Japanese-Americans discuss post-9/11 hate, ignorance, bias

by Julian Ryall

Japanese-Americans have made major contributions to U.S. society — even in the face of racism and misguided government policy — so it is fitting that when Arab-Americans and Muslims were targeted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Japanese-Americans stood by them.

Japanese-Americans’ place in the U.S. and the problems they have had to overcome to win the respect they command today was examined in a symposium Wednesday sponsored by the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership and the Japanese American National Museum.

Held at the foundation’s offices in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, the forum involved four panelists from the U.S., a Japanese professor and an executive of a Japanese nonprofit organization.

The American panelists are part of an 11-member delegation of third-generation Japanese-American leaders. The team, led by Irene Hirano, president of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, is on a fact-finding tour of Japan at the invitation of the Foreign Ministry and the Japan Foundation.

Dale Minami, an attorney and chairman of the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund Board, compared the events after Dec. 7, 1941, with the Sept. 11 aftermath.

The U.S. reacted to Pearl Harbor with hysteria, he said. For the first time in history, the U.S. saw itself as vulnerable and the immediate reaction was to round up 120,000 Japanese-Americans and intern them in concentration camps.

“Congress, the president and the courts all approved and allowed this to happen, in contravention of all rights,” he said. Forty years later, fired by the civil rights movement in the U.S., Japanese-Americans began to ask why their parents and grandparents were put into the camps, and the Redress Movement was born.

Their demands were threefold: A government apology; $20,000 for each survivor of the camps; and a fund to provide ongoing education of what happened in 1942. Their aim was achieved in 1988 when President Ronald Reagan signed their demands into law.

“On Sept. 11,” Minami said, “we felt sorrow for the victims and the families of the victims. We felt anger at the attacks. But we also feared that history was repeating itself.

“There was an increase in the number of attacks on Arab-Americans and Muslims,” he said. “Hundreds ‘disappeared’ for questioning by the government and, more frighteningly, six weeks later, the Patriot Act was passed, allowing the government to shortcut the Constitution.” The act gives government agencies far wider scope for monitoring and eavesdropping.

“We’re living in a dangerous time,” Minami said. “There is a war on dissent in the U.S. now. We have the right of free speech, but now we’re told that dissent is unpatriotic.

“After Sept. 11, many Japanese-Americans stood by Arab-Americans and Muslims, supporting their rights in their time of need,” he said. “We recognize that there is a river of racism in our country that comes out at times, especially in times of stress.

“We don’t want to see what happened to us happen again to any other color, creed or race,” he said.

Yasuo Sakata’s experiences after Sept. 11 revolved around a number of his students, who were studying in New York when the attacks occurred.

Sakata, a professor at Osaka Gakuin University, first went to the U.S. in 1955 to study. He became a professor and quickly realized the depth of stereotyping of Japan and the Japanese in the U.S. A telling indicator, he said, was when he tested his students on the end of the Tokugawa Period — most of them lifted their answers straight from James Clavell’s novel “Shogun.”

After returning to Japan in 1990, Sakata found that his students here had a similar lack of understanding of the U.S.

After the terrorist attacks, several of his students were stuck in New York. Their sole concern, he said, was to get home to Japan.

“They were only worried about when they would be able to get back,” he said. “They didn’t follow events on TV at all and I was shocked at that. I was in the U.S. when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and I was watching TV all the time to hear the latest news. It was an experience I’ll never forget, but I couldn’t explain that to my students.”

Understanding each other is a function of the curriculum at his university, but Sakata said he is still not sure how best to achieve this, although exchanges between people have in the past been shown to help.

Describing herself as a “double minority,” Paula Nakayama, a State Supreme Court justice in Hawaii, underlined the achievements of Japanese-Americans in the 50th state.

Hawaii’s population is 18 percent Japanese, but 30 percent of the state’s judiciary is Japanese-American, and it is this ethnic diversity that enables different values and experiences to be reflected in the judicial system, she said.

“Rulings could be done by a computer,” she said. “But I firmly believe that all of us pick up beliefs as we pass down the river of life that make our opinions reflect what the evidence shows. The judiciary must reflect the ethnicity of the people it represents.

“The human element and the results of years of experience living in the world give us common sense.”

Robin Toma, executive director of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, stressed that people from diverse backgrounds and cultures must find ways to move forward together instead of having disagreements end in conflict. Toma said tremendous shifts in the demographics of Los Angeles have caused friction between different ethnic groups.

Hate crime is one area in which Toma’s organization is involved, he said, particularly in the wake of Sept. 11.

“It’s incredible,” he said, “But in the three months post-Sept. 11, hate crime against Arab-Americans and Muslims was 1,200 percent higher than for the whole of the previous year.

“Hate crime is a product of ignorance as well as hate,” he added, noting that 50 percent of the victims of those attacks weren’t even Arab-Americans or Muslims.

“We talk about ‘homeland security’ against terrorist attack, but this is also a problem of victimization of people in the U.S. after an attack,” he said. “We know it will happen because of our experiences during World War II.”

Hideo Yamagishi, president of the NPO Support Center, Japan, outlined the advances that NPOs have made in Japan in the last 15 years, thanks largely to their widespread acceptance in the U.S.

The adoption of the NPO Act in 1988 “empowered us in Japan,” Yamagishi said, adding that citizen-level exchanges between nations are an excellent way to promote development at the level of ordinary people.

The final member of the panel to speak was Kip Tokuda, a former state legislator from Seattle.

“Why did I become a representative?” he asked. “Because these are issues that I feel passionate about and, as a Japanese-American, I feel I have a story to tell.

“I love the U.S.,” he said, “but I recognize that it has an institutionally racist past, as I had members of my family placed in camps and I feel obliged to tell that story.”

Outlining his policy successes, particularly in the area of children’s rights, Tokuda suggested that if we can take “broad, sweeping concepts and narrow them down, they can have influence over people like you and me in positive ways.”