The Other Side of Prejudice

The monument at Poston

Have you ever had a chance happening set off an expansion of your knowledge and thinking? That happened for me when snowbirding cousins in Arizona took us to see a monument they’d discovered at Poston, Arizona. It was dedicated to the 17,867 people of Japanese ancestry who’d been imprisoned there in an internment camp from May, 1942 to November, 1945 and to the memory of their sons who’d fought and died for America’s freedom. (See previous posts  and

Because we stopped at that monument in the desert one breezy winter day, I’ve become better aware of a part of our history that was previously unfamiliar to me. I see connections between then and now that will hopefully help me be more open to personal growth.

For the first Japanese immigrants to America, assimilation wasn’t easy. They willingly worked at the hardest, heaviest tasks so the next generation could have a better life.The majority of the 120,000 Japanese living on our West Coast had been born in this country. But even citizenship didn’t protect this group of Americans from the racism, fear, and hysteria that swept the country after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Like other groups (the Irish, the Chinese, and more) who’d come to these shores looking for a better life, the Japanese in America endured prejudice and mistreatment.

We know of the great oppressions which marked the early years of our nation. Native Americans who lived here long before the first immigrants came to these shores experienced the theft of lands and life and dignity.  Africans were stolen from their homelands to live as slaves here and in other places. Descendants of these oppressed peoples struggle even now for a share in the American dream.

Waves of people still seek refuge in this country. Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian peoples arrived following the Vietnam conflict. People come from the Middle East and Africa. A great influx of people continues from south of our border. All of these hope to find freedom from poverty, from religious persecution, or from political savagery. Their children and grandchildren benefit from their struggles. This is true in my own “salad bowl” family:

Let’s go back to the unfair treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Previous posts on the subject (above, first paragraph) tell of the obvious wrongs that were done, and the apology made 40 years later by America’s Commander-in-Chief  President Ronald Reagan. But in 1941-2, the wrongs were not so obvious.
Speaking of that time years later, my father shared the sentiments of many contemporaries. “I don’t think our government was out of line. You know those Japanese all look alike, they talk alike, and you can’t tell which is which. And they (Japan) had done such a dastardly deed that we just had to do that.”

Thinking of America’s vulnerable coastline, my father continued, “We were in danger. . .we were wide open here. (The Japanese) didn’t really know how bad it was. They didn’t know or they’d have been here.”

A friend who spent her childhood on Bainbridge Island says she and her siblings went to school with the Japanese children and loved them. Most of the Japanese on the island had beautiful strawberry fields where the neighborhood kids earned their spending money picking berries. One owner knew my friend’s widowed mother had six children to support, so let them pick the gleanings. The family grieved when their Japanese-American friends were sent away, but they knew there were other reasons besides just racial prejudice. They’d heard about a shortwave radio station on the island that was contacting Japanese forces and Japan itself, rumored to be run by older people who were still citizens of Japan. They knew about sightings of Japanese submarines off the Pacific Coast. News reached them from the front about Japanese cruelty toward their prisoners, as was told a lifetime later by Louis Zamperini in Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken and in the movie by the same name.

Fears about a Japanese invasion of the West Coast were not unfounded. After all, Japan had already invaded Alaska’s Aleutian Islands on June 5, 1942. Japan had also dispatched a number of long-range submarines across the Pacific to raid shipping off the American coast. Two submarines were ordered to the Pacific Northwest to find and attack naval vessels headed to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. One of them shelled the lighthouse at Estevan Point on Vancouver Island and another torpedoed and shelled a freighter off Cape Flattery. Next, the sub fired on Fort Stevens, near Astoria, Oregon. There were no casualties, but the attack raised awareness of the threat of future strikes.

In September one of the submarines launched a seaplane carrying an incendiary bomb which the pilot deployed over forested land in Oregon, hoping that it would cause a massive fire that would divert resources from fighting the war. The woods were wet and the fire went out, but the idea was good.

By November, 1944, the war seemed to be a lost cause for the Japanese. Even so, over the next several months Japan launched more than 9,000 balloon bombs, both explosive and incendiary. They floated across the Pacific on the newly-discovered jet stream to North America. Over 342 incidents with these bombs were recorded throughout the western United States and Canada. On May 5, 1945 near Bly, Oregon, Revered Archie Mitchell and his wife took five children for a picnic. As the pastor parked the car, he heard his wife call, “Look what I found, dear.” One of the children tried to remove a balloon from a tree. The resulting explosion killed all of the children and the pregnant woman. These were the only deaths due to enemy action on mainland America during World War II.

The war with Japan ended September 2, 1945 and at last the internees in the relocation camps were allowed to start the rebuilding of their lives.

On July 31, 1980 the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) was established to investigate the incarceration of Japanese Americans and legal resident aliens during World War II. The Commission concluded: “the promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it—detention, ending detention, and ending exclusion—were not driven by analysis of military conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
Not until August 10, 1988, did President Ronald Reagan sign into law The Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided for an apology and redress to the internees still living. By then, nearly half of those who had been imprisoned were dead. But with the apology, the loyalty of those 120,000 Japanese-Americans was confirmed.

Have we as a nation learned anything about combating the fear and hysteria that can grow out of prejudice? I know that I am guilty of unconscious (and sometimes conscious) prejudice against groups of people I perceive as different.

It helps to remember that without their skins, all people would look pretty much the same. Born into a different culture, into a different economic or social group, people we fear and scorn might become our best friends. Prejudice is an ugly, complicated, and deep-rooted thing that resists rational attempts to root it out.

Jesus knew that. After all, he created us and knows the darkest corners of our beings. So he gave us a principle to help us banish prejudice.

He told us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Luke 10:27, NIV.

Galatians 3:28 says “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Colossians 3:11 repeats the idea: “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”

 In other words, when we realize we are brothers and sisters in the Kingdom of God, we understand how closely we’re related. Then the differences fade away.

A Place for Remembering, Part 2

This post continues an earlier article about Poston Internment Camp.

(Click for the story.)

In Verlot, Washington, the logging community where I grew up, World War II seemed far away to us children. Though we Robe Valley people originally came from many places, we were a homogeneous group: Caucasian, mostly poor, and most men were loggers.

We were unaware that not far away, in communities near Seattle, descendants of Japanese immigrants cultivated truck gardens, greenhouses, and berry farms. Although the first Japanese immigrants had encountered much prejudice, still their willingness to do the heavy labor involved in railroad construction, sawmills, coal mines, and salmon canneries gave their next generation a foothold in farming or business. Our counterparts in these communities went to church and school with the children of Japanese farmers and businessmen in places like Bellevue, Seattle, the White River and Puyallup valleys, and Vashon and Bainbridge islands in Puget Sound.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, hostility and prejudice resurfaced. Although two-thirds of the 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry in our midst were loyal citizens and American born, many non-Japanese people panicked and considered every person of Japanese descent as a potential enemy.

Within two months of America’s entry into the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the exclusion of “any or all persons” from “military areas.” At first, the intention had been to deport Japanese, but since there was no place to send them to, all these people were eventually gathered into ten hastily thrown together “internment” or relocation camps as far away from our vulnerable West Coast as possible.

A young mother from Bainbridge Island ponders an uncertain future as she awaits transport to the center at Puyallup.

My friend Peggy, who grew up in Seattle, told of her bewilderment and sadness at watching a playmate board a train with her family, lugging a suitcase that contained all she was allowed to keep from her life in Seattle. By April 1942, 2300 Japanese Americans had vanished from their Seattle- area communities. Many sold their homes and businesses for pennies on the dollar. Others, hoping to come back, refused to sell but found at war’s end that their properties had been looted or taken over by others. My friend said that the people she’d watched board the train were first sent to a temporary detention center at the Puyallup fairgrounds. Poor food and lack of privacy gave a foretaste of what life would be like for them for the duration of the war. Later most detainees from the Seattle area were sent to Camp Minidoka, in Idaho, while the majority of rural Western Washington internees went to Tule Lake, California.

But some from Washington ended up in the Arizona desert, at Poston.

 In all, nearly 20,000 Japanese Americans were sent to this and two other centers on the reservation of the Colorado River Indian Tribe. Most of the detainees were Californians, skilled in farming. It was the government’s plan to have them help develop tribal lands for later Indian use. The Tribal Council wanted nothing to do with the plan because they too had been “relocated” and mistreated by their own government. However, the work of the interned Japanese in clearing land, building irrigation systems, and building schools from handmade adobe bricks laid the foundation for the tribe to upgrade its living standard and to thrive financially, according to Michael Tsosie, director of the Colorado River Indian tribal museum.

The view from Poston Relocation Center today, with power lines, irrigated fields, and lambing sheep. The big birds in front are vultures.

When we visited Poston several years ago, we didn’t realize that the remains of some detainee housing still stood only a short distance from the monument and today’s community. On our second trip to the monument, someone told us where to find the site. Though protected now by a tall chain-link fence, one can peer in and get a feel for what it must have been like to carry on community life in such crowded conditions.

This deteriorating building, showing mud bricks made by internees, was more suited to extremes of heat and cold than the original board construction.
Rows of 20′ x 100′ buildings housed the internees.

A building later used by tribespeople

On December 8, 1941, James Sakamoto, the editor of Seattle’s Japanese-American Courier wrote a statement about Japanese Americans’ loyalty to their country. He called his piece, We Cannot Fail America.” He said:

The list of Poston service people who died fighting for America

No matter what develops involving the United States in the present tragic world situation, we Americans of Japanese ancestry must be prepared and remember that there are certain fundamental truths from which we cannot depart. One of them is that we were born in these United States as American citizens. Now that we have become involved in the Far Eastern conflict that is going to test our worth and mettle as citizens, we cannot fail America.

There is a remote possibility of our becoming the victim of public passion and hysteria. If this should occur, we will stand firm in our resolution that even if America may “disown” us — we will never “disown” America.

It is easy for us at this time to shout our patriotism and declare our loyalty. But we must do much more than mere lip service. Our biggest job, and the hardest, will be to go ahead, doing our work as diligently and as efficiently as we can, to contribute to America’s defense. This is a time for calm thinking and quick action, in behalf of America.

It is amazing to realize that although America faltered in its responsibility to this large group of citizens, those of Japanese descent at Poston and in the other camps worked hard to carry on their lives as normally as possible. They left a great heritage of service and loyalty, even though when the Executive Order was repealed, hostility against Japanese Americans remained high. Some communities displayed signs telling evacuees to stay out. As a result, many scattered to other locations across the country.

More than 40 years after WWII ended, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation apologizing to Japanese Americans on behalf of the United States.

Today, the crumbling remains at Poston seem to cry out, “Never again!”

Writer’s note: Check my next blog for more about the reasons behind the anti-Japanese feelings of the time.