Seventy-five years ago an executive order issued by then-U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt uprooted the families of Japanese and Americans of Japanese ancestry, or Nikkei, who were removed from Western coastal regions in the U.S. and taken to remote, guarded camps.
Sunday will mark the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which validated the principle of racial segregation.
And now the children and grandchildren of those internees are experiencing a sense of deja vu as they witness others being deported or separated from their families under an executive order signed by President Donald Trump.
With the renewed focus on immigration policies, some of the Nikkei, who honor their ancestors every year on Feb. 19, are calling for greater support for those faced with discrimination and prejudice and are encouraging others to act to stop history from repeating itself.
Trump signed his “extreme vetting” executive order on immigration on Jan. 27, which temporarily suspended America’s refugee program and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Although an appeals court earlier this month ruled against the travel ban, Trump has remained defiant, insisting the U.S. is at risk.
Dale Minami, 70, a San Francisco-based Japanese-American lawyer, called Trump’s travel ban “frighteningly similar” to the 1942 order.
Trump has already divided people and “created a country that looks down on certain citizens, just like Japanese-Americans were looked down on” during the war when they were “taken away from their homes and sent to prisons with no reason” or trial, Minami said in a telephone interview this week.
Minami’s family was sent to horse stalls at Santa Anita racetrack in California and then moved to the Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas. His grandfather was separated from the rest of the family and sent to New Mexico.
“The danger is that Trump is saying that the courts cannot review these orders, (that) he can act like a dictator,” Minami said.
Minami warned that Trump’s rhetoric resembles what led to wartime fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany and if society fails to resist, “he does become a dictator, he becomes a Hitler, he becomes a Mussolini.”
He said Trump had taken the nation back 100 years on the progress that had been made on “equality, to equal dignity, to valuing everybody’s lives.”
However he added, “Today, the difference we see is the court is now challenging Trump and the government. And I hope (the courts continue to) have the courage and the fortitude.”
Minami was a leading attorney in the 1983 landmark case that reopened and overturned a 1944 Supreme Court ruling against civil rights activist Fred Korematsu, who attempted to resist the relocation.
“(During the war) the court was afraid to challenge the government,” Minami said. “But 40 years later we found a lot of evidence that what was told in the Supreme Court was lies; we proved that in court.”
Minami also coordinated separate cases on sociologist Gordon Hirabayashi and lawyer Minoru Yasui, who, like Korematsu, violated exclusion orders and appealed their convictions. He was among researchers who discovered evidence that the government made false claims in both cases.
In 1988 the U.S. government offered a formal apology and compensated each of the surviving internees.
The legacy of their cases and the redress movement for civil rights “made the country more aware that the government made mistakes,” Minami said.
“Japanese-Americans’ commitment to tell their stories should have been a very strong force, a moral force in fighting back against discriminatory decisions.”
But he lamented that some people ignore or choose to disregard the lessons of history.
One of the lessons from the past, he said, is that “when we dissent against what we think is unconstitutional and racially discriminatory … we must stand up.”
He said people had to acknowledge all options of dissent available — legal, political and other forms — and understand that dissent is not the enemy of patriotism.
“Sometimes dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” he said.
“You have to find the courage to stand up and speak out. You have to find a voice and you have to communicate your position so that other people have the courage” to combat Trump’s politics of fear.
Tom Ikeda of Densho, a Seattle-based group documenting the testimonies of Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II, said that fear spreading across the U.S. may be long-lasting.
He compared Trump’s immigration policy to the ban on immigration from Japan in 1924, when Japanese immigrants were a small minority in the U.S.
“They were portrayed as ‘yellow peril,’ meaning they were dangerous, unable to assimilate into American culture and a threat to help Japan take over the United States,” Ikeda said.
Ikeda said he believed that Trump’s travel ban against Muslims may further trigger similar fears that could lead to targeting immigrants already living in the U.S.
“The danger is that, as a country, we start seeing Muslims as an imagined enemy within our midst,” Ikeda said.
The general public perception during the war was that the Nikkei community should be feared and such attitudes toward Japanese immigrants and their children persisted, regardless of whether or how they assimilated into American culture, he said.
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. government started the mass removal and incarceration of 120,000 Nikkei living on the West Coast, despite a lack of concrete evidence of any crimes committed by Japanese immigrants or Japanese-Americans.
Ikeda’s grandfather, Suyekichi Kinoshita, was among thousands interned under Executive Order 9066.
Kinoshita came to Seattle from Kagoshima in 1906, seeking better opportunities. After a decade, he married a Japanese woman and brought her to his American home.
On Aug. 21, 1942, together with his wife, Akino, and their children, including Mary — Ikeda’s mother — the Kinoshitas were sent to a camp in Minidoka, Idaho, with 9,000 other Nikkei, where they spent 3½ years.
Their eldest son, Francis, who volunteered to fight for the U.S. against the Germans, was killed by a sniper’s bullet while fighting in Italy, Ikeda said.
The ceremony commemorating his death took place “on a dusty field in (a) concentration camp,” Ikeda said.
“Much of the strength of America comes from immigrants and their offspring. My family is an example of this,” he said.
“Their hard work resulted in having many children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren who have thrived and contributed to America. The direct descendants from my grandparents became medical doctors, scientists, teachers, engineers, businesspeople, civil servants, nurses, etc., who have enriched their communities.”
Jim Tabuchi of Sacramento, California, said how people respond to the politics of fear matters for the future of society and the world.
Tabuchi’s mother was sent to the Tule Lake camp in California, and his grandparents were deported to Arkansas, where Minami’s family was interned.
“Whether we like it or not, America has stood as an international opinion leader for over 100 years now. Our actions matter to the rest of the world,” Tabuchi said.
“Racial profiling and segregation go against the grain of our American society, where we should strive to celebrate the liberty and freedom of the individual.
“Now is not a time to create more misdeeds that we will have to correct later.”