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.

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