On February 19, 1942, many Japanese-American lives changed forever. This day marked the enactment of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Executive Order stated that the American government had the right to protect “against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises and national defense utilities”1. They accomplished this by controlling any persons that they believed were a threat. Sadly, the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 by the Japanese forces was enough to persuade the American government that all Japanese-Americans were a threat. Therefore, the evacuation of Japanese-American peoples occurred, despite many of them having legal citizenship. Men, women, and children of Japanese decent were uprooted from their homes, and placed in concentration camps for years during World War II2.

The order affected those in the Santa Clara County of California as well. Throughout the county, persons of Japanese decent were evacuated on May 30, 1942 at 12 noon. Before evacuating, however, they summoned to the Civil Control Station located in the men’s gymnasium of San Jose State University in San Jose, California. It was at the University that the head of each Japanese family went to account for their family and the belongings that they were permitted to take with them to the camps3.

Ruth Asawa was one of the thousands of Japanese children who came to live in an internment camp. Born to a family of farmers in Southern California, Asawa always loved to draw. She spent a total of 18 month in internments camps beginning in 1942, finding her outlet in art. Once free of the camps, Asawa was inspired to use college and traveling to further her knowledge and skill as an artist. One of her many public commission projects can be found in San Jose, California, near the Federal Building and is entitled Japanese American Internment Memorial Structure4.

I went to visit the beautiful memorial in downtown San Jose. It is sculpted to depict different key moments of Japanese internment and the history of the Japanese-American people throughout that time. As I reflected and admired the structure, two scenes stood out to me. The first scene is of a Japanese-American family burning their belongings in front of their house. Toys are burned, children are crying, a car with bundles of things can be seen behind them. To the right of the fire, a row of mailboxes can be seen, and, in front of them, there are signs reading “Evacuation Sale” and “Furniture: all must be sold”. This scene brought a wave of emotion over me as I thought about evacuating my own home, burning my belongings, and not knowing what the future will bring. I cannot even imagine what it must have been like for them. The second scene that stood out to me is of a group of men in military outfits huddled around a fire. Behind the men are rows of crosses, symbols of those who have died. It is saddening to me that Japanese-American men fought for America during World War II while their families remained in the internment camps. Those who chose to fight were in an earthly purgatory – they lost respect from their families for supporting the American government, and they had no respect from fellow American soldiers who still viewed them as traitors. But how could those men have fought so honorably for our country, giving up their own lives, and still have been given no respect?

I hope an event like the Japanese internment will never happen again. I would like to think that we have progressed since the 1940s and have learned that acts such as those are uncalled for. However, fear is a strong and powerful tool. If the majority of peoples become fearful of something, their leaders may act, and even if those actions are rash, they may be unchallenged if they are seen as a good thing. I am sure that the U.S. government got away with imprisoning Japanese-Americans since their purpose was to further protect the American public. I just hope that we do not turn on our fellow Americans and view a certain race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. as traitors if something like this ever occurs again.

Footnotes:

  1. http://www.pbs.org/childofcamp/history/eo9066.html
  2. http://www.pbs.org/childofcamp/history/index.html
  3. http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/kt3p30207v/
  4. http://www.ruthasawa.com
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