Why it's Important to Remember
Day of Remembrance

by Lillian Nakano

February 19, 1942 was a day that changed the lives of Japanese Americans forever.  I was just a teenage girl growing up in Hawaii when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which set into motion the removal and incarceration of over 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry in desolate inland concentration camps. After the imperial navy of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, a tense atmosphere of suspicion and hysteria engulfed the West Coast and Hawaii.  Decades of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian legislation and racism had already laid the foundation for the events that soon took place – we were rounded up without due process even though we had nothing to do with the attack.  Our family was shipped to California, then to Arkansas and finally to Wyoming for the duration of the war.

Upon our release from camps, everyone began to pick up the pieces of their wrecked lives, in the face of continuing racism and hostility.  For years after the camps, we suppressed our anger, bitterness and shame about the unfair treatment we got.

Today, many in the Japanese American community attend annual Day of Remembrance events in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities, with the goal of teaching new generations the lessons from that painful time.

February 19 is a day I do not wish upon anyone else. Now, the lessons are not just about events in a distant past, but events as they are occurring on a daily basis. Some of my fellow Americans are now being targeted because they are Muslim, Arab or Middle Eastern. When the attacks on the Trade Center happened on September 11, 2001, naturally I mourned for the innocent lives that were lost and felt deep sorrow for the victims’ families. But I also began to identify with and sympathize with the innocent Muslim Americans who immediately became victims of the same kind of stereotyping and scapegoating we faced 63 years ago. They have also become targets of suspicion, hate crimes, vandalism and violence – all in the name of patriotism and national security. 

Let’s not forget Gen. John DeWitt’s infamous words, “A Jap is a Jap.” Secretary of War Henry Stimson said, “Their racial characteristics are such that we cannot understand or trust even the citizen Japanese.” How painfully familiar it seemed to see Muslim and Arab Americans suspected and ostracized as potential terrorists solely on the basis of their ethnicity and religion.  With feelings of indignation and anger, I asked myself, “Can this be happening again?”

In the 1970s and 80s, inspired by the civil rights struggle, the Japanese American community fought a 10-year long campaign to win redress and an apology from the U.S. Government in 1988. This was to be the official government acknowledgment that the internment was morally and legally wrong and we were given hope that such an event would not be repeated.

Yet, today there are renewed attacks on civil liberties in the name of the “war on terrorism.”  Legislation such as the Patriot Act, and the government’s willingness to arrest and charge innocent people contribute to an atmosphere that could lead to future internment camps.

Some ideologues on the Right see the history and lessons of Japanese American internment as a big obstacle to national security.  They are attempting to rewrite history in order to justify government policy and racial profiling.  One notable example is Michelle Malkin’s In Defense of the Internment (2004), which not only rehashes the same untruths Japanese Americans have heard for years, but asserts, “The most damaging legacy of this apologia and compensation package [redress won by Japanese Americans] has been its impact on national security efforts.  The ethnic grievance industry and civil liberties Chicken Littles wield the reparations law like a bludgeon over the War on Terror debate.”

On this Day of Remembrance, let voices of honesty, reason, and fairness reaffirm the lessons of the Japanese American internment experience.  We must not again respond to crisis by scapegoating ethnic and religious minorities.  There is no justification for racism or denial of civil liberties – not in 1942 and certainly not in 2005.