There are still people living in our community who remember the experience – who had their lives ripped apart.
The Pacific Northwest has a reputation for being a progressive place. Tolerance, acceptance and inclusion – these are values we’re known for on a national level.
But take a quick look in the historical rearview mirror, and you’ll see a much different landscape. The way some people in the Northwest were treated wasn’t pretty.
The year was 1942 and the United States had just entered World War II following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. As a result of Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt, 120,000 Japanese and Japanese American residents were systematically rounded up and shipped off to internment – or more accurately, concentration – camps.
It didn’t matter if they were U.S. citizens. It didn’t matter if they had children serving in the U.S. armed forces. It didn’t matter that they had no criminal record, or that they owned a successful business.
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The only “crime” they committed was being of Japanese ancestry. This happened in our recent past and we are capable of acting that way again.
Imagine one day you’re living your life, and the next your whole family is shipped to a sterile tent city in the desert or an inadequate living space made forbidding with barbed wire and gun nests.
To make matters worse, the majority of Americans outside the Japanese community just watched their neighbors get taken away. For the most part, they believed that simply being of Japanese heritage was a good reason to subject whole communities to inhumane treatment.
Sound like something that might happen today? Maybe not too far off?
That’s a big reason the current exhibition at the Wing Luke Museum strikes a nerve so poignantly. The exhibition called “Year of Remembrance: Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner” recalls that ugly era of U.S. history, recognizing the 75th anniversary of the event through the work of artist Roger Shimomura and poet Lawrence Matsuda.
The exhibition makes the connection between WWII war hysteria and anti-Islamic sentiment present in our nation today.
Shimomura was sent to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho as a toddler, and uses his pop art style and incarceration themes, combining them with Muslim imagery. “It is apparent today that Muslims are the new Japanese Americans,” he says.
Matsuda was born in the same camp in 1945 and says the forced removal forever altered his family. “One day you’re going to work, you have dignity, you’re a real person and in a week you’re in jail because of your race.”
Families were held for years, and once they were released it was difficult to go back to their original lives. Some managed to reclaim their land and pick up where they’d left off, but some had lost too much, and had to start over.
Matsuda’s family returned to Seattle, but Matsuda’s father wasn’t able to run a grocery store again, and was forced to become a janitor. “On top of everything else, we didn’t want to look Japanese again,” he says. “We wanted to make sure everyone knew we were Americans.”
Not long ago
One of the most remarkable things about the Japanese incarceration is that it wasn’t all that long ago. There are still people living in our community who remember the experience – who had their lives ripped apart during that forced relocation.
The anti “anyone-who-doesn’t-look-like-me” attitude rearing its head nationally is frightening on many levels.
Matsuda says the show emphasizes the realities of our current political climate. “We are not going to be taken again, but someone else may be taken, or taken in a different way, or for a slightly different reason. Instead of race it might be religion.”
Reminding ourselves of our history is one of the best weapons we have against repeating our mistakes.
Mark Twain said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
Perhaps the West Coast has a reputation for tolerance, acceptance and inclusion because we’ve learned from our recent past. If we are going to maintain our reputation, we need to remember how we got there.
The Wing Luke Museum’s mission is to connect everyone to the rich history, dynamic cultures and art of the Asian Pacific Americans through vivid storytelling and inspiring experiences.