When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, prompting the incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, only a handful of Americans took steps to oppose it.
Now, survivors of those camps are trying to make sure that immigrant detainment doesn’t go unopposed again.
On Friday, four survivors of the camps gathered in San Francisco’s Japantown to call on Japanese-Americans to oppose family separation and detainment of children by the U.S. government. The panel, which also included two Japanese-American activists, was hosted by the Bay Area Day of Remembrance Consortium.
“It’s the concept of the way these people are being treated,” said Chizu Omori, a former resident of the government camps. “It’s the racism. That’s the thing that gets to me — that peoples of color are particularly being singled out for exclusion from our country.”
At about the age of 13, Omori and her family, a farm family in San Diego County, were incarcerated in Poston, Arizona.
She recalled her parents signing repatriation papers to return to Japan because her father was an issei — a first-generation Japanese immigrant living in North America, which was illegal at the time.
“This was a very devastating thing to happen because I really didn’t know very much about Japan and didn’t think of myself as Japanese, and I didn’t want to leave America,” she said.
The civil rights activist, who now works with the nonviolent action project Tsuru for Solidarity, plans to protest in Washington, D.C., against the detention centers and family separation policies in June.
Sadako Kashiwagi, another speaker at Friday’s event, lived with her family as tenant farmers in the Sacramento area and was incarcerated in Arboga and then Tule Lake, California.
“We were there because we were rejected,” she said. “It was really dark because your country tells you you’re not good. So you reject your language, your food — your culture.”
Her father, who was known as a troublemaker to the authorities, was reported to the FBI, she said. The bureau separated them for several months.
“I really feel for those kids,” Kashiwagi said, referring to the immigrant children being separated from their parents today. “And all I can say (to them) is: Know your language, be proud of who you are, be strong, be kind and smile.”
For film producer Jon Osaki, who accompanied the former detainees on the panel, it was essential to note that the faults of the times are being repeated today.
Osaki said that some Japanese-Americans believe that immigrants detained today deserve it because they’re illegal.
But during World War II, he said, the Immigration Act of 1924 banned Japanese immigration; one-third of those detained were isseis and illegal for that reason; and those who resisted the mass roundup and incarceration of Japanese-Americans were technically breaking the law.
“Today, as a community that has experienced one of the greatest civil liberties violations in the history of this country, we have an opportunity to push back against the same sentiment that banished our mothers and our fathers and our aunts and uncles and our bacchans [grandmas] and jiichans [grandpas],” he said.
His parents, too, were incarcerated at camps before they met.
“The incarceration is ultimately about politics,” he said. “It was about people who did not want Japanese in this country, and politicians who are trying to placate their political base and use fear, to win elections.”
Japanese-American activists are hosting a rally in front of the ICE Headquarters on Feb. 14 and a procession through Japantown and a reception on Feb. 16 at AMC Kabuki Theaters.