Friday, January 18, 2008

Japanese-American concentration camps

I used to teach Japanese at a high school in Santa Cruz. When checking out Japan-themed videos at the public library to use for class, I stumbled upon some videos about the concentration camps (or "internment camps" in the official parlance) into which all West Coast Japanese Americans were herded. I decided to show some of these to my students.
One video was about a handful of men who challenged their detention in court and lost, only to have their children revive the case forty years later and win. Other videos discussed the racial tensions at the time, the prejudice against not only Japanese Americans but all Asians living here, the hysterical propaganda films made by the government, and the obvious contradictions in our policies toward our fellow Americans who immigrated from Japan for the same reasons as those who came from anywhere else: for a better life than the one they left behind. Almost all of them were American citizens and most of them had been born here. Only the Japanese from the west coast were subject to this order, about 110,000 people. The Japanese of Hawaii, which had already been attacked, were not included in the internment even though they made up about a third of the population there. There was not one single instance of the much-feared sabotage by Japanese Americans that was used to justify their imprisonment. Many families found their houses occupied by white families when they tried to go back home after the war. One man was pulled out of his hospital bed in San Francisco while recovering from a gall bladder operation and sent to a concentration camp because his ethnicity made him threat to the United States.

A few days after I showed these videos, all sorts of info about the subject flowed into my life from many directions. The parents of a student who wasn't in my class gave me some posters ordering "all persons of Japanese ancestry" of Santa Cruz County to report to the local Veterans Hall in Watsonville for their confinement. I put the posters on the door and wall of my classroom. I found books written by people who had lived through the camps, including one by a Japanese Canadian woman who was imprisoned as a teenager along with 22,000 other people in British Columbia. One of the administrators showed me a clipping from a local paper, the Pajaro Valley Times or something like that, of a concentration camp survivor who goes around to area schools speaking about his experiences in the camps. We invited him to talk to our student body.

Mas Hashimoto was born in Watsonville to a farming family. He was as American as anyone else born here. He'd never even visited Japan until years after the war. He was sent to prison when he was SIX for the crime of being of Japanese descent. The family had one week to close up shop, get rid of most of their possessions (there wasn't much that they were allowed to take with them), and uproot themselves completely.
From his green, fertile, temperate, oceanside farm town he and his family were sent to the desert in Gila, Arizona. They lived in shacks that were still under construction upon their arrival. No heat, no privacy. He had to check his bed for scorpions before going to sleep at night. They had to rebuild their lives from scratch with no resources but their own ingenuity and a few gifts from friends on the outside, behind barbed wire and under the eyes of soldiers manning machine guns in watchtowers. They built their own schools, had no books for some time, formed a baseball league, held dances, married, had children, and buried their dead. His brother died there at the age of fourteen.
About two years into the internment the government offered its prisoners a chance to show their loyalty to their country by joining the military and fighting against the Japanese empire. Some men took the opportunity gladly while others were so disgusted by the treatment they had received that they preferred to remain in prison.
Mr. Hashimoto brought copies of the tags that the internees had to wear on their way to the camps and handed them out to the students. They had the locations of each camp printed on them for relevant authorities to mark so that they knew where to send their human cargo from the central processing facility in Oakland. He showed slides of pictures of his family before, during, and after the internment and images of the camps. While they certainly didn't compare to the Nazi death camps of the same era, they were nevertheless horrid places created out of the ignorance and xenophobia that have always been so prominent in our culture.
He told the students that one of the reasons he gives these presentations is that since 9/11 he sees something similar happening to Arab and Muslim Americans, people who are being victimized by the fears of their fellow Americans and made to suffer guilt by association. He doesn't want to see another group of people endure what he went through.
The students were deeply impressed by Mr. Hashimoto's presentation. They were full of questions for him. Afterward some of them told me that he was the best guest speaker we'd brought in all year.

I wish I'd been taught about this during my high school years. I knew that the camps existed, but that was about it. Regardless of how one feels about the necessity of imprisoning thousands of families for the sake of national security, every American should know the details of this period in our history from the point of view of those who experienced it first-hand.

No comments: