From internment camps to Congress

The Second World War’s internment camps for Japanese-Americans were an extremely shameful period in US history, made more so by the nation’s attempt to cover it up as quickly as possible. The camps were located in extremely remote regions, cut off from society, and when the war was over, they were for the most part quietly destroyed. Those that have been turned into parks and places of reflection show the wear of decades of attempts to ignore a time that we should be openly discussing, the confluence of circumstances that took people out of their homes, forced them to forfeit their property, stripped them of dignity, forced them to sign loyalty oaths when they wanted to volunteer for the armed services.

Remembering our history on its face is important. From the time that Asian-Americans first entered the United States, they were met with xenophobia, hostility, and exclusion. They weren’t permitted to own land, to make interracial marriages. They endured occupational restrictions and after the Chinese Exclusion Act, immigration from nations like Japan and China was tightly checked. Warnings about the ‘Yellow Peril’ scaremongered and contributed to acts of xenophobic hatred in the First and Second World Wars. During Vietnam and Korea, refugees were treated terribly upon arrival in the United States, even when they were fleeing the governments the US was allegedly fighting. The US has done really poorly by Asian-Americans.

But also, the oft-repeated saying that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it is important to recall as well, and it really comes into play here. While Donald Trump may be a bombastic gasbag, people listen to him, and his anti-Muslim comments are well documented, but he’s also made asides about Japanese internment camps, suggesting that perhaps we’d do the same thing again today and expressing uncertainty about whether that would be a bad thing. Trump supporters have spoken favorably of the idea (in this case, applying to Middle Eastern refugees, including Muslims, and sometimes just all Muslims), and in December, 48 percent of Trump supporters in Iowa said they thought internment was a capital idea.

We should be appalled just on general principle that people are seriously talking about Japanese internment camps favourably and laying the groundwork to do the same to people coming to this country seeking refuge and/or practicing Islam. This is gross. But moreover, for those in doubt, we have first-hand testimony about how terrible the camps were, and it comes from people who lived in them, because while the generation that endured World War Two is dwindling, people from that era are in fact still alive, and one, Representative Mike Honda, happens to be a sitting member of Congress.

The California Congressman wrote an opinion editorial for Time in December, discussing the controversy over Trump’s recent remarks and the surprisingly glib approach to internment from his supporters in an extremely fiery piece: ‘Trump’s dangerous rhetoric seeks to score cheap political points by preying upon the same climate of fear, hate and distrust that seized us after the Pearl Harbor attacks.’

The availability of this kind of testimony and oral history from people who directly experienced past events is a really incredible resource and valuable societal tool, and it should be taken seriously. This generation is starting to fade away, and their memories will be lost unless we preserve them. At 74, Rep. Honda was quite young when he was in the camps, but the experience had a lasting impact, just as it did on George Takei, who debuted a play, ‘Allegiance,’ about the subject last year.

Rep Honda writes:

I was an infant in 1942 when my family and I were forcibly imprisoned at the Amache internment camp in Colorado. I spent the next three years of my life living behind barbed-wire fencing. Even after we were released, I, along with other Japanese-Americans, faced anti-Japanese slurs and insults in a post-World War II America. We developed a sense that somehow we had done something wrong. It was my father who helped me realize that our ‘crime’ was simply being of Japanese ancestry.

Adults often think of children as highly adaptive and flexible, which they are, but they can be deeply scarred by childhood experiences. Epigenetics matter — the conditions in the camps actually shaped Rep. Honda’s very biology — but so does the experience of growing up with experiences of deep marginalisation and oppression. For a small child to hear, for years, that he’s garbage because of his racial origins, is incredibly damaging — look to the story of a terrified Muslim-American child who started packing her things because she was terrified of deportation, triggering #IWillProtectYou, a social media movement among US servicemembers reaching out in an attempt to make her feel safer in her own country. A small child viewed the military that’s supposed to defend her safety, security, and freedoms as the enemy, and who can blame her in a violently xenophobic political setting like this one? It was the military that dragged Japanese children from their homes in the 1940s, so why not again to Muslims in the 2010s?

Rep Honda discussed the camps and their consequences in vivid detail, and railed against a return to these kinds of politics in the US, but he also noted something else: In the 1980s, widely-regarded conservative icon Ronald Reagan supported apologies to Japanese-Americans caught up in internment camps, often over opposition from his own party. He believed that the US had done the wrong thing and was ready to own it. Trump has spoken highly of Reagan, ignoring parts of Reagan’s policies that don’t suit his agenda, but it’s chilling to consider the fact that on a huge number of points, Reagan was almost leftist in comparison to the Republican party of today, and definitely when contrasted with Trump.

When a notoriously conservative Republican president looks almost appealing, we need to talk about our backslide into the events of history. We’ve already lived through the collective national shame of hunting people down for being Japanese-American, of hounding people for being communist, of isolating people for having HIV. Shall we add this to the list, or not?

Image: Paul and May Ishimoto, National Museum of American History, Flickr