"Every year since the late 1960s, on the last Saturday in April, there has been a pilgrimage to a place called Manzanar in California, where one of 10 United States internment camps once stood. The annual journeys began as a way to remember those Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated during World War II and to mark a dark chapter in our history. The pilgrimage includes elderly original internees and their families, as well as neighbors of the site, schoolchildren and, since Sept. 11, American Muslims, who see parallels between what once happened and today.
Manzanar is the best known of the camps, because it often made the news during the war owing to unrest, strikes and even shooting deaths. At its peak, the camp held over 10,000 Japanese-Americans inside its barbed wire. Most hailed from Los Angeles, some 230 miles to the south. A vast majority were also American citizens, held without charge or trial for years, for the crime of looking like the people who had bombed Pearl Harbor.
Manzanar is now a National Historic Site thanks to the work of Sue Kunitomi Embrey and the Manzanar Committee, which lobbied for decades to obtain the designation. I have visited it often, but my personal pilgrimages have been to two other camps that once held my family and me. One is in Rohwer, Ark., in what was then fetid, uninhabitable swampland, and the other is in the cold, desolate wastes of Tule Lake, Calif. That was the harshest camp, with more than 18,500 inmates behind three layers of barbed-wire fence and with tanks patrolling the perimeter.
I was 5 years old at the beginning of our internment in Arkansas. I remember every school morning reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, my eyes upon the stars and stripes of the flag, but at the same time I could see from the window the barbed wire and the sentry towers where guards kept guns trained on us.
I was 7 years oldwhen we were transferred to another camp for “disloyals.” My mother and father’s only crime was refusing, out of principle, to sign a loyalty pledge promulgated by the government. The authorities had already taken my parents’ home on Garnet Street in Los Angeles, their once thriving dry cleaning business, and finally their liberty. Now they wanted them to grovel; this was an indignity too far.
A pilgrimage to Tule Lake also occurs every year, symbolically on July 4. I have gone three times. I remember a terrifying moment while I was held there when armed military police burst into the barracks and hauled away several young men.
On the pilgrimages, I finally saw where they had been taken: a concrete cell block called the stockade. On the concrete walls, there was graffiti, now made illegible by the passage of time. Also fading were brown splotches I was told were blood stains. This was what could happen in an America that had become un-American.
It has been the lifelong mission of many to ensure we remember the internment. Our oft-repeated plea is simple: We must understand and honor the past in order to learn from and not repeat it. But in the 75 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the internment of Japanese-Americans, never have we been more anxious that this mission might fail.
It is imperative, in today’s toxic political environment, to acknowledge a hard truth: The horror of the internment lay in the racial animus the government itself propagated. It whipped up hatred and fear toward an entire group of people based solely on our ancestry.
Officials claimed they could not distinguish among us to determine who were “spies” and “saboteurs” and who were innocents. Yet not a single instance of espionage or sabotage was ever prosecuted or proved among the 120,000 internees. It was the ultimate in “fake news,” encouraged by a vicious, jingoistic press and politicians seeking to capitalize on the national hysteria.
If this seems a practice only of years long past, consider that today we need merely replace “Japanese-Americans” with “Muslims” for the parallels to emerge. Once again, we are told by our government that a blanket ban is needed. So brazen is this same troubling logic that a Trump surrogate even cited Japanese-American internment as a precedent for the Muslim ban. Both rely upon the presupposition of guilt, one by race, the other by religion. Most chilling of all, both arise out of government policy and action.
When nations make historic mistakes, atonement may never truly come. It took almost 50 years for the United States to apologize to those it had interned. While modest reparations were eventually paid, it was far from enough to restore what had been so unjustly taken. My father, who bore our family’s anguish at the imprisonment hardest, died nine years before President Ronald Reagan’s 1988 apology, never to know of the government’s belated acknowledgment of the pain it had caused. To this day, the Supreme Court has not overruled its infamous Korematsu opinion of 1944, which validated our mass incarceration in deference to national security.
My way of remembering the cruelties of the past was to help found the Japanese American National Museum, as well as to turn my family’s experience into a Broadway show, “Allegiance,” in the hope that more will heed the warning. The pilgrimages to camps like Manzanar, Rohwer and Tule Lake are another way of honoring those who suffered, and lost, and had to rebuild shattered lives. They remind us all today of the threat to American values from cynically manufactured fear and the deliberate targeting of a vulnerable minority."