NFL linebacker Scott Fujita’s essay in Saturday’s Pro Football section of The New York Times was primarily a vehicle for his support of marriage equality, but he managed to mention that his father, Rod, a Japanese American, was born in an internment camp. Fujita, who is adopted, wondered how his three young daughters would react when they eventually learn about this dark chapter in US history.
“Initially, they might be shocked that this is part of America’s past,” writes the ten-year veteran and Super Bowl champion.
Although the timing of the essay was in anticipation of the Supreme Court justices hearing oral arguments on whether gay marriage is a constitutional right (beginning today, March 26), it also fell on the NYC Day of Remembrance, which was held on Saturday at the Japanese American United Church.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, targeting Japanese Americans as threats to national security and giving the US military the right to send anyone of Japanese ancestry, including American citizens born in the United States, to internment camps. As a result, between 110,000 and 120,000 men, women, and children were sent to internment camps, called “relocation centers” by the US government, during World War II. There were ten internment camps: Gila River and Poston in Arizona, Jerome and Rowher in Arkansas, Manzanar and Tule Lake in California, Amache in Colorado, Minidoka in Idaho, Topaz in Utah, and Heart Mountain in Wyoming.
The NYC Day of Remembrance commemorates Executive Order 9066 by remembering the strength and dignity of those unjustly incarcerated.
This year’s program focused on recognizing the efforts of the Tule Lake Committee and the report from four members of the 2012 Tule Lake Pilgrimage, Frank Fukuchi, Alix Webb, Ken Nomiyama, and Nina Fallenbaum. They were part of a group of 400 who journeyed to the Tule Lake Segregation Center, the site where 18,000 people were incarcerated. Tule Lake was the most controversial of the camps, mainly due to its status as a segregation center.
In 1943 all interned Japanese Americans over the age of 17 completed the Application for Leave Clearance, commonly known as the “loyalty questionnaire,” as required by the US War Department and the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Based on the answers, the WRA determined who was “loyal” or “disloyal” and segregated the internees accordingly. Two questions were particularly important to the WRA:
Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign government, power, or organization?
Of the men who answered “Yes” to Questions #27 and #28, many went on to join the US military, serving in exemplary fashion with the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service.
Those who answered “No” to both questions were deemed disloyal by the US government and were sent to Tule Lake, which was under martial law.
Of the four members who shared their stories, one, Ken Nomiyama, was born in Tule Lake. He has no recollection of his time behind barbed wire, of course, and he was fortunate not to have experienced discrimination in Oakland after the war. Ken says he “grew up in a typical Japanese American household,” and his father and mother had secure jobs as a gardener and a maid, respectively. His parents never discussed their incarceration, and after Nomiyama earned his MBA and moved to New York, he says he “forgot about being Japanese.”
When a family friend told Nomiyama about the Tule Lake Pilgrimage a few years ago, he decided to join the group and learn about a part of his life that he never knew.
“People open up when they hear other people describe similar experiences,” says Nomiyama. “I think I became Japanese again.”
To people like Nomiyama, Webb, and Fallenbaum (whose family members were also interned in camps), the pilgrimage is a way for the younger generation to learn and for the older generation to heal.
Part of the healing process is to talk about what happened, and to have their voices heard. Filmmaker Konrad Aderer showed clips from two documentaries about Tule Lake, one containing scenes from his most recent pilgrimage, the other from a work-in-progress in which he interviews internees of the facility.
In the work-in-progress, Barbara Takei, the CFO of the Tule Lake Committee, says, “These are all stories that have been marginalized for the last 70 years.”
Donna Tsufura presented four “Voices from Tule Lake” so that we could hear at least four of those 18,000+ voices. New York-based actors/filmmakers Jun Suenaga, Kenji Nakano, and Jennifer Takaki read accounts from people who were incarcerated in Tule Lake, and Japanese singer KI-YO performed his rendition of “Home on the Range.”
The committee paid tribute to four Nisei who passed away last year – Dr. Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi, Jimmy Mirikitani, George H. Mukai, and Senator Daniel K. Inouye – as well as the late Ambassador Shinichi Nishimiya.
The most moving part the program was the candlelight ceremony. Members of the audience walked up one by one to hold candles and signs for each of the camps. The gathering of people at the front of the church, holding the names of the ten camps, emphasized the magnitude of Executive Order 9066.
A spirited potluck followed, where participants and guests shared in each other’s fellowship and where the past, which had hovered darkly in the sanctuary upstairs, was suddenly far away again.
The NYC Day of Remembrance was at once a grim reminder of our nation’s past and an uplifting look at those who achieved great things despite it.
As Scott Fujita wrote, “I think a lesson was learned from that experience, and it won’t happen again.”
Let’s hope it won’t happen again, but let’s also never forget that it did happen.