much better on the test that one might have feared. I’m proud of how Japanese Americans have contributed to this progress.

Yes, there are still hate crimes being committed in the name of patriotism against people who happen to be brown and vaguely “Middle Eastern-looking”. Ethnic profiling is still employed in law enforcement investigations and detentions. There remain risks to our civil liberties, immigration policies, and international relationships. And there still lurks within many of us very real fear, distrust, even hatred of Muslims, Arabs, or people of South and Central Asian descent.

But as the road leading from EO 9066 to the Supreme Court cases to the Civil Liberties Act becomes not “Japanese-American history” but “American history,” our country has a powerful new way of thinking and talking about those tensions, and figuring out what do about them.



Stewart David Ikeda is author of the book, What the Scarecrow Said (HarperCollins-Regan Books), about the Japanese-American immigration, internment and relocation experience, and has taught writing and Asian-American Studies at the Universities of Wisconsin and Michigan, and at Boston College.

Former Director of Online Content and Editor-in-Chief at IMDiversity.com, he is a new media planning, editorial, and diversity consultant, and served as Editor of the Asian-American Village Online, Editor of Diversity Employers Magazine, and VP of Online Publishing for IMDiversity, Inc.

IMDiversity.com is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.