February 19, 2022 is the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 that authorized the forced relocation and incarceration of American citizens of Japanese descent.
In the summer before I entered 11th grade, I attended summer school at Grant High School in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. During one lesson, my teacher, Robert Crain, had us close our books.
“I want to tell you about a dark time in our history that’s not in our textbooks,” he said. And he went on to tell us about the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Because it was summer school, the rules were lax, and Mr. Crain spent an entire hour telling us about this disgraceful part of our history. Remember, this was not an approved lesson, and it wasn’t in our textbooks. And we weren’t going to be tested on it.
Nevertheless, the story got my attention. It was astonishing, and unbelievable. American citizens of Japanese descent were rounded up by the government during World War II—forced out of their homes and sent away to “camps”—prisons.Without any due process of law.
Without any hearings to see if they had done anything wrong. Their possessions were seized or forfeited. Their children taken out of school and forced to live in the camps—often in dry, dusty, uninviting places far from civilization.
I was shocked. I had a hard time believing it. I had gone through years of Jewish religious school, so I was aware of the Holocaust and concentration camps. I knew that the Nazis had systematically organized and rounded up and murdered six million Jews in death camps. I had
friends who had grandparents who’d been in concentration camps. I had seen the tattooed numbers on the forearms of Jews who’d been in concentration camps on elderly people in the Jewish Fairfax neighborhood where my grandfather owned a parking lot. The idea that people
could be targeted, rounded up, denied their rights, even killed, just because of their ethnic heritage was not completely new to me.
Mr. Crain made it clear that American concentration camps were NOT death camps. The American government hadn’t killed Japanese-Americans. But we had denied them their civil rights. The right to a home. To move freely in society. To their culture. The right to a fair hearing—to be judged innocent until proven guilty. The American government—under color of law—systematically stripped Americans of all their rights just because of their ethnic heritage. Justifying it because it was a time of war.
The story was mesmerizing. And then I forgot all about it.
Fast forward many years.
I had finished college and graduate school and had just moved to San Francisco. I was the Central Pacific Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). I loved San Francisco. I moved to a neighborhood that was rapidly gentrifying. When I moved in, the area was about one-half African-American, one-quarter Japanese-American, and one-quarter gay, or “yuppie” like me. My Japanese-American neighbors kept to themselves, rarely even saying hello. My street was a block from JapanTown, and my main shopping street was filled with Japanese bakeries and restaurants.
One day, a friend and I went out to the “suburbs” to go to a mall—Tanforan Shopping Center. In the midst of looking for shoes or skirts, I noticed a small memorial plaque at the shopping center. The plaque noted that during WWII, Tanforan had been a detention center—holding
Japanese-Americans forced out of their homes until they could be relocated to more permanent detention camps. Tanforan had been a race track until the government commandeered it. The US government (barely) cleaned out the horse stalls and moved in Bay
Area Japanese-Americans who had recently been forced out of their homes. They would stay in those stalls until they were relocated to camps—with names like Tule Lake and Manzinar. I later learned that Tanforan had held about 8,000 people.
And then… I continued shopping and forgot all about it.
Right Next Door. Right Here
Over time, however, I slowly came to realize that my neighborhood—indeed the very building I lived in—had been where many of these Japanese-Americans had lived before they were rounded up and forced out of their homes. I—a nice young Jewish woman living incredibly
freely in one of the most exciting free cities in the world—was living, literally next door, to people who had been rounded up by my own government. And I was sleeping where they had slept.
This neighborhood—called by changing names over the years: Japantown, Upper Fillmore, Lower Pacific Heights—had changed dramatically as a result of the forced relocation of Japanese-American citizens. When they were forced to abandon their homes, the neighborhood transitioned to an African-American neighborhood, with some of those who had come to work in the naval ship yards or other war efforts. That’s how my neighborhood had developed its ethnic mix. At least before the gays and yuppies.
It slowly began to dawn on me why my elderly Japanese American neighbors weren’t all that friendly. I saw it in the faces of my neighbors—those who lived right next door to me and across the street and were in the shops. I saw the wariness, the weariness, the lack of trust. The reality and story of the forced removal was finally sinking in.
But, I went about having a really good time in glorious San Francisco.
One day, years later, I got an exciting invitation.
The US government was going to hold Congressional hearings around the country to discuss redress and reparations to Japanese-
Americans for their WWII internment. As Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, I was invited to testify if I chose to do so.
I certainly did choose to do so. I threw myself into the task of researching my testimony and the history of the Japanese-American relocation with gusto. I was enthusiastically supported in my efforts by the President of the San Francisco ADL chapter at the time, Carl Pearlstein. Carl was the owner of Nurseryman’s Exchange, one of the largest horticultural companies in the US, and he had had his own experience with the Japanese-American community.
He had started out in horticulture in the early 1940’s, driving around the agriculturally-rich California central valley with his wife Virginia. The two of them would drive around with onion bulbs in their car, selling them to farmers. Many of those farmers were Japanese immigrants and the children of Japanese immigrants. Carl had noticed, and respected, the hard and good work that the Japanese-American farmers were doing. They were prospering in the Central Valley. And many of the white farmers who had dominated this area resented it.
When the round-up and incarceration of the Japanese-Americans came in 1942, Carl saw many of his customers—fine, decent, patriotic Japanese-Americans—forcibly displaced from their farms, and he was outraged. Carl felt that the internment was mostly about grabbing the
Japanese-American’s land and stopping them as competition to the Central Valley white establishment.
Carl told me that at the time he wrote a letter-to-the-editor to one of the leading agricultural publications opposing the removal of Japanese-Americans. The magazine refused to run it. So, as he recalled with both pride and humility decades later, he took out an ad in the publication. Now, he and Virginia were still struggling financially at this time, but he felt he couldn’t stay silent. There was no Facebook or Twitter at the time, so this was the method he could make his outrage known.
The Real Reasons
During the course of my research for my testimony, I was shocked at what I learned. And how, unfortunately, correct Carl was in his assessment. Indeed, there was no security threat from West Coast’s Japanese-Americans. In fact:
- The FBI recommended AGAINST the internment. Led by the notorious J.Edgar Hoover,
the FBI did a thorough investigation and determined there was no widespread threat.
- Within two days after Pearl Harbor, all those suspected by the FBI had already been
- The Japanese-American community in Hawaii – closer to Japan – was never interned.
- The German-American and Italian-American communities were not interned.
So, why—if the Japanese-Americans did not present a threat—were American citizens rounded up, their lands seized, and locked into concentration camps?
- Anti-immigrant prejudice and racism. Anti-Asian hatred had been rampant in California for some time. Laws had been passed—including ones by overwhelming popular vote in California—that prohibited “aliens” from buying or leasing land in the state. The federal Immigration Act of 1924 was designed to greatly reduce the number of Jews and Italians, coming to America.
- Greed. Japanese-Americans were an increasing economic threat to white farmers in California’s Central Valley. Seizing on the opportunity presented by the attack on Pearl Harbor, white agricultural interests pressured California’s Attorney General Earl Warren to seek the seizure of Japanese-American owned lands. The managing director of one of the largest Caucasian farm organizations at the time said, “We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the [racial slur] for selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came to this valley to work, and they stayed to take over. They offer higher land prices and higher rents than the white man can pay for land. They undersell the white man in the markets. They can do this because they raise their own labor. They work their women and children while the white farmer has to pay wages for his help. If all the [racial slur] were removed tomorrow, we’d never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the [racial slur] grows. And we don’t want them back when the war ends, either.”
- Political ambition. Yes, the Earl Warren who pressured President Franklin Roosevelt for the internment was the same man who later carefully led the Supreme Court to outlaw school segregation, and who was vilified by the right as a godless lefty. He had grown up in California and was himself was active in anti-Asian organizations. But more importantly, he was a very ambitious politician who was running for California’s Governor. He was elected nine months after the internment order.
- Political expediency. President Franklin D. Roosevelt—yes that FDR who was vilified by the right as a godless lefty—agreed to the internment, even though he had the FBI report saying there was no threat. But he needed the support of California for other political reasons, and he signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942 calling for the forced removal and incarceration of American citizens.
Preparing for my Congressional testimony enabled me to learn so much about this horrible chapter of American history. I also got to meet so many inspirational leaders of the Japanese-American community who were the force behind the movement to get these Congressional
hearings and redress and reparations, like John Tateishi, the head of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Redress Committee.
I also was introduced to the history of the bravery of World War II’s 442 nd Regiment – the most decorated unit in American history including receiving an astonishing 21 Medals of Honor. The 442nd was comprised of recruits from the Japanese-American community, who wanted to prove their loyalty, even to a country that treated them so horribly.
As a result of these Congressional hearings, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed The Civil Liberties Act which had been passed by Congress, giving surviving Japanese-Americans both an apology and reparations.
Why do I go on so long about this?
Because the same factors that led to one of the most disgraceful acts in American history—the forced roundup and incarceration into concentration camps of American citizens—are still here and on the rise today. Racism. Greed. Political ambition. Hatred and fear of immigrants.
At the same time, we are seeing the rise of censorship in many of our school systems—making it even less likely that Americans will learn of our past mistakes.
As we observe this anniversary, I hope that in more schools—and churches and synagogues and mosques and community centers—there will be leaders like Robert Crain, my 11th grade teacher, who have the courage to teach the true history of America, so we can hope to make a better future.