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Alma mater addresses wartime treatment of its Japanese-Americans

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

When it comes to making amends, it’s never too late. If there were a single principle to guide us in our relations with others — either on a personal or a broader scale — it would be this.

On Feb. 19, 1942, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on the relocation and internment of Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast of the United States, across the Pacific from America’s then-enemy. More than 110,000 of these people, over 60 percent of them American citizens, were rounded up at short notice and interned in concentration camps.

One of those internees, Fred Korematsu, took the United States to court for infringement of his rights. In 1944, the Supreme Court, in Korematsu v. United States, upheld the constitutionality of the president’s Executive Order; and the internees were denied their freedom and the redress of justice.

More than 30 years later, in 1976, President Gerald Ford rescinded the order. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan issued an apology, and $1.6 billion was paid to the internees or their families.

And yet, for many of those Japanese- Americans, their children and grandchildren, the hurt had not been totally assuaged. Careers, plans, lives, land and property were denied them by the rupture of relocation and forced internment.

Some 440 Japanese-Americans were enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1941 and 1942. They, too, were forcibly removed from their homes and their studies were truncated for up to three years. In many cases, they entered the workforce after the war without having received their degrees.

On May 18, the University of Washington will honor the UW Japanese-American students from 1941 and 1942 in a ceremony called “The Long Journey Home.” For the first time in its history, the university is conferring an honorary undergraduate degree on its former students. They are to be known as “the class of 2008.”

“In recognition of all these Japanese-American students,” says the university’s statement announcing this historic event, “we . . . honor these students, both the living and the dead, and [wish to] educate current and future generations about this grievous national tragedy . . .”

In two articles written for “Columns,” the UW alumni magazine, editor Tom Griffin relates the stories of some of the Japanese-American students who, at the outset of hostilities between Japan and the U.S., suddenly found themselves branded “enemy aliens.”

Most of Seattle’s Japanese-Americans were sent to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in rural Idaho. Some were allowed out to continue their studies in universities far from the West Coast. Others could get out — solely if they were male — by enlisting in the armed forces. “Thirteen Japanese-American students from the UW,” writes Griffin, “gave their lives in defense of their country.”

There was no doubt in the minds of the internees what country that was.

When the Japanese-American students were compelled to abandon their studies and move to the camp in May 1942, the president of the university at the time, Lee Paul Sieg, among others there, pleaded with military officials to allow them to at least complete their degrees. The military refused. “Even faculty teaching Japanese- language courses — crucial to the war effort — had to leave,” writes Griffin.

There seemed to be an innate racial bias among many white Americans that Japanese people, by virtue of their ethnicity, were never above the suspicion of disloyalty. (This is, in another form, the same sort of bias that is being applied by some today to Muslims.)

Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt (1880-1962) is remembered today as the high-ranking U.S. officer most abusive of the civil liberties of civilians in wartime.

DeWitt, who ordered the interments, said of “the Japanese race” that “[their] racial strains are undiluted” despite many of them being American citizens. “There is no ground for assuming,” he continued, “that any Japanese . . . though born and raised in the United States, will not turn against the nation when the final test of loyalty comes.”

One wonders if the Japanese- Americans who gave their lives for their country were included in the general’s “final test.”

The stories of the UW students disprove the slur put on them by DeWitt. After the war, some were able to complete their studies and resurrect their lives. Toru Sakahara founded a law firm that he ran for 40 years. Ruby Inouye Shu became the only Japanese-American female physician in Seattle. Gordon Hirabayashi received a PhD in sociology and went on to teach at the University of Alberta, Canada. George Mukasa worked in the Pentagon!

Although 53 of UW’s interned Japanese- American students returned to enroll in 1945-46, others were permanently uprooted.

Gail Nomura, associate professor in the Department of American Ethnic Studies at UW, and a prime mover in “The Long Journey Home,” told me recently that the university was unable to trace the whereabouts of all of the 440 ex-students. “If any ex-student of UW from that time is reading about our movement in The Japan Times,” she said, “we would be grateful if they would get in touch with us at UW.”

However, the effect of the relocation and internment was more devastating to many of the parents of these students than to the students themselves. Thousands lost their entire economic footing when the continuity of their lives was destroyed.

Apologies by governments and the payment of compensation to the victims of persecution are crucial to give them closure. But it is not enough to feel self-righteous because you have apologized and paid up, then expect everyone to “move on with their lives.”

There are all kinds of closure; and continuing to redress the abuses of the past in any form possible is the best way to restore justice for both victims and victimizers.

Next Sunday, the University of Washington is doing just that; and, by doing so, it will reaffirm the integrity that is a necessary value in an institution of higher learning.

Fred Korematsu, who was born in 1919 and took his country to the highest court, had this to say in 2004, one year before he died: “No one should ever be locked away simply because they share the same race, ethnicity, or religion as a spy or terrorist. If that principle was not learned from the internment of Japanese-Americans, then these are very dangerous times for our democracy.”