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Department News

Daily Cal Article Featuring Commentary by Asian American Studies Lecturer, Lisa Tsuchitani

March 9, 2019

Uprooted: Remembering Japanese American internment in California and my family’s past

By: Sarena Kuhn, Daily Cal Staff

Feb. 19, 2019, the Day of Remembrance marked the 77th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 by president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In Japanese culture, the turning of 77 is considered a special birthday “kiju,” an age of happiness and good fortune.

But we look back on this anniversary not in happiness or fortune but in a spirit of remembrance and determination to do better.

During the time of World War II, about 120,00 Japanese Americans many of whom were American citizens — were unlawfully recognized as military threats, incarcerated and thrown into internment camps against their will. Among those incarcerated were many members of my family, including my great-grandfather and grandfather.

After the executive order, Japanese Americans on the West Coast sold homes, businesses and assets, often for much less than their true value, in preparation for relocation and without any idea of whether they could return to their prewar lives. My great-grandfather, a UC Berkeley alumnus, gave up his three optometry offices in the Oakland area. His successful practices garnered suspicion, so he was arrested by the FBI, sent to Fort Lincoln Internment Camp near Bismarck, North Dakota and was later reunited with the rest of his family members during their internment.

Japanese Americans living in military zones in Oregon, Washington and California were first sent to temporary holding centers, hastily converted bunkers such as the Santa Anita Assembly Center, while 10 more permanent internment camps were being completed. In Santa Anita, families were squeezed into converted horse stalls to await their fate. Then, they were sent to one of 10 concentration camps as far as Jerome, Arkansas. My family, rejoined by my great-grandfather, was first sent to Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, which also was a racetrack, before being relocated to Topaz, Utah. This camp would not close until Oct. 31, 1945.

Surrounding the 19,000 acres of land in Topaz was a barbed wire fence. The volatile desert climate of the area contrasted with that of the Bay Area, where most of the inmates were from, and throughout its years of operation, the buildings of Topaz saw poor insulation, affecting the health of those living there.

While reflecting on this history involving my family and so many others, I spoke to Lisa Tsuchitani, a campus lecturer of Asian American and Asian American diaspora studies, about the implications of this history both for the modern Japanese American community and the world at large. At the time of the war, Tsuchitani’s family was also incarcerated; they had been working as strawberry farmers in San Luis Obispo.

Necessary for delving into this topic is a discussion of language and its power. Tsuchitani explained that current scholars now use terms such as “incarceration” rather than “relocation” and “concentration camps” rather than “internment camps” to communicate the forced and unconstitutional nature of this imprisonment. Mislabeling and dulling down atrocious actions with vague language was a rhetorical tool propagating the othering of communities and individuals.

This camp would not close until Oct. 31, 1945.

What has now become a prevailing image of Japanese American internment, the “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry” poster made by the Western Defense Command and Fourth Army Wartime Civil Control Administration, provided initial instructions for Japanese Americans in parts of San Francisco who were to be evacuated. It states, “All Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above designated area by 12:00 o’clock noon Tuesday, April 8, 1942.” Encoded in the word “non-alien” was a blatant attempt to mask the word “citizen” and to take attention away from violations of these citizens’ civic rights.

Attention to language is just one of the many lessons we take from this instance. Although this executive order was proclaimed 77 years ago, the lessons, the sentiment and the history rising from this period of time remain forever relevant to the Japanese American community, to UC Berkeley as an institution, to the United States and to the world.

Speaking about the impacts of internment upon the Japanese American community itself, Tsuchitani recounted a “legacy of silence” and the “generational trauma” that results from that silence. The experience of being labeled as “other,” “alien” and “un-American” the experience of being ripped from one’s life with no due process and no account of justice  — is one that comes with pain. Integral, however, to the Japanese American community is the importance of remembering and making sure these stories and experiences are preserved.

Before she even knew about Asian American studies as a field, Tsuchitani had to argue with her U.S. history teacher in high school for the opportunity to write a report about her family’s World War II experiences.

Encoded in the word “non-alien” was a blatant attempt to mask the word “citizen” and to take attention away from violations of these citizens’ civic rights.

I was tired of seeing our history relegated to one or two sentence statements, or at best, a paragraph. I was tired of the way that our history was framed and the way that still made me feel, decades later, that I was still an enemy. Or that I was still not really American enough to be in this country even though I was born and raised here,” Tsuchitani said.  

There are many generational subtleties within the Japanese American community, but Tsuchitani, who did research regarding how millennials in the community define their identity, was surprised to see the continued eagerness for history and remembrance.

The experiences of these younger Japanese Americans and their desires for deeper inquiry refuted some community-held assumptions that younger generations do not care about history.  

“Their understanding of Japanese Americanness is centered around the experiences of incarceration, despite the fact that American public schools still don’t teach us enough about that. That still is an important part of how they identify with what is Japanese American,” Tsuchitani said.

I can relate to this sentiment of wanting more of my history on display than a mere paragraph. In my freshman year of high school, I remember mentioning Japanese American incarceration to a friend in passing, who then discounted the significance of the injustice as something the government had to do to keep citizens safe. I wonder how many others share this apathetic attitude as a result of a lack of education on the topic.

Much of my own knowledge and interest in my family’s history came from the efforts of my mother, who made sure at a very young age that I understood the experiences of my community and that I was engaging with the past. Growing up close to Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, I paid multiple visits to the Japanese American National Museum, where a reconstructed barrack and anti-Japanese newspaper clippings made the conditions of my family’s past visible before my eyes. I remember specifically a racist poster instructing readers on how to differentiate “friendly Koreans” from “enemy Japanese” by identifiers such as eye shape.

The novels of my childhood were Cynthia Kadohata’s “Weedflower” and Yoshiko Uchida’s “Journey to Topaz,” “A Jar of Dreams” and “Journey Home,” among others. Historical fiction allowed me to connect with my history and family by paging through to the experiences of fictional yet authentic characters. These books supplemented the single-paragraph summaries of my public education and influenced the focuses of both my writing and historical inquiry. They cemented in me the importance of storytelling.

Uchida, the author of many Japanese children’s books, was a “nisei” (second-generation Japanese American) who was a senior at UC Berkeley at the time of forced removal. She is just one example of the Japanese Americans affected by 9066 with ties to this campus.

About 500 students at UC Berkeley never got to complete their spring semesters. The school took some measures against the government’s decision of incarceration, as then-UC president Robert Gordon Sproul advocated for the opportunity for Japanese Americans to finish their education and asked many Midwestern schools to take in these students. Community members such as Harry Kingman of Stiles Hall formed the small but active Fair Play Committee to protest and lobby for the release of Japanese Americans. Despite these efforts, however, the country’s sense of paranoia and anti-Japanese sentiment still prevailed, and students were forcibly removed from the university. This campus still works to provide reparations.

On Dec. 13, 2009, a special ceremony during convocation presented honorary degrees to the Japanese Americans who were forcibly removed before graduation. Of the roughly 500 eligible former students, 42 returned to UC Berkeley to finally receive their rightful diplomas 67 years late. Tsuchitani, who helped coordinate this ceremony, recounted the emotional moment of placing leis made of blue and gold paper cranes around the necks of the honorees. This ceremony and gesture of reparation was a special moment, but it came much too late — many of the eligible Japanese Americans, including Uchida, were already deceased.

I remember specifically a racist poster instructing readers on how to differentiate “friendly Koreans” from “enemy Japanese” by identifiers such as eye shape.

UC Berkeley was also one of the birthplaces of Asian American studies within the department of ethnic studies, the Asian American and Asian diaspora studies program is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies 122: “Japanese American Historical and Contemporary Issues,” taught by Tsuchitani, provides a course with space for the experiences of internment to come into focus. Tsuchitani, who was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley and earned a degree in East Asian studies, chose her academic focus  in order to locate her work “in spaces where these stories could be fully honored with the depth and breadth and beauty that they deserved.”

Beyond just this campus, too, Tsuchitani explained that there are many lessons to be learned from Japanese American internment. Politically, exclusionary policies such as the travel ban on Muslims based on government-sanctioned Islamophobia and growing sentiment against immigrants echo the rhetoric and fear-based logic behind World War II incarceration. These issues, as Tsuchitani put it, highlight the constant racialization of issues that cause prejudice and misunderstanding. The repetition of such injustice — repetition we already see the beginning of — results in an unacceptable future.

Now more than ever before, we have to be vigilant. We need to learn about our history. Not only our own histories but actually the histories of others as well. And more importantly though, I think we need to apply those lessons that we learn from the past,” Tsuchitani said. “We have to figure out ways to humanize each other again, to resist the easy ‘facts’ — or fiction, if you will — that are continually being circulated that just promote more division, less understanding.”

While it is vital, especially now,  to remember and apply this dark moment in American history, it is also an exciting time to see the progress communities have made in the fields of reclaiming narrative through education, art and other mediums. Just last year, I saw “Allegiance,” a musical starring George Takei and telling the story of a Japanese-American family’s experiences of incarceration. The play was educational in giving historical context, but it also showed the emotional responses of grief, denial and anger. It was empowering to see an entire production based on the history of my community, based on the stories that history books still do not tell.

Now more than ever before, we have to be vigilant. We need to learn about our history.” — Lisa Tsuchitani

As the years pile on since the signing of Executive Order 9066, the number of affected Japanese Americans left to tell their experiences declines. We cannot let these stories die.

A couple years ago, my family and I were driving from our home in Orange County up to Northern California. As we watched California desert roll across our windows, my mother noticed that we were passing by Manzanar, one of the 10 camps where inmates were held. Silence filled the car as she began to cry for her father and for our family and for the ones whose stories we will never get to know.

We respect our histories by remembering them.

Contact Sarena Kuhn at