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How the barbed wire fences of Japanese internment camps were snipped

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At first, internment camp administrators prohibited photography of fences and guard towers. This image was published in the 1943-44 Manzanar high school year book. (Courtesy “Exclusion”/Presidio Officers’ Club)
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In “Storied Lives,” Gary Y. Okihiro’s book on Japanese-American students and World War II, there is a fascinating story about Roy Nakata and his parents who, while incarcerated, were willing to sacrifice “all they had” toward his education. It totaled up to a meager $2,000.

In the book — displayed as part of “Exclusion,” an exhibit on the Presidio’s role in the Japanese-American internment at the Presidio Officers’ Club — Okihiro writes that Nakata’s parents must have believed that their investment would “allow their son to achieve some measure of the American promise of equal opportunity” and thereby take him beyond the barbed wire fences of the racist concentration camp that was containing them.

Nakata was admitted to college in the fall of 1942, but not without some outside help.

“Roy Nakata’s father and mother have both helped in our home at different times for several years,” wrote Alice Sinclair Dodge in a letter to the dean of Oberlin College in Ohio. Making an impassioned plea for Nakata, she wrote about their family circumstances, “They had decided since they were forced to leave California for a Relocation Camp that this was the time to use all the family savings — very little over $2,000 — for Roy’s education.”

To get Nakata to college, Dodge had to identify colleges that were accepting Japanese students, despite their race; get letters of recommendation from Nakata’s high school teachers; procure Nakata’s transcripts; deal with the government to get Nakata released from internment camp by providing proof of acceptance, proof of financial solvency as well as attest to his good character. All this and more was done by Dodge, and Nakata went to college.

Many Japanese-Americans had to rely on the generosity of past connections to see them through those troubled times. It was a terrifying loss of agency that fostered both dependency and decency.

As the “Upstanders” display at the Presidio Officers’ Club puts it, “personal experiences, moral convictions, and the belief that people were innocent until proven guilty enabled a minority of Americans to see the racial prejudice and hysteria driving government policies.”

Journalists and politicians spread their brand of racism, ultimately culminating in the infamous Executive Order 9066.

It was a time when fake news proliferated, too. “The Los Angeles Times even reported that Japanese pilots shot down over Pearl Harbor were wearing class rings from the University of Hawaii,” reads the exhibit. How this was published without proof and believed by readers of the publication boggles the mind now.

The strains of human kindness have not been talked about much. While an overwhelming majority of people fell into the rut of racism — documented by public opinion polls showing support for Japanese incarceration — there emerged a few stragglers, like Dodge, who refused to accept the fear of the moment. Not every citizen bought the government’s rhetoric of “the Japanese enemy.”

Some chose to persevere within the system. Like Betty and Woody Emlen, who worked for the Student Relocation Committee, helping students go to college. In May 1945, Kiyo Ogawa wrote a letter thanking Betty Emlen: “If it was not for your council’s interest in us, I am certain that many of us would have faced many problems.”

The Emlens worked tirelessly, six days a week, raising money for Japanese-American students to attend college, preparing documents and finding schools that would accept them. Remarkably, Betty Emlen told Okihiro that those who helped Japanese students weren’t all that significant. They admired the dedication with which Japanese-American students applied themselves within their limited circumstances. “We thought it was important that these people should get an education,” Emlen said.

It was these “insignificant” anti-racist acts by those who were of a privileged and dominant class that quietly enabled the lives of many. During the war, some 5,500 people left the concentration camps for college, according to Okihiro.

Too often, journalists focus on stories of racism, myself included. But it’s stories like those of Dodge and Emlen, stories of determination and inconvenience, that we must make an effort to normalize. If we told these stories often enough, anti-racist acts would perhaps become commonplace and shape the character of our collective makeup.

Pages of our history have shown us it is easy for ideas about other people to take root, especially when they are driven by fear. But the opposite can also be true. Themes of compassion and honor could energize us as a community. That explains the success of Hollywood films like “Hidden Figures” and “Hacksaw Ridge,” which emphasize how transformative kindness can be and make the viewer feel good and relevant. So why are they not as prevalent?

It is important to make one differentiation to acts of generosity. They can become cumbersome if the recipients were not engaged and diligent in the act of self-improvement. “Those acts of anti-racism were complemented by the initiatives taken and forged by Japanese-Americans who were determined to chart their own lives despite the encircling barbed wire fence of the concentration camps,” wrote Okihiro.

With the rise of hate crimes since Donald Trump’s nomination, it makes sense to take a look at our past and reflect on what we did wrong as well as what we did right. As a society, we must keep in mind that, during the worst of times, a few people feel compelled to take risks for the benefit of others. We just need to find that person in us.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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