NEW YORK – Lessons learned from the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II are still relevant today in ongoing efforts to defend the civil liberties of ethnic and religious minorities, according to Floyd Mori, national director of the Japanese American Citizens League.
Mori, 68, made the remark at a recent gathering in New York organized by the Korean American League for Civic Action, a nonprofit community advocacy group promoting the civic participation of Asian Americans.
Born in Murray, Utah, to immigrant Japanese parents, Mori said he grew up in an “era when Asians were not welcome (in the U.S.).”
Mori’s father left Kagoshima Prefecture for the United States around 1900 at the age of 16 to support his family. After about 10 years of back-breaking railroad work, he bought land in northern Utah to grow sugar beets. Mori was the second-youngest of eight children, all of whom worked on the farm, he said.
Mori said the social and political environment surrounding early Asian immigrants was hostile, evident in a series of anti-Asian immigration laws, restrictions on land ownership and policies making them ineligible for naturalized citizenship.
The JACL, which today stands as the oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization, was established in 1929 to fight such discriminatory policies.
Mori said that Asians’ arrival in the United States followed the emancipation of the slaves in the 19th century and that Asians played a “very important role in the industrialization of this country.”
Loyal and industrious, Japanese immigrants always helped each other, he said. Over time, many of them became successful farmers and businessmen, but their success also brought tension with white Americans, Mori said.
Japanese-Americans’ status hit rock bottom after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The following spring, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the forced relocation of people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast.
Up to about 120,000 people were rounded up to live in internment camps in remote desert sites. Buddhist priests and Japanese teachers drew particular scrutiny and were often held for months in federal prisons, he said.
Many internees became “resisters,” refusing to pledge allegiance to the United States. But most Japanese-Americans followed the government order to show that they were good citizens, he said.
They also actively volunteered in the military and produced examples such as the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team, noted for their heroic exploits, Mori said.
Despite their contribution, discrimination against Japanese-Americans persisted for many years after the war. In 1976, the JACL finally decided to ask the government to apologize for its wartime action. The movement culminated in the implementation in 1988 of the Civil Liberties Act, in which the government offered a formal apology and reparations to former internees.
Mori said race- and religion-based bigotry is still prevalent in U.S. society today, referring to treatment of Arab and Muslim Americans in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
He expressed concern over racial stereotypes perpetuated by the media. A recent example he gave was the 2007 movie “I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry,” in which a bucktoothed Japanese minister wearing thick glasses weds a couple, saying: “Do you have the lings? Prease exchange the lings.”
“Early immigrants came (to the U.S.) to escape a status quo-type society,” he said. “If you were in aristocracy, everything was OK. If you were peasants, you were peasants for decades or even centuries.”
Mori, who advocates immigration reform in the United States, said many U.S. citizens who are against having more immigrants in the country believe immigrants are changing their way of life. “Let’s keep those aliens out. . . . That’s the same argument today,” he said. “We’re sacrificing our civil liberties. Are we any better than other countries that don’t have civil liberties?”