Decades after internment, Japanese-Americans warn of what’s still possible

As they mark Day of Remembrance, former detainees say talk of national security can still trump Americans’ basic rights

A poster for Day of Remembrance 2002, months after the 9/11 attacks, focused on the detention of Muslim and Arab Americans.
David Monkawa/NCRR

Japanese-Americans are holding a Day of Remembrance this week for community elders who were unlawfully locked in internment camps during World War II. But for many people — including U.S. judicial authorities — the specter of the camps is hardly a thing of the past.

"You are kidding yourself if you think the same thing will not happen again," U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told University of Hawaii law students earlier this month. "In times of war, the laws fall silent."

For many former detainees who will tell their stories during remembrance events Wednesday, Scalia's words are a sobering reminder that national security at times trumps constitutional rights. They think of the National Security Agency's mass surveillance of private communications or the indefinite detentions of alleged terrorism suspects — mostly Arab and Muslim men — under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The Day of Remembrance marks not only the day in 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order allowing the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese origin after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor; it also serves as "a reminder to our communities — our civil rights are still not protected," said Karen Korematsu, whose father, Fred Korematsu, famously challenged his detention in the landmark Supreme Court case Korematsu v. United States in 1944.

Karen Korematsu cited the NDAA's indefinite detentions as one attack on civil rights now faced primarily by American Muslims. Among the other issues they say they face are the mass infiltration of mosque communities by law enforcement and harassment by Transportation Security Administration staff at U.S. borders.

"Even (Scalia) said this could happen again. That's why education (on Japanese-American internment and civil rights) is so important," Korematsu said.

‘Too reminiscent’

Days after 9/11, Los Angeles–based Japanese-American community leader Kathy Masaoka, now 65, turned on her car radio and heard about an American Muslim woman "afraid to go to the market" for fear of hate crimes.

"I said to myself, 'Oh, my God, this is how my mother felt,'" she said. "This is too reminiscent."

Masaoka's first-generation American mother was interned in rural Manzanar, Calif., at a war relocation center — one of 10 across the nation — where tar-paper walls and straw-stuffed bedding offered little comfort or shelter from the elements.

After 9/11 — as after Pearl Harbor — many Americans wanted to restrict the free movement of their Muslim compatriots. Nearly half of Americans in a Cornell study reported in 2004 by Bloomberg News wanted American Muslims to either register their whereabouts or have some form of civil liberty restricted to avoid another attack.

Shortly after she heard the Muslim woman's story on the radio, Masaoka's Japanese-American rights group, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR), held a candlelight vigil in memory of those who died on 9/11 and to take a stand against the violence, racial profiling and detentions faced by Americans of color in the attacks' aftermath.

The NCRR established a 9/11 Committee that is still running, facilitating cultural exchanges as well as political and social solidarity. "We started the process of knowing each other," Masaoka said.

And it's a bond that has lasted, said Haris Tarin, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the advocacy group Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).

"Every single year, when they are remembering the internment, we do an event with them,” Tarin said. “We are constantly doing events with (California Democratic Rep.) Mike Honda to draw parallels between what happened after Pearl Harbor and 9/11."

Jim Matsuoka, 78, who was 7 years old when he and his family were rounded up from their home in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo and sent to Manzanar, is "extremely proud" of his community's response to the post-9/11 backlash against communities of color.

In the early 1940s, Matsuoka's family was interned "in a mile-by-mile ring with barbed wire, guard towers with guards and guns pointed at us," he recalled.

Today he speaks at mosques and Muslim community organizations about his experiences. He said he tells them, "This country, every bit of it belongs to you … It's our country now."

Tarin said that what happened to Japanese-Americans like Matsuoka in the camps was "so much more horrific in terms of the mass rounding up. It was families, children, women. It didn't matter."

"That didn't take place in the Muslim American community,” he said. “There was a roundup of individuals. If there was anything they could find that was problematic at all, they detained those individuals and deported many."

The MPAC estimates that 5,000 men, mostly from Muslim-majority nations, were detained under the October 2001 USA Patriot Act, and Tarin said that "a good portion were sent back" to their countries of origin.

Still, Tarin feels certain skin colors and faiths remain criminalized and marginalized. "There are definitely feelings among brown men that it's difficult. It's difficult to have a name like Mohammed. There are fears of coming through the border from Canada to the U.S."

Masaoka agreed with Tarin that the backlash against the Japanese-American community was much more systematic, but she said that in both cases, innocent Americans were criminalized because of their origins. 

It is partly because Japanese-Americans spoke up for their Muslim compatriots that Muslims didn't suffer a similar fate, said Susan Uyemura, head of Japanese American Living Legacy, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit organization that collects and preserves Japanese-American oral histories.

"The significant difference this time around was that the Japanese-American community’s concerns were recognized and consequently motivated our government’s leaders to unilaterally address the American public in defusing the volatile social backlash against the Muslim- and Arab-American communities," Uyemura said. 

All Americans

The dark legacy of Japanese-Americans’ unlawful incarceration has helped bolster multiple communities' fights to maintain civil liberties. But telling the story of the camps is increasingly difficult not only because the population of former inmates is aging but also because of the emotional weight of the injustices they faced.

Haru Kuromiya, now 87, was 14 when she was detained, first at Manzanar, then in Crystal City, Texas. She reluctantly told Al Jazeera the story of her teenage years and how after coming out of the camps she worked as a nanny because, as a Japanese-American after the war, "those were the only jobs we could get."

"The camps were certainly a big part of my life. I don't like to dwell on them," she said. "You know, since I've left camp, I worked, and I got married, and I had a family. Those are the important things in my life."

Kuromiya's reticence is common among former detainees, Masaoka said.

Masaoka's mother also didn't speak of her incarceration often. "It wasn't that bad," she would tell her daughter.

Just before the U.S. government sent a commission to gather stories of the internment camps in 1981, Masaoka's mother died, having acknowledged only a few months earlier — amid the burgeoning movement for redress — that her internment marked "some of the worst years of her life."  

Many former detainees find themselves recalling internment for others despite their emotions. It is for a greater good, they say.

Despite her misgivings, Kuromiya found herself attending an event in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo to commemorate her experience. "Because I wouldn't want it to happen to anyone else," she said.

Many in the Japanese-American community see their struggle as something that belongs to all Americans.

"As all Americans, we need to be vigilant for whatever liberties and rights we have. If you take those away from someone else, you're taking it away from yourself too," Matsuoka said.

And in the executive order empowering authorities to imprison Japanese-Americans during World War II, Roosevelt never used the word "Japanese" — meaning the order could theoretically apply to any American community.

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