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Columnist Sara Weinberger: Photos give voice to triumph over adversity

  • PAUL KITAGAKI Jr.



Monday, February 20, 2017

During my recent winter escape to Tucson, Arizona, I viewed an exhibit at the Tucson Desert Art Museum, entitled, “Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit.”

Photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr.’s stunning portraits and interviews of now aging Japanese-Americans interned during World War II under Executive Order 9066, hung next to archived photos taken after the order was given to intern Japanese-Americans. These compelling photos give voice to untold stories of gambatte, the Japanese concept of triumph over adversity.

Photos revealed the faces of children imprisoned in the dusty horse stalls of Santa Anita race track. Another photo shows a 6-year-old boy named Mamoru, waiting with his family for a bus to take them to the assembly center.

Executive Order 9066 was rationalized as necessary for the safety of Japanese-Americans living near the West Coast, yet story after story talked of family members being separated and arrested. Mamoru’s father was arrested, accused of being a spy; the two were not reunited until 1944. Mamoru’s mother died in October of 1945. He was 9.

Today, at the age of 80, Mamoru recalls being harassed by those who considered Japanese-Americans the enemy. Formerly the owner of a produce stand and a teacher, Mamoru’s father, like so many formerly interned Japanese-Americans, lost everything after the war, eventually finding work as a landscape gardener.

Mamoru describes him as a “broken person.” He was a senior in high school when his father died.

Mamoru was just one of 110,000 people, forced to leave their homes, incarcerated without due process, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards in 10 “relocation centers.” Two-thirds of those interned were American citizens. They were contributing members of society, owning farms, grocery stores; some had university degrees.

Many had children who enlisted to fight against the Japanese. Another photo reveals a mother, father and son posing with an American flag draped across the wall behind them. The text reveals the 18-year-old son has been drafted. His mother holds a photo of her oldest son, who joined the U.S. Army to fight for the government that has imprisoned his parents.

Despite being deemed a security threat, internees were drafted into the military. Most went willingly, but 300 Japanese-Americans were sent to federal prison after being convicted of draft resistance.

Prior to internment, Japanese-Americans were subjected to curfews. A few resisted, including Gordon Hirabayashi, who challenged his conviction for curfew violations all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled that because the curfew was an emergency war measure, it did not constitute discrimination against a minority group and therefore, did not violate the Constitution.

In 1988, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians concluded that Japanese-Americans did not pose a security threat. The real reasons for singling them out for mistreatment were “race prejudice, war hysteria, and failure of leadership.” The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided for a public apology from Congress and restitution for those who were interned.

Witnessing this exhibit in today’s politically charged atmosphere was chilling. President Trump’s executive order, entitled, “Protection Of The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” justifies closing our borders to refugees as necessary to keep Americans safe from terrorists.

Carl Higbie, a former spokesman for the Great America PAC backing Donald Trump, said in November that the mass internment of Japanese- Americans during World War II was a “precedent” for the then president-elect’s plans to create a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries…that would “hold Constitutional muster.”

Can President Trump resurrect Executive Order 9066? The Hirabayashi, as well as the Koramatsu decision, a case in which a Japanese-American challenged the order to leave his home, were overturned in the 1980s, based on the possibility that the government had concealed evidence.

However, in the Koramatsu decision, the Supreme Court upheld Executive Order 9066. In Justice Black’s words: “… exclusion of those of Japanese origin was deemed necessary because of the presence of an unascertained number of disloyal members of the group…”

The judgments were overturned, but the decisions to overturn were not based on the Constitution. In the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s words, “…you are kidding yourself if you think the same thing won’t happen again.”

We must also remember that it took more than executive orders to imprison Japanese-Americans. Think of all the employees needed to forcibly relocate and incarcerate 110,000 people. Today, private industries make millions building detention centers (another euphemism for prisons) to hold undocumented immigrants.

How many Department of Homeland Security employees in airports were needed to enforce Trump’s ban? How many readily obeyed orders to interrogate innocents, to send them back to the dangers they had escaped? How many feared losing their jobs if they didn’t follow orders?

President Trump has expressed a determination to close the doors on refugees. His henchmen are rounding up undocumented immigrants for deportation.

We must remain vigilant and resolute in our determination to prevent Executive Order 9066 from ever rearing its ugly head again; otherwise, in the future another photographer will document the tragic stories of human suffering under the Trump regime.

Sara Weinberger, of Northampton, is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column.