AMERICANS THROUGH IT ALL
The unexpected terrorist attacks that took place on the eastern coast of the United States on September 11, 2001, had an immediate, devastating effect. In addition, those atrocities have had an impact which continues even today on the Constitutional rights of all American citizens. Because of the aggression directed against our country that day, all of us have been subjected to heightened security procedures and a loss of individual freedoms of movement and expression. Acts of war took some of our freedoms away. Historically, this has happened before. During the 1940s it occurred on a much more intense and invasive scale. An examination of the relocation of the Japanese during World War II has lessons to teach about rights and responsibilities today.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor will always be remembered. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese managed to plot a strategic bombing on the Hawaiian Islands that was so well planned that the Japanese bombers were able to fly through the skies without the American people or government knowing what was happening.
The fear of this happening again led to an unreasonable panic about the loyalty of the Japanese living on the West Coast. Some Americans worried that it might be too convenient for Japan to contact its people living in the states of Washington, Oregon and California. These people might be spies for the Japanese leaders or, worse, they might help them invade our mainland or destroy strategic resources like oil refineries. These Asians living among us -- who didn’t look like us anyway -- might be dangerous.
It was determined that they must be moved to the inner part of the country until the war was over so that there was no possibility that they could help Japan invade the United States.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which stated that people could be removed from certain areas in the United States if the military deemed it necessary for national security. Under this proclamation, all of the Japanese men, women, children and elderly were to remove themselves from the Western Coast of the United States.
It was nothing more than the color of their skin and the shape of their eyes that led to their rights as American citizens being trampled. Even though the rights of Japanese Americans were ripped from them after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they upheld their responsibilities as American citizens.
Many Japanese Americans felt that they were demonstrating their loyalty to their country by willingly cooperating with the order to relocate. In the Japanese language there is a “traditional phrase ‘shikata ga nai’ (it can’t be helped; there is no way out), which they considered relevant to their cooperation with the evacuation order” (Takezawa 23). They were carrying out their responsibilities as citizens by unquestioningly obeying their government in this matter.
At first, the moving took place voluntarily. Families went to live with friends or relations in the inner states for the duration of the war. But soon, the military stepped in and ordered that within two weeks’ time all Japanese people were required to reduce their belongings to the clothes, blankets and eating utensils they could carry with them. Everything else had to be gotten rid of or sold. They had to hurry, so whatever they sold was offered at prices next to nothing compared to what they were worth.
They had to leave behind their homes and businesses. Through all of this indignity and humiliation, they believed their government knew what it was doing. It was their responsibility to comply, and most quietly did.
Because of the wide age-range of people relocated, “federal officials attempted to conduct this massive incarceration in a humane manner” (Funada 1). Yet, the truth is that the Japanese people were escorted by train to the relocation camps and guarded at those camps by American Army men in guard towers. It was the WRA, the War Relocation Authority, that built ten permanent relocation centers throughout the United States which were to exist until the end of the war. “They were to be located away from strategic points, on public land and large enough to become home to more than 5,000 people” (Kessel 4).
“These camps were hastily built and made of green wood that shrank to produce cracks that let the weather in” (Kessel 4). They were covered with tar paper, but the coldness of the winters and the blistering hotness of the summers came right in. These camps would hold, until the end of the war, the more than 120,000 Japanese Americans who were forced from their homes on the West Coast. One of the places that the Japanese were removed to was a relocation camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming.
Another area in which the Japanese Americans maintained their responsibilities to the United States was in their military service. As American citizens, they, like any other young men in the country who wanted to prove their responsibility to their homeland, signed up for the draft. Many were classified 1-A. After Pearl Harbor was bombed, they were reclassified as “enemy nationals” and “rated 4-F -- those physically, mentally or morally unfit” (Hosokawa 397). When their requests to join the army were denied, they felt their rights as voluntary defenders were denied. However, they remained willing to help out.
Meanwhile, messages were being sent over the airwaves and in written communications from the Japanese in the complicated language that they thought was too difficult for Americans to figure out. The military realized they needed help in translating the correspondence. The language was too hard to learn quickly, so Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) were recruited to interpret the messages. Once again, the draft was expanded to include people of Japanese ancestry. Once trained, Japanese American army translators quietly waited for battle plans to be intercepted, then worked furiously on them when they were brought in. “They worked in back rooms, out of public notice. Their skills and abilities helped to shorten the war because the U.S. knew battle positions and plans, sometimes before they happened” (Hosokawa 398). In this way, the Japanese proved they were responsible citizens, even while their families were kept behind barbed wire in relocation camps without the basic rights of free people.
Another way the Japanese Americans were able to serve in the military occurred in Hawaii, where prejudice against the Japanese was not a big factor. The Hawaiian National Guard became federalized as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. It was made up entirely of people of Japanese ancestry. “They fought valiantly in Italy and France, with more casualties and more decorations than any other unit of comparable size and length of service in the army’s history” (Conrat 23). They, too, showed responsibility when their families had few rights.
There was one more group of young men concerned with military service, that, on the surface, may have appeared anti-American. At the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp members of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee chose to resist the draft on the basis that their constitutional rights were currently being denied. They “celebrated their loyal citizenship and expressed their desire to fight for America if they were recognized as Americans as Frank Emi explained in a 1976 interview: ‘We really felt that what the government did was just combining two wrongs: first evacuation, putting us in camp, and then drafting us out of camp without any talk of restoring our rights or clarifying our citizenship status.’ A courageous act of civil disobedience, the Fair Play Committee sought to reclaim their loyalty and liberties through passive resistance” (Fujimoto 3).
Finally, the most obvious way that the internees honored their responsibility as American citizens was the way they carried on with their daily lives in the relocation camps. They followed a normal routine of life even when their lives were far from normal. Within the premises of the centers, they were allowed a certain amount of self-government. They elected their own block leaders. They published their own weekly newspaper; at Heart Mountain it was called the Sentinel. They also set up their own businesses like barbershops, fire stations, churches and hospitals.
They showed that they wanted to be responsible citizens by establishing schools -- both elementary and high schools -- within the compound so their children could continue to be educated.
There was a positive side to the camp experience. For the first time the Nisei could fill a variety of social roles that had been closed to them in their home communities. Those in school became student-body leaders, captains of athletic teams, and editors of yearbooks. Those with teacher training could teach; others took on community leadership at an earlier age than would have been possible otherwise. (Daniels 68)
Adults, too, could attend classes on topics such as American history and government, Japanese arts, and secretarial skills and bookkeeping. The Japanese took their education very seriously. They saw a need for it beyond the walls of the classroom.
At the commencement ceremony of the first graduating class from Heart Mountain High School in June of 1943, the valedictorian, Li Kako, gave the graduates some inspiring advice. “We must take the lead, not only for the other Nisei, but also for our parents who led our way in the past” (“First Year at Heart Mountain” 1).
In the end, exercising this responsibility to be educated helped the Japanese Americans after the war was over. They successfully moved back into communities. They often worked harder than their neighbors and built up solid businesses because of it. “They had gotten an education at the insistence of their parents, so when it came time [to use what they had learned] they had the tools to do the job” (Hosokawa 488).
At first, the government denied its responsibility in this unfortunate incident and stuck to its claim that the relocation had been a “military necessity“ (Takezawa 33). They did, however, offer some compensation for property losses. In 1948 President Harry Truman signed a law that allowed those who suffered monetary loss because of evacuation to file claims for partial compensation. “The Act had many serious shortcomings. First, there were limits on how much they could be paid. Secondly, for claims larger than $2,500, the money had to be appropriated by Congress, so getting any money took a very long time. And thirdly, the claims had to be supported by documentary evidence which was often lost because of evacuation” (Takezawa 34). That small, partial repayment was the end of the government’s facing its responsibility for many more years.
With the political unrest of the 60s and 70s, civil rights groups realized that Executive Order 9066 had never been removed from the books. “In 1976, as part of the bicentennial celebration of the American Revolution, President Gerald R. Ford used the thirty-fourth anniversary of F.D.R.’s Executive Order 9066 to issue a proclamation repealing it” (Daniels 90).
To further study the possibility of the government’s responsibility in this dilemma, in late 1980, Congress and President Jimmy Carter created the Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. “The Commission’s mandate was to determine whether any wrong had been done to Japanese Americans during World War II, and if so, to recommend appropriate remedial action to the Congress” (Daniels 91).
Three years later, in early 1983, the Redress Commission issued its report “Personal Justice Denied.” Its finding reads
The report included the recommendations that the government would offer a formal apology along with a one-time payment of $20,000 to any survivors of the relocation camps. It also called for the establishment and funding of educational activities to tell others about the causes and circumstances of this event.
Through grassroots efforts and legislative lobbying, “the redress movement -- the term that Japanese Americans and their supporters used to describe their struggle for official recognition that a grievous wrong was done to them“ (Daniels 91) -- continued. As one old homesteader from the area near the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, when asked why he supported -- 50 years later -- establishing a memorial about the camp, stated, “This is one of the worst things that the government ever did to people. Those people were all incarcerated; they were never charged with [anything]. They were never tried for any offense, but they [were] penned up for three years” (Warrington). Their rights had been trampled; who was responsible?
The Civil Rights Act of 1988 enacted into law the recommendations of the Redress Commission. Finally, the United States government recognized that it was responsible for denying the rights of some of its citizens. The first checks were issued in October of 1990. They were accompanied by a “letter of apology, signed by President George Bush, acknowledging, ‘a monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories….But we can take a clear stance for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II’” (Takezawa 28). The checks were sent out, beginning with the oldest person who had been incarcerated and going in order all the way to the youngest. The U.S. accepted its responsibility in this hardship.
So, even though the rights of the Japanese were so rudely taken from them after Pearl Harbor, they chose to follow the higher path of duty to their country and upheld their responsibilities as citizens through the turmoil. Eventually, the U.S. government recognized its responsibility in the grave injustice.
And now, the responsibility becomes ours. The Constitution reads the same today as it did in 1942. “The Constitution and laws are not sufficient of themselves; they must be given life through implementation and strict enforcement” (Conrat 110). Each of us bears the responsibility to see that the tragedy that happened to an entire group of people shall not happen again.
Unfortunately, this may be easier said than done. When we think of the airport screening policies directed toward males of Middle Eastern descent since 9/11, we should all be horrified. Because of the color of their skin and the spelling of their last names, the rights of American citizens are being trampled once again. Our voices of protest against unwarranted searches and other injustices should ring loudly on editorial pages and in courtrooms. Our actions of support for innocents caught in the backlash of ignorant racist response should be immediate and unconditional. Rights are maintained and won through the exercise of responsibility. Are you responsible?
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