Strength in Remembrance
Our parents hid
Their history from us
They didn’t want us to lose our way
In bitterness or anger
–Ann Muto, Open Passage, “Questions”
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed and issued Executive Order 9066. This order led to the forced removal and incarceration of around 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, simply for having the “face of the enemy.” It did not matter that two-thirds of those who were incarcerated were American-born, most having never visited Japan. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor made all Japanese in America suspect, or “enemy alien.” Japanese American adults, children, and elderly were forcibly removed from their homes, jobs, communities, and lives, and were sent to one of 10 concentration camps located in isolated areas of the country. For the crime of being Japanese, they were presumed guilty and held without charge for four years.
On February 21, 2018, Tufts’ Japanese Culture Club (JCC*) and Tufts’ United for Immigrant Justice (UIJ) came together to host a Day of Remembrance Event to speak about Order 9066’s influence on families, communities, and the United States as a whole. The event began with a screening of the documentary “Resistance at Tule Lake.” The documentary tells a counternarrative of Japanese Americans who refused to “prove their loyalty” to the United States by accepting or performing acts of forced assimilation. They defied the government by refusing to swear unconditional loyalty to the US, as the country was holding them against their will for no crime at all. Following the screening, students from JCC* and UIJ led a panel connecting past and present immigration and incarceration stories.
For decades, an unmistakable silence existed surrounding the topic of Japanese American incarceration in the United States during World War II. Non-Japanese Americans were more than willing to forget their acts of racism and hypocrisy, but this silence existed both externally and internally. Within Japanese American culture, there is the saying shikata ga nai, or, “it cannot be helped.” Joseph Tsuboi, a panelist from JCC*, noted that, “Incarceration told an entire ethnic population that simply being Japanese was not American, thus wrong, thus disloyal. It told the survivors of incarceration and the children of those survivors that we are not going to talk about this, we must keep moving, shikata ga nai.” Tsuboi looks to his father, a third-generation Japanese American, as a testament to this mindset. Growing up, his father never spoke to him in Japanese, only English, and didn’t talk to him about the history of Japanese American incarceration. In many ways, he used to think his father upheld a “model minority myth,” but now, Tsuboi understands that it is not that simple. His father was not intentionally trying to rid himself of Japanese cultural practices, but rather trying his best to heal and make his parents’ lives a little easier. Tsuboi added, “There was shame and sadness surrounding the incarceration era, and I have to show some empathy for this generation’s motivation to push past the pain.”
Though Tsuboi has come to recognize the complex meaning of silence and its role in survival, he also recognizes that in order to ask dominant American society to recognize this history, it is necessary to push past these silences. Anna Kimura, another panelist from JCC*, echoed these sentiments as she spoke about how the dominant narrative is always discouraging people of color from telling their stories. She argued that “we need to work against that [discouragement], push back in even our own minds.” Kimura emphasized that if the United States does not recognize the impact of what occurred 76 years ago, people will not see the full extent of what is going on today. The United States has held the highest incarceration rate of any industrialized country in the world since 2002. Today, the vast majority of those incarcerated are Black and Latinx, revealing how the same rhetoric used against Japanese Americans is still present today, except now, the racial target is different.
Alejandra, a panelist from UIJ, drew parallels from the Japanese American incarceration stories to her own immigration story as an undocumented immigrant. She said, “My story is not about the same physical incarceration that Japanese Americans faced during World War II, but it is about a psychological one, a psychological incarceration that I have no control over. [My incarceration is] to an immigration system that is broken and to this country that refuses to acknowledge my humanity.” Alejandro, another panelist from UIJ, spoke about how he has often been dehumanized because of his undocumented status. “To some people I am nothing more than a stereotype and a harrowing statistic that is decreasing the quality of American life. To others I am an exploited workforce.” In order to survive, Alejandro felt that he had to stay silent about his undocumented status. He told people that he was born in the United States and abandoned “[his] rich heritage, history, and blood that flowed inside [him] for another day of false protection.” He felt like a prisoner in his own skin. But in order to confront this oppression, he has had to learn to be more critical about his silence and work towards breaking it.
Ana, another panelist with UIJ, shared that she wouldn’t have been able to share her story at the event if it weren’t for those who spoke up and told their stories before her. Seeing other people’s courage “inspired [her] to do the same and liberated that part of [herself] that for so long was silenced.” Alejandro added that “the stories that we tell humanize us and ultimately act as a form of resistance. Storytelling is integral to our movement as it goes against preconceived narratives that have been constructed to attack us.”
In bringing together groups such as JCC* and UIJ, the Day of Remembrance Event not only embraces Japanese American history but also works to build solidarity among different marginalized groups. Hanh Nguyen, an event attendee who is a member of the Vietnamese Student Council (VSC), was thankful for the event’s role in filling the gaps in her mainstream education. She further spoke about the importance of storytelling “to identify what we are fighting against, what we are fighting for, and how to take action.” Natasha Khwaja, an event attendee who is co-chair of South Asian Perspectives and Conversations (SAPAC), spoke about the power of cross-collaboration between spaces for people of color. “Too often, we like to isolate ourselves—which is important because it is a way to build community from within, strength from within—but I think given our sociopolitical climate right now, it’s more effective and powerful to focus on solidarity.” Khwaja elaborated that along with the experience of undocumented immigrants, Japanese Americans’ history of oppression is also similar to what Muslim Americans are experiencing today under the guise of the “war on terror,” especially with the recent “Muslim Ban.” She felt strongly that sharing stories and retaining those memories are important to helping us realize that we are not alone. Through creating communities that are committed to confronting oppression in all forms, we can better work towards dismantling the social, political, cultural, and economic structures that exploit and alienate us.