E80 years ago, as anti-Japanese fervor gripped the United States, the parents and grandparents of California Congressman Mark Takano were among 120,000 Japanese Americans forcibly removed from their homes and sent to desolate camps scattered across the west.
They were only allowed to take what they could carry. Everything else has been sold, stored or abandoned. Enclosed by barbed wire fences and armed military guards, their only offense was to look like the enemy.
“They were incarcerated without any due process, never charged with a crime, never convicted of a crime but in an internment camp strictly because of their racial characteristics,” Takano told the Guardian.
Two-thirds of those interned were U.S. citizens, like Takano’s maternal grandparents and paternal grandmother. Many were children born in the United States, like her parents, far too young to pose a threat to national security, as was the false claim.
What is considered one of the darkest chapters in American history was launched on February 19, 1942, 74 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.
On the 80th anniversary of Roosevelt’s order, an occasion marked by events from Hawaii to Idaho that will include many witnesses, Takano is concerned.
“What I fear we are in now is a moment of oblivion,” he said.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the United States has witnessed an alarming spike in violence and hatred against Asian Americans. Toxic rhetoric and attacks on immigrants and racial and religious minorities have become a common part of political discourse in democracies around the world.
Takano warned of an “insidious nostalgia” that seeks to whitewash shameful parts of American history. “It’s a yearning for an imperfect America,” he said. “And its premise is that America should never evolve.”
It was a dangerous worldview, he said, summed up in Donald Trump’s promise to “make America great again”. Those who subscribed to it, he continued, “don’t want America to get better. They don’t want to see a more perfect union.
That’s why stories like his family’s are worth telling and remembering.
Takano’s paternal grandfather was a teenager when he came to the United States from Japan in 1916. He worked and saved until he had enough money to get married. The so-called Foreign Land Laws prevented him from buying property and prevented him from becoming a citizen. But because her grandmother was a citizen, they were able to purchase land in her name. In the late 1930s, they bought five acres of land in Bellevue, Washington, where they grew strawberries, chrysanthemums, and tomatoes to sell at Pike’s Place Market in Seattle.
When war broke out, they were forced off their farm and sent to the Tule Lake internment camp in northern California. Their incarceration lasted until the end of the war, he said.
His father bore the physical scars of his internment: burns to his legs from his fall into a cremation pit. “When he was wearing cropped pants, his shins were all discolored,” Takano said.
There were also emotional scars.
After their release, Takano said his Japanese-born paternal grandfather wanted to return. But her paternal grandmother, born in America and knowing little about Japan, wanted to stay.
Takano said the family nearly boarded a ship bound for Japan, but his grandmother suffered a nervous breakdown from which he said she never recovered. “For all of this to intersect at the same time – they come out of the camps but the misfortunes are not over,” he said. “You can imagine how stressful and traumatic that was.”
Deprived of his property and now his wife’s health, his grandfather raised his young children with the help of his extended family and the close-knit Japanese-American community in Southern California.
When Takano was 10, he boarded a plane for the first time and flew with his grandfather to Washington. Together they visited the property his family had once owned, “the place where he had had an interest in the American dream and lost it”.
At the time, Takano said a Holiday Inn was built on the land, located in what is now the heart of the state’s thriving tech industry. Elsewhere, he remembers seeing remnants of the old greenhouses, remnants of a postponed dream.
In the eight decades since Roosevelt signed the order, the federal government as well as state and local governments have sought to make amends.
In 1983, the Federal Commission on Wartime Civilian Relocation and Internment concluded that the incarceration of Japanese Americans was a “gross injustice” motivated by “racial prejudice, war hysteria and failure of political leadership”. Five years later, the United States issued a formal apology and paid Japanese American survivors $20,000 for violating their civil liberties and constitutional rights.
In 2020, California also officially apologized for the pivotal role it played in the internment of Japanese Americans.
Last week, the US Senate passed legislation to create a National Historic Site on a piece of rural land in southeastern Colorado known as the Camp Amachewhere more than 7,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals were imprisoned between 1942 and 1945.
In a presidential proclamation commemorating Saturday as a day of remembrance, Joe Biden reaffirmed “the federal government’s official apology to those Japanese Americans whose lives have been irreparably damaged during this dark period in our history, and we solemnly reflect to our collective moral responsibility to ensure that our Nation never again engages in such un-American acts.”
“I’ve always believed that great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments – they confront them with honesty and in doing so learn from them and grow stronger as a result,” he said. “The incarceration of Japanese Americans 80 years ago reminds us today of the tragic consequences we attract when we allow racism, fear and xenophobia to fester.”
Takano, now chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, is particularly proud of his great-uncle, who fought fascism in Europe as part of the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, very decorated, even as her family was interned in the United States.
“It’s the contradiction of a country that fights fascism, but has some seeds of it in its own garden,” he said.
His great-uncle died in Italy just weeks before the war ended in 1945, he said.
“I think my uncle bet his life on the promise of what America could be and what the world could be,” he said. “And the fact that I am now a member of Congress gives me the example that my uncle won his bet.”
But he called for vigilance.
“We are in danger of being forgotten and we are in danger of this infamous nostalgia,” he said. “Those two things put all of this at risk.”