"What Do You Know About the Camps, You Weren't Even Born Yet!": A Sansei View on the WWII Incarceration of Japanese Americans

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Manzanar Pilgrimage

 from East Wind Magazine Vol. 1 No. 1 Spring/Summer (1982)

Subheadings were added to the original publication to
by Evelyn Yoshimura
Some people ask me, a Sansel, why I am so concerned about the camps. After all, it didn't really affect me - I wasn't even born yet. But as far back as I can remember, my parents, relatives and their friends would always make references to "before camp," "during camp," "after camp." There were never any actual feelings expressed, but I knew it was a significant event in their lives. I remember seeing pictures of my parents, aunts and uncles and their friends, all looking very young. smiling for picture takIng with usually one of the young men in an army uniform. All of them were standing in front of what looked like a shack, with sandy dirt below their feet.
I was born in Denver, Colorado, three or four years after my family left camp in Poston, Arizona. We returned to Los Angeles when I was three years old, and settled In the Crenshaw area. I can remember when we tried to buy a house. The people flat out told us they didn't want "Japs" in the area.
But during this time, there were profound changes happening across the country. Black people were building up the Civil Rights Movement and taking a stand against discrimination in housing and other areas of life. So by the time I was in junior high school, Crenshaw was about 1/3 Japanese and other Asians, 1/3 Black and 1/3 white.
Who are We?
My family was really active in the Buddhist Church. At church I would really feel good, like I truly belonged, and I learned a lot about my culture and identity. But sometimes, outside of church, I would feel a little uneasy, because Buddhism seemed sort of "strange" or "exotic"' to my non-Japanese friends.
Even though the Japanese community had an identity, we were still greatly affected by the "white is better"' philosophy of the American culture. My girlfriends and I used to put scotch tape over our eyes to make them look bigger; people with very Asian eyes were made fun of. Having a white boyfriend or girlfriend was seen as a status symbol And at that time, it would make both Asian men and women feel resentful, and not quite up to par.
Drugs, fighting, alienation - these were ways we expressed our frustrations. At that time, I didn't understand why Japanese Americans stuck together so much, concentrated in our communities. It seemed so provincial I thought the problems that existed in our-communities were a result of us sticking together.
Knowing History
When I went to college, in the late '60s, I looked forward to getting away from the Nikkei community. But it was really a cultural shock. I met white people who had never seen a Third World person before in the flesh, and they would have all these wild stereotypes. I met Asians who had little or no contact with other Asians. I noticed that sometimes while walking through campus, Asians upon meeting each other, would look the other way or even walk in the other direction.
Then the profound rumblings taking place making big changes in the country began affecting the college campuses. The Third World Strikes at U.C. Berkeley and San Francisco State gave rise to Asians and other Third World people in every college demanding Ethnic Studies that would teach us our true history; special admissions that would make up for years of discrimination; and demands that the colleges teach an education that was relevant to Third World communities.
It was within this context that I began to learn about the World War 11 concentration camps that my parents, grandfather, aunts and uncles and oldest brother were imprisoned in. Forced evacuation and imprisonment of Japanese Americans was a culmination of over 50 years of racism against Nikkei from the day the f irst Japanese workers set foot in the U.S. I began to learn about the details of this brutality that led to the evacuation. And I began to understand all of the seemingly isolated events in my own life when seen as part of a larger story of Nikkei people's uphill struggle against 100 years of racist laws and racist terror. Then things began to fall into place.
Coming Apart
The World War II concentration camps ripped apart the fabric of the Nikkei community, destroying the cohesion and survival network built over 50 years of struggling in racist America. The evacuation pitted one group against the other, splitting the unity that was needed to effectively respond to this attack, with questions of loyalty to the U.S., to Japan and especially loyalty to each other.
The barbed wire left a deep gash in the f lesh of Nikkei that still aches today, 40 years later. Nikkei have the highest rate of alcoholism of any Asian/Pacific group; we have a very high rate of high blood pressure and heart disease, resulting in the premature deaths of many Nisei. Doctors in the Japanese American community feel that these stress reiated elements are a result of the evacuation and the burden that people have had to bear all these years.
There is very high drug abuse among our youth. In 1970, 31 Sansei in Los Angeles overdosed on drugs. In work done around that time with many of these youths, a reoccurring theme was a lack of positive identity. They made comments like, "My parents don't hug and kiss me the way parents do on TV. I don't think they really love me."
In less than three generations, we have almost lost our language. Not only do an overwhelming number of Sansei not understand or speak Japanese, but many of their Nisei parents don't either. These and other problems are hidden and neglected because of the myth that Japanese Americans are "doin’ fine."
Tieing the Community Together
These seemingly isolated problems can be better understood when seen as a policy of forced assimilation directed at Nikkei people, beginning with the mass and brutal uprooting of a whole people into the camps or forced inland; the destruction of the community structure and leadership; and the conditions of leaving the camps. We were told to stay away from other Japanese; we were told to take on habits acceptable to white America.
But despite the odds, Nikkei people still returned after the war to rebuild our communities. Many chose to avoid the West Coast, wanting to blend in so they could not be singled out again. In the past 20 years, many of these Nikkei have returned to Nikkei communities on the West Coast.
I began to understand that Japanese American communities are the foundations of power and support. The community provides an environment to resist assimilation, which instead of offering equality, makes us give up our culture and identity. But just living together in the community is not enough. We have to fight actively for equality.
And in the past few years, there is a definite resurgence of pride, identity and interest in our cultural history. Japanese American history classes have been initiated in the community by groups of varying ages and interests. The film, Hito Hata: Raise the Banner, dramatizing the Issei struggle against the racist environment, has drawn phenomenal responses in the Nikkei communities. In places like Denver, Fresno and other cities people will drive from miles around to see the film. In Boston, Nikkei from the entire New England area came to see the film.
Reparations: Out of the Camps
But perhaps the single most important development in building Japanese pride and identity is the movement for reparations and justice. A forty year silence is being broken, and people are coming forward to speak their bitterness, to demand justice and compensation for the brutality and cruelty of the evacuation. The recent Commission hearings held across the country have been a powerful outpouring of anger, pain, humiliation which is being turned into strength, unity and action to reclaim our destiny and future as a people. As one person from Gardena testified, “After 40 years, only now are we finally getting out of camp.,"
The government commission is currently preparing a recommendation to Congress on remedies for the evacuation and internment. We are working now in the reparations movement to continue to pressure the commission to make a strong and just recommendation. Also, Nikkei are building momentum and support for a legislative bill for direct appropriations.
But beyond these things, the reparations movement has already been victorious in activating and uniting broad sectors of our community. This movement has activated those who have never marched in a demonstration before and those who have never spoken out in public. It is activating people who were involved in the previous struggles for Ethnic Studies and against drug abuse, but who have since become less active. It has begun to unite a long divided community, with World War I I veterans of the 442nd marching and working alongside Nikkei revolutionaries. Sansei law students are working on committees with 70 year old gardeners. Parents are finally beginning to tell their children what the U.S. government did to them and to gether, we are fighting for justice.
Who We Are
This movement represents a resurgence of our pride and dignity as a people. When our children and, grandchildren ask us what we did.. about the camps, we can say proudly, we fought with all our hearts for. justice and reparations.
The reparations movement also represents a chance to set the story straight about who the Nikkei people really are: we have not all "made it;" we are not alI rich; we are not all professionals. As of the 1970 census, 20% of our Issei senior citizens were living below the poverty level; 2/3 of our community is part of the working class. The 1980 figures have yet to be released, but we all know that the economic situation is not getting any better. In fact, things are getting much worse.
We have much in common with other Third World people in the U.S. Our demands for reparations are part of a larger struggle to win justice and equality for all Third World people in the U.S. Thus, our movement reaches out to Japanese people, other op pressed nationalities, and all people who support justice and equality.
The reparations movement is an effort to unite Nikkei to gain political power. The power we seek, however, is not for a few wealthy Japanese who claim to represent us only to climb on our backs and look down on other minorities and laboring people who built our communities.
In order to get real power and equality, we must fight for fundamental change. The racism and greed that put our people into the camps is no accident. This country
was built on the slavery of Black people, the genocide of Native American people and the theft of their lands, the subjugation of Chicanos and the contract labor of Asians and other more recent immigrants from the Third World.
I can see now that the suffering that racism has caused me and my people will end only when we stand up as a people, taking our place alongside other nationalities and working people to overturn this greedy, misery-producing system of capitalism. We need to create a new system not based on profits for a few but on a better life for the many, a society where Japanese and other oppressed nationalities are free to exist and develop freely.
Evelyn Yoshimura is a longtime activist in the Japanese community. She works at the Little Tokyo Service Center and lives with her husband and daughter In Los Angeles' Crenshaw neighborhood.