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From Japanese Internment Camps to Muslim Registries: Solidarity Through Shared Experiences

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Monday 6 March 201708:45 am

Within days of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Japanese-American community, led by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), made public declarations urging Americans not to paint all Arab-Americans as extremists and discriminate against them out of anger and fear of terrorism. Japanese-Americans knew then, as now, that racial profiling and labeling all members of any one community can lead to tragic unconstitutional treatment of an entire people. We are seeing this hateful rhetoric targeted towards Muslims, most recently with the “Muslim Ban” executive order purportedly designed to keep out “radical Islamic terrorists”.

After World War II began Japanese-Americans were tracked, rounded up, given numbers instead of names, and sent to concentration camps built by the United States military. The December 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor led to the February 19, 1942 signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin Roosevelt, allowing the imprisonment of almost 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry—including entire families, women and children—who were sent to ten hastily-built concentration camps scattered across eastern and northern California, Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and even Arkansas.

Most of the camps were in desolate conditions, and families were placed in barracks with no privacy, but tried to live “normal” American lives in spite of the hardship. Most of the families lost their homes, businesses, and livelihood, but worst of all, many prisoners suffered the destruction of their traditional family structure, as children ran off to hang out with each other and ignore their parents.

The incarceration led to trans-generational trauma that were in turn passed down to the next generations of Japanese-Americans, and the effects still echo today in Japanese-American communities.

In 1988, after almost two decades of struggle to seek reparations and an admission that mass incarcerations took place, and a series of Congressional hearings during which elderly Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) spoke about their ordeal for the first time in their lives, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The law allowed for reparations for survivors of the concentration camps, and constituted a formal apology from the federal government for the incarceration. Reagan admitted, for the first time, that what the US had done to Japanese-Americans was because of "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership."

That, unfortunately, describes the current atmosphere that faces the Muslim community in the United States.  Yet again, Japanese- and Asian-Americans are among the front lines of people defending Muslims.

On February 3, a federal judge temporarily overturned Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban nationwide. German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly explained the United States’ obligations under the international refugee law. On February 9, a federal appeals panel unanimously rejected President Trump’s bid to reinstate his ban on travel into the United States from seven predominantly Muslim nations. ACLU, which has been on the front lines of fighting the ban, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) demanding records of the implementation of the executive order at all 15 CBP “pre-clearance” airport locations abroad, that impacts 16 million people.

Gary Mayeda, the National President of the Japanese American Citizens League, says: "In the days since these executive orders were signed, we have seen an incredible response from our JACL membership. With many of our chapters holding Day of Remembrance events to observe the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 with the Muslim community.  We will continue to share our stories and build bridges with others, so that we can stand together against xenophobia."

That close relationship still exists, and Japanese-Americans of all ages were seen during the recent Women’s Marches with signs expressing support for Muslims. And that was before the executive orders banning Syrian refugees and immigration from the seven “Muslim majority” countries. Muslim-Americans and Japanese-Americans are well aware that we’re at the tipping point of a resurgence of racially- (and spiritually-) motivated prejudice that could easily topple into a morass of registration, incarceration, deportation, and possibly worse.

Roger Shimomura, an American artist and a retired professor at the University of Kansas. The Shimomura family was initially incarcerated at Camp Harmony in Puyallup, Washington, and later to the more permanent Minidoka camp in Idaho. Shimomura places barbed wire and camp scenes in his artistic representation of traditional Asian themes, to provoke discussion on issues of identity and injustices towards the Japanese-American community. He came out of retirement to paint images of Japanese-American women with a Muslim woman in hijab behind barbed wire as social commentary around the election campaign last year.

[caption id="attachment_68781" align="alignnone" width="669"]shimamoura 'American Citizens'[/caption]

Photos like the one from the 2015 Martin Luther King Marade (parade and march) in Denver, with Asian-Americans and Muslim-Americans holding up a banner that read “Love Triumphs Over Hate: Japanese Americans & Muslim Americans Unite” reflect the communities’ closeness. In April 2016, an event was held in Denver at Colorado’s largest mosque, bringing together community leaders from the AAPI, African American, interfaith community and law enforcement to discuss the concerns for the Muslim community, the rise of hate crimes, and the ghosts of the Japanese-American experience. According to one of the organizers, “The event at the mosque was organized because of the fear and ignorance that were obvious in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks in late 2015. I felt the echoes of Japanese-American incarceration and wanted to educate people about the Muslim community. We educated non-Muslims about the faith and community (including being allowed to witness a prayer) and educated Muslims on what constitutes a hate crime and what to do about it if you see one or are a victim of one.”


With xenophobic concerns around Muslims registry, and fear of Americans turning on each other, filmmakers received a blank check from Grammy-winning singer Katy Perry last month. The video is a depiction of Haru an 89-year-old American woman of Japanese heritage, who grew up in Riverside, California. In this video she recalls how her family was put on a registry and incarcerated at Manzanar Internment Camp, California, where they were forced to remain for four years.

Japanese-American and Muslim communities have long been natural allies, and together can challenge the stereotyping and fear, by humanizing our American stories and solutions to combat hate.

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