By Susan Hayase and Tom Izu
What once was a pivotal development can become routine.
In 1981, over 700 Japanese American former incarcerees and their Sansei children broke decades of silence on the injustice of the fall-out from Executive Order 9066 — a forced expulsion and mass incarceration that would upend every aspect of our community and demonstrate, not for the first time, the vulnerability of civil liberties in this country. Former incarcerees’ willingness to face their past for the first time was a crucial part of our community’s mental liberation and salved the relationship between generations. It was revelatory and a game changer. It made the redress movement possible.
But today, learning and re-telling family stories of the incarceration, while important historically and to many of us personally, is not enough. It’s no longer a game changer because times have changed and the political environment we are in has changed. The challenges facing our community have changed.
We’ve been debating this between ourselves for years; we want Japanese Americans to be a progressive force. We don’t want our community to drift to the right or buy in to the model minority stereotype. The struggle to win redress was fueled in so many ways by the emergence of the resistance narrative — the coming out of the draft resisters, the rehabilitation of Fred Korematsu and the other SCOTUS cases — but we’ve noticed that in the decades since then some people have promoted a hyper-patriotic JA story about the Brokaw-named “greatest generation” which flattens the human struggle and turmoil faced by young Nisei in the camps and turns it into an inspirational cartoon. We’ve joked about Japanese American “exceptionalism”, which implies that our people’s experience was unique and which flirts with the model minority stereotype of “earned” status and the privilege of being the object of benevolence after we “proved our loyalty.”
It was an accepted idea promoted by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) and by the many projects that were funded by the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund (CLPEF) and others, that telling the story of the expulsion and incarceration of Japanese Americans would illuminate the causes of that paroxysm of scapegoating and racism. Many of us hoped that this illumination, along with the redress victory and the Coram Nobis cases, would provide some kind of bulwark, however imperfect, against a recurrence of that civil liberties travesty. That strategy hasn’t been updated for a long time, and in the light of the Muslim ban and escalating ICE raids in all immigrant communities, clearly it’s not working!
We don’t think this outdated approach helps Japanese Americans understand the growing anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican/Latinx bigotry and policies. The old strategy hasn’t created the civil rights movement that the current political situation seems to require. The way we tell our history doesn’t help Japanese Americans navigate the issue of legal and “illegal” immigration amidst the roar of xenophobic pandering. Former incarcerees said “never again!” The truth is that it IS happening again, and we feel that our task is to re-open the discussion and find people who can unite around the need to mobilize Japanese Americans now.
This had been bothering us for some time – why was it relatively easy for Japanese Americans to support Muslim Americans but rarely draw the parallel with the Central Americans who were being deported and the Mexican Americans who were being vilified by the president? We talked about how we needed to deal with the ideological barriers that were holding JAs back. One of the active Nisei community leaders we approached expressed anti-Mexican prejudice and explained it as a kind of a “tradition” because of historical conflicts between Japanese American farmers and Mexican American farm laborers. But we knew that there were deep ties, too, from living and working in the same places. We knew from a moving story told by Luis Valdez in “Valley of the Heart” that Japanese and Mexicans had relationships in Santa Clara Valley that survived the internment. We knew that Raza Si, a community organization in San Jose, had consistently endorsed the redress campaign in the 1980s. We remembered when Border Patrol stalking of Mexican immigrant families in San Jose during the 1980s had been met with protests citing scapegoating similar to that against Japanese immigrants in 1942.
Another observation: the idea of citizenship has too much prominence in most versions of Japanese American history. We understand that this comes from wanting to highlight the egregiousness of civil liberties violations for citizens, but it obscures the fact that Japanese families were of ‘mixed’ citizenship, just as immigrant families are today — some members are citizens and some are denied citizenship. Issei immigrants were not citizens, were denied citizenship, and their rights under the U.S. Constitution were grossly violated. Attacks on non-citizen Issei were attacks on American families, and we must oppose similar actions today. We’ve considered saying “persons of Japanese ancestry” whenever we can instead of “Japanese Americans” because of this.
Lastly, we felt the mandate to “learn lessons” from our history tended to be vague and that the promotion of civil liberties usually tied to this sort of education lacked actionable direction. Sometimes the specific rights that were denied are listed (for example, the 4th Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure) but the “naive” question is never answered: Why did the Bill of Rights fail to protect us? Sometimes racism is cited as a reason, but even that’s not enough, partly because ending racism as a solution is such an overwhelming problem. Looking at historical and current day efforts to defend civil liberties, for example, non-partisan ACLU lawsuits against government policies, we understood that the violation of our civil liberties during World War II happened because too few stood up to defend us in 1942. The overarching civil liberties lesson of the concentration camps is that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are not self-enforcing. Civil liberties education has to include a clear call for a collective effort and a sense of obligation to defend the Constitution for everyone, regardless of immigration status, or it becomes an academic exercise only.
The #DontExcludeUs Project
In April, 2017, we were offered an opportunity to address some of these issues. We launched a community-based project for the Japanese American Museum of San Jose (JAMsj) we called “Don’t Exclude Us” aimed at rekindling a sense of unity with other communities of color with which we had historical and political ties. JAMsj received funding from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program and we solicited support from J-Town Community TV and the California History Center.
Through the project we conducted oral histories and public programs drawing the parallel between Japanese American history and the Mexican Repatriation, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Muslim Ban. We felt that local history and its tradition of capturing personal stories and testimonials could help our community emotionally connect and really understand what was at stake for targeted families. Because of the project goals, it was important to place the personal stories squarely in a civil liberties framework rather than just an historical one or just a psychological one; we wanted this sharing and knowledge to provide basic tools that we need to fight for equality.
Revisiting Local History
We started the project by reaching out to community activists in the Chinese American, Mexican American, and Muslim communities. We chose people who had a connection to the area that includes the San Jose Japantown because we wanted this “people’s research” to be based in a sense of place. We wanted to know where they were at, and whether they were on the same page as we were. Did they also see the connections, and what did they know about the concentration camps?
One of our first interviews was Connie Young Yu, a community activist in the Chinese American community, historian, and author of Chinatown, San Jose USA. Her ties to the area pre-date Japantown; her grandfather was a storeowner in the Heinleinville Chinatown which was located between 6th/7th streets, bounded by Jackson and Taylor and which was eventually the hub around which Japanese immigrants settled and built churches and businesses. Another among our group of interviewees was Teresa Castellanos, an immigrants rights activist, community organizer and educator. Her family was working as migrant farm laborers when she was born in California. We also interviewed Zahra Billoo, the director of CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations.)
We asked our interview subjects about their background, whether they had personal stories that relate to exclusion and when they had learned about the Japanese American incarceration, and what their thoughts were about the possible basis for unity between our communities. When we were finished, we felt that we had tapped into a deep well of unity and empathy.
Carmelita Gutierrez, labor activist with APALA (Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance) and another interviewee, said, “We have more in common than differences – even though our people came from different places, speaking different languages. And, even though we’ve been attacked and excluded , we’re still here. We’re still aspiring to building real peace, justice, and unity. We all have something to bring to the pot to make this country a better place.”
We decided to do two public programs with each focusing on a particular community that historically shared the San Jose Japantown area and faced extreme examples of exclusion similar to that of Japanese Americans: one focusing on the “repatriation” and mass deportation of the Mexican Americans during the 1930s, and one on the local experience of Chinese Americans who faced the 1882 Exclusion Act and had their downtown community in San Jose burned to the ground in 1887.
Family Separations in the 1930s and 1940s
On May 3, 2018, we held our first public program, entitled, “I Never Saw My Father Again.” Our intention was to establish a strong emotional connection between Japanese and Mexican Americans using the shared experience of family separations fueled by scapegoating and racism. We had no idea at the time that family separation would later become one of the defining issues in current resistance efforts.
In organizing this event, we reached out to the Santa Clara Valley La Raza Historical Society to create a bridge between it and JAMsj.
Jiro Saito, a former redress activist, was our first presenter. He shared the story of how his immigrant father was picked up from their family farm in San Diego County by the FBI, soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Never to be seen again by the family, he died while in custody in the Lordsburg Internment Camp in New Mexico, while Jiro, his mother and sisters were imprisoned at the Santa Anita Assembly Center before being sent to the Poston Concentration Camp in Arizona. Jiro shared that his family never knew why the FBI targeted his father nor were they given much information about his death other than that his heart had “given out.” Jiro was three years of age when he lost his father.
Dr. Francisco Balderrama, Emeritus Professor of History and Chicano Studies at CSU Los Angeles and co-author of Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, discussed how over one million Mexican and Mexican Americans were deported throughout the US during the 1930s after a campaign of hate and scapegoating. Seventy percent of those deported were U.S. born children, with many families torn apart. He presented personal stories and shared photographic images, eerie in their similarity to those of the World War II treatment of Japanese Americans including anti-immigrant signs and forced removal by trains. The title of the event, “I Never Saw My Father Again” was taken from an oral history of a man who lost his father during a deportation round up when he was about Jiro’s age. Dr. Balderrama stated how he helped organize efforts to seek redress for “repatriates” after being inspired by Japanese Americans and their fight for redress.
A question and answer session and discussion featuring Susan and Ammad Rafiqui of CAIR, ended the formal part of the event. The audience was clearly moved; the program and discussion had tapped into deep emotions about their own family experiences with exclusionary actions; from teachers expressing their grief for their Latino students terrified that their parents will be taken away while they are at school, to elderly Mexican and Japanese Americans telling their stories of loss and gratefulness that we can come together to share stories and seek support. Carmelita Gutierrez commented, “The most powerful image to me was the one with Japanese people being loaded onto trains shown next to the one with Mexicans being loaded onto trains ten years before. The scenes are identical. Our histories are so alike it’s painful to see it.” Panelist Ammad Rafiqi said that Jiro’s account of the FBI raid that included the confiscation of the butsudan or family shrine, reminded him of FBI interpretation of Muslim religious symbols as inflammatory or evidence of “a political ideology, a religious death cult and worshipping a satanic deity who is the alter-ego of a Judeo-Christian God.” He said that “displays of faith by Muslims such as religious literature in homes or displays of verses of the Quran in calligraphic form adorning homes; the presence of religious psalms/prayers digitally in phones or merely any images in languages such as Arabic have aroused the suspicion of FBI/Law enforcement agencies.”
We ended with a reception and additional time for everyone to share, talk, and process. Some participants from different communities had not seen each other for many years and this event had reconnected them again, for example, some Japanese Americans arrived with Mexican American friends from their days at San Jose High School decades ago. Judy Dang, our civil liberties grant project coordinator created an interactive art piece that had a “tree” decorated with Mexican paper flowers and Japanese Origami Cranes that attendees were asked to write on a golden “leaf” a message to help inspire unity between communities seeking justice and attach it to one of the branches of the tree.
Two Exclusion Acts
On June 7, 2018, we held our second public program, “Here to Stay — from Chinese Exclusion to the Muslim Ban” and while similar to our first, we added some additional elements. We started with an inspiring short social media style video created by Judy Dang from clips out of an oral history interview with local historian Connie Young Yu about using our history to help inspire us to take action. We also formally introduced representatives from the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project, another local history group we wanted to connect to the museum.
University of San Francisco Law Professor, Bill Ong Hing gave a mini “Ted Talk” style run down of immigration politics since the founding of the U.S. up to the “Muslim Ban” which had not yet been ruled upon by SCOTUS, focusing on how there has always been a battle over defining who can be an American and who is defined as “legal.” He ended by saying that this is the worst time he has ever seen in regards to immigrant rights as someone heavily involved in legal advocacy work.
A panel featuring another one of our oral history interviewees, immigrant rights activist Teresa Castellanos, and also Ammad Rafiqi from CAIR encourage participants to make the connections and join together.
For this event, we ended the formal discussion with a dramatic reading of short passages describing Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, and Muslim American personal experiences facing scapegoating and exclusion. Local Teatro Vision Artistic Director Elisa Marina Alvarado and former San Jose Taiko member PJ HIrabayashi assisted with this presentation that featured stories of Mexican Americans who were deported in their youth, the restrictions on Chinese Americans traveling during the Chinese Exclusion, and a reading about the family separations caused by the Muslim Ban.
Albert Low of the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project read a short excerpt of his grandmother’s story: “My name is Ng Jung Shee. The Chinese Exclusion Act made our lives very difficult. When my family wanted to visit relatives, we needed to apply for identity cards to prove that we were in California before we left for Hawaii or China. When we returned to the U.S. we were interrogated on Angel Island, even though we had the identity cards and even though we were American citizens. We even needed to get a white person to recognize us and to swear that we were the same individuals who had left and were now returning.” PJ Hirabayashi read the story of an American of Mexican ancestry, Ignacio Pina: “My name is Ignacio. I was born in America, but the white kids called me a Mexican. When I was deported to Mexico, the Mexican kids called me a yanqui. I was only a kid. One day I saw the Wizard of Oz and heard that song, “over the rainbow.” I couldn’t stop crying. I wanted to go home where I belonged. Today, it’s been 75 years, but I still have nightmares. It’s a feeling I will have until I die. The government did a very wrong thing.” Ammad Rafiqi said that this was a story about a family he had advised about the Muslim ban: “A family of Iranian origin sees a dark cloud hover over their impending moments of joy. A young woman is an expectant mother and soon to graduate from dental school. Like any daughter, she wants her Iranian citizen mother to witness these pivotal moments of her life but her mother is prevented from coming simply because of the crime of being born in Iran”
We ended again with a reception with an expanded interactive tree installation adorned with paper flowers inspired by both Mexican and Chinese designs and message ribbons about unity.
Both of our public programs pushed the envelope as to how our museum approached local history issues and demonstrated that other communities of color, as represented by their local history organizations, are eager to join forces and break out of their silos and find common ground.
Project Complete, but work is far from done
We think that the essence of Japanese American history, the Incarceration, especially when paired with the story of the Repatriation, the Exclusion, the Ban is cathartic. We’ve always known that acknowledging the full weight of the injustices done to our families can tear us up inside, but that persevering through that pain can liberate us. A basic understanding of the civil liberties framework and the beginnings of a deeper understanding of systemic racism and exclusionary campaigns can help us keep going in the fight for equality, this time together.
Our project team was inspired. Judy Dang, project coordinator expressed what many of us felt: “What can we do to help you do something in this tumultuous time? How can we inspire you – to care, to stand up for your neighbors, and to feel like you can do it? Those were our questions. I am honored to have been able to manage, design, video edit, and create artistic collaborations for this project in order to assist in those goals. I by no means did it alone and I think that’s one of the most important messages of this time: you’re not alone and you can’t stand alone. I’m glad to have learned this lesson from my fabulous team and collaborators from JAMsj and JTown TV. This was just the beginning and I hope “Don’t Exclude Us” continues to create a space for all people who feel like their histories and present concerns are being excluded from America – Asian, Muslim, Mexican Americans alike.”
Steve Fugita, JAMsj Board member said, “The Don’t Exclude Us programs featuring Profs. Balderrama and Hing were very valuable as they brought together diverse groups who were able to share their histories. Given the challenging times in which we live, when the civil liberties of vulnerable groups are again being trampled, the programs reminded us of similar past injustices and the need to fight contemporary ones. In support of this, the insights gained by members of the audience, most of whom don’t get an opportunity to meet, encouraged the formation of networks which can be tapped in the future.”
It seemed like our events addressed what other people were feeling, too. People want to connect, work together, share and understand each other, not just to “feel good,” but because it seems normal and right to do, especially in face of the hate and fear mongering engulfing all of us. Attendee Ren Castro, community advocate for health and labor rights, working with youth and young adults, remarked “Finally, a program in the 2000s, providing a safe space to help people learn about each others’ stories and to use that to figure out what to do now. I want to give a shout out to the Japanese American community for creating this space for crucial conversations that we must have now. We are reaching deep into our past to find what’s needed in the present. The baton has to be passed.”
While our project is now complete, our work is far from done. We didn’t receive sufficient funds to “mine” the interviews and video recordings of or events so we can continue and expand our work with the Mexican/Latinx and Chinese Americans we have begun. We also want to continue “Don’t Exclude Us,” to make new ties with other communities including African Americans and other APIs who also share the San Jose Japantown area. Through all of this we want to keep our Japanese American community in the fight.
Susan Hayase is a former chairperson of the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee (NOC,) participated in the founding conference of the NCRR (National Coalition for Redress/Reparations) and served on its steering committee. She was appointed by President Clinton to the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund Board and served as its vice-chair. She was a performing member of San Jose Taiko during the 1980s, and is a retired engineer. She is a member of the informal Yu Ai Kai Sansei history investigating team, a founding member of the new San Jose chapter of Nikkei Resisters, and lives in San Jose with Tom and their two sons.
Tom Izu has been involved in the San Jose Japanese American community for many years and was active in the local redress movement through NOC. He served as the Executive Director of the Yu-Ai Kai Senior Center, and administrator for the Cannery Workers Organizing Project. Tom serves on the advisory board of the Japanese American Museum of San Jose and on the Board of the Santa Clara Valley Chapter of the ACLU of Northern California. He is currently the Executive Director of the California History Center at De Anza College and coordinator of its civil liberties education project.
Photos provided by #Don’tExcludeUs
J-Town Community TV (youtube.com/c/jtowncommunitytv), a co-sponsor of the #DontExcludeUs project, has published video coverage of both community programs on their YouTube channel. Here are the links: