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U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday pledged to tackle racism as his nation marks 80 years since the signing of a presidential order that led to the incarceration of some 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

Upholding the U.S. government’s apology to Japanese Americans who were unjustly sent to internment camps following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Biden said in a statement, “We reaffirm our commitment to ‘Nidoto Nai Yoni,’ which translates to ‘Let It Not Happen Again.'”

The incarceration of Japanese Americans — approximately two-thirds of whom were born in the United States — was carried out through an executive order issued on Feb. 19, 1942, by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, under the rationale they might spy for Japan or sabotage the war effort.

“Despite never being charged with a crime, and without due process, Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and communities and incarcerated, simply because of their heritage,” Biden said.

For years, many Japanese Americans lived in harsh, overcrowded conditions, surrounded by barbed-wire fences and armed guards. They not only lost their homes, businesses, property and savings but also their liberty and fundamental freedoms, he said.

Despite the unjust treatment of their community and family members, many second-generation Japanese Americans, known as nisei, volunteered or were drafted to serve in World War II not just to defeat the enemy but in hopes that a strong performance in combat might help to reduce the prejudice they faced in their own country.

The all-Japanese American 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team became known as two of the most decorated and distinguished military units in U.S. history.

“The incarceration of Japanese Americans 80 years ago is a reminder to us today of the tragic consequences we invite when we allow racism, fear, and xenophobia to fester,” Biden said.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on Friday. | AFP-JIJI
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on Friday. | AFP-JIJI

The U.S. government apologized for the incarceration and pledged compensation in 1988 under President Ronald Reagan.

Biden was sworn in to office last year at a time when hate crimes against Asian Americans were on the rise amid the spread of COVID-19, first detected in China in late 2019.

The administration has taken a series of steps to address racism against Asians and others in the country, including by signing into law in May last year a bill aimed at beefing up law enforcement response to hate crimes.

Proclaiming Saturday a “Day of Remembrance of Japanese American Incarceration During World War II,” Biden called on people in the country to commemorate the wartime injustice against civil liberties and to “commit together to eradicate systemic racism to heal generational trauma in our communities.”

During an online event hosted by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and other organizations, Japanese Ambassador to the United States Koji Tomita said Tokyo will continue to develop ties between the two countries with a “special emphasis” on the relationship with the Japanese American community.

The ambassador also expressed regret that the tragic history is not widely known among Japanese people today and vowed to promote knowledge and understanding on the issue among both Americans and Japanese.

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, who was sent to the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming with his family members, recalled how Japanese immigrants were labeled as “aliens” and Japanese Americans like him as “non-aliens” instead of being called “citizens,” as they were forced to leave their homes.

Noting that such terms were apparently used because it sounded “bad” to be rounding up “citizens,” he said, “I am 90 years old and to this very day, since that day in 1942, when I first heard about me being considered a non-alien, I have cherished the word citizen.”

He said it is necessary to “very clearly look in the rearview mirror on what occurred in the past, not to dwell on that issue, but to make sure that our hands are firmly set on the steering wheel” to head toward “the future to make sure that something like this never, ever, happens again to anybody.”

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