As issues around immigration flood the news, many have recalled the experience of Japanese Americans, who were forced to relocate to Internment Camps during WWII.
Officially sanctioned at the time, the act is now widely recognized as a grave injustice. Of the 120,000 people detained, the majority were U.S. citizens and none were ever found guilty of sabotage or espionage.
Many older adults in King County remember the experience, including Gloria Kawabori, an active member of Sound Generations’ Community Partner Shoreline-Lake Forest Park Senior Center.
On January 29, Gloria, who was born in an internment camp, spoke about her family’s experience at Queen Anne Christian Church.
She stressed the importance of sharing this story today, as xenophobia and racism continue to threaten the rights of people in this country. There are many who still do not know about Japanese Internment, or understand the extent of the injustice.
“I just heard from a friend this morning who said she had never heard of this happening,” Gloria said.
She described the day in February 1942 when her grandfather, a grocer in Santa Barbara, California, received a knock on the door from a federal agent who had come to arrest him. A humble, law-abiding man, he was known as a leader in the community who regularly helped other immigrants find housing and food. Shortly after his arrest, authorities took her grandfather to Bismark, North Dakota, where he was kept in an isolated cell. She never had the opportunity to meet him, as he fell ill in the camp and passed away. She can only wonder how things might have been different had he not been forced to relocate.
Illness was not uncommon in the camps, where conditions were unsanitary and whole families shared a single room. When Gloria’s parents were first relocated, they were taken to horse stalls that had not been cleaned since animals inhabited them.
Gloria shared that her husband’s father was also arrested, and was not able to see his son for three years.
Only three men refused to go to the camps and were imprisoned for their defiance. One of them, Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi, brought his case to the U.S. Supreme Court with the backing of the ACLU. Though the court ruled against him, the decision was overturned four decades later.
Hirabayashi summarized his principles in a 2001 interview:
“I would also say that if you believe in something, if you think the Constitution is a good one, and if you think the Constitution protects you, you better make sure that the Constitution is actively operating, in other words “constant vigilance.” Otherwise, it’s a scrap of paper. We had the Constitution to protect us in 1942. It didn’t because the will of the people weren’t behind it.”
It was not until fifty years later that the U.S. government officially recognized the unfairness of Japanese Internment and granted redress payments to remaining internees (though by that time many had passed away).
In 1991, President George H. W. Bush issued a formal apology, saying:
“In remembering, it is important to come to grips with the past. No nation can fully understand itself or find its place in the world if it does not look with clear eyes at all the glories and disgraces of its past. We in the United States acknowledge such an injustice in our history. The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated.”
The need to learn from our country’s history is critical, so that we do not become complacent or assume that our government will act in accordance with our own laws and principles. Gloria recalls sharing her story with a Pakistani American girl, who asked if something like that could ever happen to her family. Gloria answered, “We have to make sure it doesn’t.”
This sentiment is the mission and message of the Bainbridge Island Japanese Exclusion Memorial, the site of the first arrests, where it is stated: Nidoto Nai Yoni, or “Let It Not Happen Again”.