February 19, 1942: President Franklin Roosevelt issues an order to imprison nearly 120,000 people living on the west coast of America, 62 percent of whom are American citizens. A few days earlier, conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler had written, “to hell with habeas corpus until the danger is over,” and to hell it went, indeed. There was no trial, no recourse for these thousands of people who had a matter of days to sell their businesses and property, all possessions that they could not carry in the two suitcases they were allowed to take. Some who tried to secure help from their neighbors in preserving ownership of their homes and livelihoods would return to discover that it had been stolen from them by the very people they trusted—and there was again no recourse.
What these citizens had in common was Japanese ancestry—as little as 1/16 in Seattle—including orphans born in America who had not known their parents. As long as one grandparent was a quarter Japanese, they were taken by armed soldiers with thousands of strangers to relocation centers, then to ramshackle concentration camps in remote, interior areas, including Manzanar in California, Granada in Colorado, Poston and Gila River in Arizona, as far east as Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas, where nearly 10,000 people of Japanese descent from California were imprisoned.
Many Americans know little to nothing about these events or their extent—least of all the government corruption and cover-ups that set them in motion. I have encountered people in their twenties who, when I mention the internment, say that they are hearing about it for the first time. Some have at first refused to believe that it happened at all, and only thanks to smart phones have I been able to show them the evidence.
Many of the internees themselves couldn’t believe that it would happen until it did. They could not fathom such a betrayal by a government whose founding documents declare the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and above all the “self-evident” truths that all are created equal.
But “some are just more equal than others,” declared the pigs of Manor Farm, and that reasoning has been applied to indigenous, slave and migrant populations throughout American history. When it came to national security, the highest powers in government reached a consensus that even the mass imprisonment of innocent civilians was acceptable along racial lines. In 1944, Chief Justice Hugo Black of the United States Supreme Court wrote the majority opinion of the case Korematsu vs United States, in which California resident Fred Korematsu had challenged the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066. The second paragraph of that opinion reads:
It should be noted, to begin with, that all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect. That is not to say that all such restrictions are unconstitutional. It is to say that courts must subject them to the most rigid scrutiny. Pressing public necessity may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions; racial antagonism never can.
Racial antagonism is plainly coded into such an opinion, and one aware of the anti-Asian racism of the west coast at the time knows that Black’s position was particularly disingenuous. He and the other five justices of the majority opinion well knew about how such racism had boiled over several times in prior decades, in riots in Tacoma and Seattle, in which mobs tried to force hundreds of people of Chinese descent out of the cities. Militias had to intervene to stop the mobs, and the federal government tried to defuse the tension by passing an exclusion act that limited immigration from China to America.
The animus in Washington and Oregon then turned to Japanese immigrants and their children, known as nisei. In and around Seattle, redlining laws designated limited areas where minorities could own property (including Jews, blacks, Native Americans and Asians) while also putting restrictions on the kinds of businesses they could operate. For instance, no banks could be built in neighborhoods designated for blacks. Immigrant entrepreneurs had to seek help and sponsorship from naturalized citizens to form their own businesses, leading to all sorts of abuse and chicanery. Businesses could refuse service to minorities and “No Japs Allowed” signs were not uncommon in Seattle and the surrounding region.
Competition for cheap labor among poor white and Asian communities caused tension early on, but base envy no doubt played a part in later years. In spite of the difficulties of acquiring property and forming businesses, Japanese and Japanese-American enterprises were thriving on the west coast. (This was also in spite of the land available to them, which was considered unsuitable for farming before they rehabilitated it.) From San Diego to Seattle, resentment of Asians was rife and led to a variety of laws designed to isolate and hamstring these populations.
The SCOTUS overlooked all of this in forming their opinion, and in doing so upheld a presidential order that imprisoned entire populations of American citizens without trial. This perilous precedent applies to all Americans, as the language of Executive Order 9066 is not limited by race.
The rationale behind the order was explicitly racist, but it is debatable to what extent the court knew this, thanks to cover-ups and unfounded accusations by high-ranking officials, whose word was taken over that of the accused. During the push for internment in 1942, Earl Warren, Attorney General of California, declared that, “There is no possible way of separating the loyal from the disloyal,” among people with Japanese heritage. He contrasted them with members of “the Caucasian race,” for whom there were methods of testing loyalty, adding “when we deal with the Japanese we are in an entirely different field and we cannot form any opinion that we believe to be sound.”
In fact, federal studies conducted in the prior decade had shown that Japanese immigrants and Americans of Japanese ancestry were among the most loyal minority groups to the United States. (Coming after slavery, Native American genocides and some of the more vicious acts of racial suppression visited on other minorities, the Japanese population arguably had less reason to be suspicious of the government at the time.) This trust was never reciprocated, and after Pearl Harbor and the related Niihau Incident, distrust boiled over into vengeance and a populist push for suppression of the Japanese population. Thanks to a report by General John L. DeWitt, the government itself could justify this suppression as a necessary wartime action. DeWitt wrote:
“The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil possessed of U.S. citizenship have become ‘Americanized’ the racial strains are undiluted. It then follows that along the vital Pacific Coast over 112,000 potential enemies, of Japanese extraction, are at large today. There are indications that these were organized and ready for concerted action at a favorable opportunity. The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.”
That’s right—by DeWitt’s tortuous logic, because no sabotage had occurred yet, it was inevitable. And as bad as that is, DeWitt’s initial report was so revealing of the institutional racism behind the push, all copies were ordered destroyed and only a redacted version was publicly revealed—one that was tailored by the FBI and the war authorities to justify mass incarceration. Cover-ups continued in the years to come as Executive Order 9066 was challenged in court, and officials at the highest levels omitted and fought to suppress the facts that contradicted their own methodology and vindicated their 110,000+ prisoners. The stakes went beyond upholding racism. It was about enshrining new discretionary military power.
In American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II, Eric Muller writes, “From early 1943 through the middle of 1944, loyalty adjudications [of Japanese Americans] were the business mostly of the Provost Marshall Generals’ Office and the War Relocation Authority,” who built and maintained the concentration camps housing the thousands of Americans of Japanese descent. As the war drew to a close and the segregation effort by the WRA was completed, in 1944 and 1945 the War Defense Command became the main agency testing for loyalty among the prisoners, “this time to determine who was loyal enough to be allowed to return to the west coast.”
Muller notes that the various systems put forth by the WDC were as racially biased as before, sometimes even more arbitrary, and ultimately “there was the system that the WDC defended (and dissembled about) in federal court—a mechanism of absolute and unguided discretion that it wanted a court to validate for the benefit of military commanders in future conflicts.”
In short, the presumption that subterfuge by Japanese-American was inevitable was not only spurious; it served to allow for wartime officials to seize more authoritarian powers through their own use of subterfuge, at the expense of the very liberties that they purported to defend.
The story of the internment, its legacy and repercussions is not limited to those who were most directly victimized by it. Individual accounts of loss and recovery can be universally appreciated, but the pursuit of justice and the gradual discovery of the truth and final reconciliation is a powerful American story, one that suggests that the arc of history may still bend toward justice as long as there are those willing to fight for it. For the sake of those fighting against injustice today and all who are falling prey to cynicism and apathy, it is crucial that there be those who also tell the story of those who came before.
In the weeks before internment, homes and businesses were searched. Radios and electronic devices that might be used for communication were destroyed or confiscated, along with anything else that investigators found suspect. Families burned heirlooms and keepsakes, anything that might appear too Japanese. Such precautions proved vain; they were all swept up and imprisoned anyways.
Well, not all of them.
Hold These Truths: The Story of Gordon Hirabayashi
This month, ACT Theatre presents a one-man play by actress and playwright Jeanne Sakata on the life and activism of Gordon Hirabayashi, who was a 24-year old nisei studying at University of Washington when Executive Order 9066 was issued. In the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a curfew was imposed on all people of Japanese consent, and at first Hirabayashi complied. But one night, rushing home at the last minute, he had an epiphany: As an American citizen, being sequestered by virtue of his race was a violation of rights guaranteed by the constitution. He began to defy the curfew, and when Executive Order 9066 was issued, he defied that as well. Hirabayashi spent several months in the jail of the King County Courthouse, fighting his imprisonment based on ancestry. It separated him from his family and the rest of his community, as they were sent to camps in the east. It also alienated him from them, as many believed his refusal to accept the government’s terms—no matter how unjust—reflected badly on all of them.
Hirabayashi had converted to Quakerism while at University. The Quakers’ pacifist mandates compelled him to actively address roots of injustice and unrest without violence. He fought the charges against him, taking his case to the Supreme Court, which—to its lasting shame—unanimously ruled against him in 1943. The story of this case was documented in the 1993 short documentary A Personal Matter: Gordon Hirabayashi Vs. The United States.
When Jeanne Sakata first saw this documentary, she was shocked; she had never heard of Gordon Hirabayashi before, but she recognized that his story was pivotal and uniquely American, but also deeply personal. Sakata’s parents had been interned during the war, and like many other children of internees she grew up with only a vague understanding that something very bad had happened, something preferably forgotten by those who had experienced it.
“For that generation, especially for the nisei, being seen as the enemy through those years and then being imprisoned—it traumatized them so much that they could not talk about it for many years,” Sakata says. “If it was mentioned, it was only fleetingly discussed. And as a kid you think, ‘Oh, they were in a camp,’ but you don’t really understand what it means. You think maybe it was like a summer camp. It wasn’t until I was in junior high or high school that I became aware that something more significant had happened.”
As with me and no doubt others, what Sakata saw in school was just an obligatory paragraph and one photo—nothing more—but it began her own journey of discovery into the silence of her parents and their peers. Her mother’s family had been living in Colorado and therefore had not been interned, though Colorado itself had the Granada internment camp. Sakata recalls that when family members from her maternal side first saw the place where her father’s family had been imprisoned, they too could hardly believe it. It was something, “you just didn’t talk about. You absorb that psychically as a child,” she explains. She has also noticed over the years of touring that east coast audiences are far less likely to have an awareness of these events prior to seeing the play.
For her generation of west-coast Japanese, the internment loomed in their lives, abstracted but still evident in their homes. She didn’t get the details until college, when she took an Asian American studies class and for an assignment interviewed her grandfather and uncle for a personal history. Her initial context was the history of Japanese farming communities, but it shifted when she learned for the first time what her family and those communities had faced. When Sakata later heard Hirabayashi’s story and how he expressed it, it gave her own family history a more palpable life. Paraphrasing another who had worked with Gordon, she said it was “as if he had taken that entire era and held it up before them, pulsing like a vein.”
Sakata began work on the play with Hirabayashi’s blessing. In addition to his scholarship and recorded interviews, she relied on many letters that he had written from jail and on the road, which are archived in the special collections of UW and which proved invaluable for Sakata in trying to capture his voice and thoughts as a young man. A commission from the Asian Theatre Workshop at the Mark Taper Forum helped her to finish the play, then titled Dawn’s Light and first performed in 2007. It was soon retitled Hold These Truths and toured from Honolulu to New York, receiving critical acclaim. Last year, it at last had its Seattle premiere at ACT Theatre, and this summer it returns to ACT for a full run, through August 16.
Sakata brilliantly captures the singular voice of Hirabayashi—his stubborn optimism and unshakable integrity, his warmth and candor, the pure conviction of his mission and the devastation he suffers as time and again the highest powers of the land declare him criminal based on his ancestry. In approximately 90 minutes and with only one actor, the spitfire monologue takes Gordon from childhood to adulthood, with most of the focus on the internment years, his time in jail and the legal battles before, during and after.
It is hard to imagine cutting any part of such a dense work, but it has been presented in shortened form (under an hour) for schools. The reactions from students have been very enthusiastic, Sakata notes. It’s enough to make one wish that all of our significant events were being supplemented with powerful dramatic performances, which give the viewers a lived experience. In some cases, the play was presented after students had participated in immersive art projects by Suzu McConnell-Wood, who has participants roleplay the life of an average Japanese-American family for a brief period before barging in and telling them that Pearl Harbor has been bombed, and then that they will be interned. Creating this sort of immediacy is not just a matter of retaining the facts, but experiencing history as a living thing that is relevant to decisions made today, no matter how much time passes. It holds history up, “pulsing like a vein.”
Without works like that of Sakata, one could reasonably expect awareness about the internment to become more glib in coming years, based on new curricula approved by the highly influential Texas Board of Education in 2010. As part of a broader push to expunge unflattering aspects of American history, the little attention given to the internment in new lessons downplays the scale of the internment and the racist motivations behind it. It speciously mentions that German and Italian resident aliens were also detained, but fails to mention that 1) they were not excluded en masse from an entire region of the country and 2) the Japanese Nisei were legal, natural born American citizens.
This is to say nothing of the military’s cover-up of the facts that would have vindicated Hirabayashi, Korematsu and the entire Japanese-American population. Against all odds, in 1980 a copy of General DeWitt’s original report was discovered by an archivist, along with FBI reports and notations showing a concerted attempt to suppress information and justify internment on racial lines. This discovery led to coram nobis retrials for Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, who had also resisted exclusion and internment. Their convictions were at last overturned, and the push for an official apology and redress gained new vigor. At a time when the Iranian hostage crisis had inspired some government officials to recommend interning Iranian-Americans, the timing was especially apt.
Despite all of this, most of the country knew little of the internment or chose to ignore the history of it until the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by President Ronald Reagan. Redress was offered to survivors and their heirs, up to $20,000, but crucially for the well-being of the country, a Civil Liberties Public Education Fund was created with a budget of $50 million to sponsor research and public programming to illuminate this history in hopes that nothing like it would ever happen again. However, anti-spending lobbyists managed to cut that budget to 10 percent—$5 million for programs and research was all that was ever allotted.
It took teams of scholars, historians and lawyers to bring official attention to these matters. To engage the public, it now falls to independent artists, scholars, activists and business owners, and in Seattle and surrounding areas, a diverse array of people are working to do just that.
Panama Hotel: On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
The center of Nihonmachi in the early 20th century was the block between Maynard and 6th Avenue and Main and S Jackson Street. This block remains central to the history of the region and in particular to the internment, and on Maynard, a permanent art installation of benches with photo transfers gives viewers a concise historical view into the community at and before that time. The Higo 10 Cent Store (later a Variety store), was once a center of commerce for Nihonmachi, run by the Murakami family. A 2011 exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum discussed the history of the family and revealed the just how difficult it was to form a business for Japanese immigrants and their children…and the struggle of keeping it during and after internment. If you visit the store today (now home to Kobo, which sells a variety of art, gifts and crafts) you can see placards and videos in the southwest corner beside a stack of suitcases used by the Murakami family when they were interned in Minidoka, a camp in Idaho that was the designated spot for those who had been living in and around Seattle and Bainbridge Island.
Minidoka was the destination for the families who had founded and run Maneki Restaurant around the corner, which today is Seattle’s oldest sushiya. It was where artist Roger Shimomura was interned as a child. Shimomura is represented by Greg Kucera Gallery, but for most Seattle residents and visitors his best known work is probably his huge tiled mural in Westlake Station. Minidoka was where Mary Matsuda Gruenewald was interned at the age of 16. Her memoir, Looking Like the Enemy is a frank account of her life before, during and after the internment and speaks to the trauma experienced by so many in candid, direct, powerful prose. It was also where landscape designer Fujitaro Kubota and his family were sent. They were fortunately able to return to their nursery and rehabilitate it after the war, eventually passing it to the city. Kubota Garden is now one of the region’s most pristine, thoughtfully designed municipal parks.
Also imprisoned in Minidoka was Sabro Ozasa, a University of Washington graduate and Seattle’s first Japanese-American architect. He designed the Panama Hotel, completed in 1910, which still stands facing Kobe Terrace Park to the north, behind Higo and Maneki. The story of The Panama Hotel inspired Jamie Ford’s 2009 novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which became a bestseller and has been translated into 34 languages. During a trip to Seattle, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe included a stop at the hotel on his itinerary. All of this international attention on the hotel is in keeping with its founding function. Panama Hotel was the first stop for many immigrants to Seattle, as well as a way station for fisherman and other laborers. In its lower levels Ozasa included a public bath or sento which, though no longer in operation, is the last Japanese sento intact in America. This hashidate yu was a place for the community to convene and bond through a shared culture as they balanced attempts to assimilate and adapt to the white majority culture in the region.
That is not the only thing that makes the downstairs a time capsule to that era. In 1942, the hotel’s owner Takashi Hori allowed friends and neighbors to stow extra belongings in the basement when they were forced to leave so much behind. Hotel operations were left to a management company until Hori was released officially from Minidoka in 1945. He attempted to reunite everyone with their belongings and was mostly successful, but much remained and remains to this day in the basement, undisturbed since they were left there in the panic of a few days in February, 1942. For some, the past needed to remain the past. Others had died. What is left shall remain there in perpetuity.
Current owner Jan Johnson acquired the hotel 30 years ago. She is the third owner of the building, and like the previous owners she has devoted herself to its maintenance and the surrounding community, but she has also taken steps to make it a living museum of early Nihonmachi and the internment years.
“There’s a history here, a history that people in Seattle may not know,” especially if they are new to town, Johnson says. So the hotel is more than just a business for her. “It’s a way to teach that history, the most direct way, because people see it around them.”
On the ground floor, the beautifully restored teahouse has served as a venue for world class musicians and other communal performances, its beautifully restored interiors lined with historical memorabilia, photographs, design schemata and art. In the main room, Johnson had a large panel cut out of the floor and turned into a window into the basement, allowing visitors to glimpse the piles of goods left behind by internees—a silent, inescapable reminder or a first, mysterious encounter with events too little remembered.
While giving me a tour of the upstairs, Johnson’s earnestness about maintaining the integrity of the building is undeniable. It is a life’s work, one that needs constant attention. She even showed me an archived image of damage done when a piece of construction equipment rolled down 6th avenue and smashed into the northwest corner of the building. She looks out unfazed, waving and smiling and ready to get back to work.
Rooms on the upper floors are still rented out, and each one is uniquely appointed and meticulously cleaned and preserved. Guests do not step into a standardized box, but into a curated space, low on amenities but rich with history and personal touches, from the turn-of the century furnishings to the unique, original light switches.
The hotel was designated an National Historic Landmark in 2006, but just this year it received the highest designation of National Treasure, and in July it received a grant from the Parks Department to assist in the costly and continuous preservation efforts. In every interview Johnson conducts, it is clear that her highest goal is ensuring that the hotel is preserved far into the future, and with it the history behind it.
Hopefully, this designation and the community that Johnson has helped form and inspire over the years will find a way to preserve the building. The nearby Wing Luke Museum serves as the primary historical museum for Asian-American history in the region, and one can imagine a scenario in which it becomes a future steward of the Hotel. In some ways, it is easier to picture this than another business-minded steward with the passion and drive of Jan Johnson, who is truly one in a million. But the power of the hotel is that it remains a business in which people come and go, drink and work and live their lives, which gives it a vital energy that a museum will sadly never have.
The Silence and Song of Gaman
This is not to downplay the significance of museums in preserving this history. Rather, one must recognize that the full color of history and its significance is only revealed through multiple perspectives and approaches, and museums are one essential part of this. Nor has it fallen exclusively to the Wing Luke Museum. Last year, the Bellevue Arts Museum presented The Art of Gaman, which assembled hundreds of objects created by prisoners of internment camps throughout the country.
The term gaman in Japanese may be translated as “endurance” or “to endure” (gaman suru) through hardship with dignity. One might hear it in any workplace in Japan referring to a rough day or a heavy workload, but it can apply to most grave and trying of circumstances. This was the case not just during the internment, but in the years afterward, when survivors did not speak of the magnitude of their loss. This was the silence of gaman among which Jeanne Sakata and others were raised.
The art of gaman shows the other side of the experience, when in the thick of the trauma the internees allowed their ingenuity and spirit to shine forth through craft and art. Many were not trained artists, and even if they developed skills in the camp, they did not continue to practice after release. They were led by trained artists and teachers in the camps, making the work both a social practice and an individual expression. Art allowed them to gaman together, but no doubt to continue that practice afterward may have been to powerful a link to a time they wanted to forget. Furthermore, Japanese and such craft aesthetics were not prized at the time, were rather stigmatized, and so the value of these objects seemed only sentimental to most who made them.
As such, it is remarkable that so many pieces have survived in such good condition and could be lovingly assembled by BAM. The supplies with which people could make crafts and art in desert camps were naturally quite limited. Many of the objects were quite small and decorative—brooches of tiny shells delicately arranged to resemble flowers, sculptures carved from bits of scrap wood, even small metal objects formed from melted filings. Others carved from peach pits or arranged dried seeds.
Some were able to assemble full pieces of furniture, a true luxury in the spartan conditions of the camps, which did not even have walls on the barracks when the internees arrived—only tar paper to keep out the elements. (As you can imagine, that didn’t actually work.) This feat is all the more remarkable when one learns that the prisoners were forbidden to bring anything that might be an improvised weapon—hammers, scissors, even cooking knives. They had to covertly forge their own tools in the camp until later, when the WRA clued into what should have been apparent all along had they not been blinded by racism: These people were never a threat.
These quiet, humble artifacts even at their most fragmentary were powerful reminders of what occurred. Later this month—on the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum—Seattle Opera will present the world-premiere of a new commissioned opera, An American Dream, which tells the story of two women in the Puget Sound area: a Japanese-American facing internment, and a German-Jewish immigrant who must ponder the fate of those she left behind. There will only be two performances in this run, August 21 and 23, so those interested should act soon to secure seating.
February 19, 2017: This date will mark the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. February 19 is a national day of remembrance for these events, and for that anniversary The Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. will unveil a massive exhibit devoted to the internment era. The museum is now seeking objects to be donated to its collection, including works such as were displayed at The Art of Gaman.
That exhibit is expected to reach 3 million visitors before it closes in October of that year. I hope for more, but above all I hope it is clear to the visitors as Jeanne Sakata made clear several times in discussing Gordon Hirabayashi’s fight: This is an American story, not something to be pigeonholed as a Japanese-American or Asian-American story. To this day, we are struggling with the broken ethics or wartime detainment of immigrants and citizens without habeas corpus, from Guantanamo to CIA black sites on American soil. One cannot imagine that it would ever happen on the scale that it did during WWII, but the decision of the SCOTUS enshrining those discretionary powers for military leadership stands to this day and racial hysteria continues to rear its head.
On a final, happy note, just a block away from Panama Hotel, on Main St and 5th Avenue, the new Hirabayashi Place is under construction. Commemorating Gordon Hirabayashi’s lifelong work toward peace, social justice and equality, the mixed-use building will be a workforce housing development, with a childcare center and 96 apartments (studio, 1-bedroom, and 2-bedroom) affordable for households with incomes at or below 40, 50 and 60 percent of Area Mean Income. As the city faces an affordable housing crisis, this may be considered a drop in the bucket, but Hirabayashi’s life is a testament against a cynicism, a reminder that every life counts and even in the direst of circumstances one must live by one’s best principles.
We owe it to those who endured internment to educate ourselves, and the reward is not just a better appreciation for all the rich cultural gifts that they have created in our midst—from parks and public art to theatres and museums to culturally rich shops and restaurants. We also may more deeply appreciate the American experiment, the attempt to bring together so many disparate cultures and perspectives under certain “self-evident” truths. Above all, this history teaches us that we cannot take these things, and the stewards of these principles are not those in charge, but those who live them, whoever they may be.
Jeanne Sakata’s Hold These Truths plays at ACT Theatre through August 16. Buy tickets online.
To purchase tickets for the world premiere of An American Dream, see the Seattle Opera website.
For more information about donating to the Smithsonian’s 2017 exhibition on the internment, contact firstname.lastname@example.org