My mother was born in Fukuoka, Japan. She fell in love with an American soldier (my dad) and moved with him to a small northern Virginia town. Though she arrived there well after World War II, my mother came to know all too well the sideways glances and outright scorn of white people who viewed her as the enemy.
Here’s another true story. My best class in high school was Freshman English with Mrs. Kiyoko Bernard. Woven among our exploration of great literature were stories Mrs. Bernard shared with us about her life. Like the story about how she and her young Japanese-American husband were forced by the U.S. government into an internment camp during World War II. This remarkable woman who touched our lives with her humanity and her encouragement suffered the degradation of having to bear her first child in an internment camp.
In the heart of Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles is the Japanese American National Museum. JANM is beautiful, always clean, with many windows allowing in natural light, knowledgeable docents, and engaging Japanese cultural exhibits and activities. As a Japanese language teacher, I have taken my students on field trips there many times. But the museum’s purpose extends beyond expanding awareness of Japanese-American culture. Founded by survivors of Japanese internment camps who pooled government restitution money to build the museum, JANM exists as a reminder that, even in the land of the free, especially during the toxic climate of war, fear can drive the masses to ignore, subscribe to–even call for–foul human actions.
In 1942, by executive order of the president of the United States, everyone of Japanese descent, including natural-born U.S. citizens like Mrs. Bernard, were forced out of their homes, businesses, and schools. The lash of wartime anti-Japanese rhetoric fell swiftly. Here’s the story my dear friend and second mother Pauline once told. Pauline grew up in Bellflower, California, when it was still a small farming town. One morning in 1942, when Pauline was twelve, she arrived at school to find many of the classroom seats empty. To her horror, she realized that all of her Japanese friends were gone. Pauline’s parents and other good-hearted neighbors attempted to keep the land for the Japanese farmer friends. Others took advantage and bought the well-worked Japanese farms on the cheap.
Meanwhile, Japanese-American soldiers in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team were fighting and dying in Europe for the very country that was forcibly interring their family members. 38 years later, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter called for an investigation into the government’s internment action. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians determined that interring Japanese-Americans had been a clear violation of their human rights and was stoked by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
Here is another true story. It is not set in the 1940s or the 1960s or even the 1980s. It happened very recently in the large metropolitan area in which I live.
My old friend Luke, whom I’ve known since high school, has a lovely wife Cathy who’s always been kind and generous toward my family, especially my children. Cathy is very involved in her church. During winter break, she invited my daughter and me over to decorate Christmas cookies. Some of Cathy’s church friends were there. The political discussion became uncomfortable.
One of Cathy’s church friends shared this story:
Across the street from her a Muslim family had moved in, and the church friend felt very unsettled about this. One day the Muslim mother, a woman in her thirties, even crossed the street with her six-year-old daughter and rang the church friend’s doorbell. The church lady was terrified. She peered through the peephole and panicked. What should she do? Her husband was at work, leaving just her and her own young daughter at home, and a woman in a hijab was standing there on her doorstep with a little Muslim girl beside her. So here’s what the frightened church lady did. Through her closed door, she insisted she would only open the door if the Muslim woman proved her patriotism by singing the national anthem.
And the Muslim woman sang.