Confronting the Legacy of Executive Order 9066: SPICE, IUC, and the NCTA Co-Sponsor Panel on the Japanese-American Experience of World War II
This month marks the passing of 70 years since the February 19, 1942 signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin Roosevelt, an act resulting in the forcible removal and incarceration of more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent. About two-thirds of those relocated to concentration camps scattered across desolate areas of the United States were U.S. citizens. To reflect on this milestone and its legacy, SPICE joined with the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies (IUC) and the National Consortium for Teaching About Asia (NCTA) to co-sponsor “Commemorating 70 Years Since Executive Order 9066: A Panel Discussion on the Japanese-American Experience of World War II.” Moderated by Stanford Professor of Japanese literature and IUC Executive Director Indra Levy, the event drew a crowd of educators, students, and community members eager to enrich their understanding of this troubling chapter in U.S. history. Presentations were given by an esteemed panel: Professor Emeritus Donald Hata of California State University Dominguez Hills, writer and artist Dr. Ruth Y. Okimoto, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki, and journalist and filmmaker gayle yamada. Drawing on their diverse experiences, the panelists addressed how the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government does not, as Levy emphasized, “sit quietly in the past.”
A common thread connecting the presentations, raised both by panelists who spent their childhoods in the camps and those born after the war, was that the traumatic experience of the war years left an indelible mark on the Japanese-American community. In the words of yamada, “The Japanese-American experience during World War II defined us as a people. The war was not a personal experience for me but it defined who I have become almost without me realizing it.” Hata recalled that after the war, many families including his own lived in “fear of being singled out again as scapegoats,” and consequently “abandoned, rejected and suppressed Japanese language and culture. The desired goal was to be a 200% white American, an emasculated model minority devoid of any connection to their Japanese heritage.” Okazaki echoed this, explaining that he only realized years later how much the Japanese-American community in which he was raised was “acting out a post-camp experience…that’s why we had to be in Boy Scouts—it’s because of the camps—that’s why we had to be in every single sports league—it’s because of the camps…that’s why we had to be so American, that’s why we were constantly told not to stick out, to belong, not to get in trouble.” For Okimoto, the dislocation of being forced from her home and sent to the camps following Executive Order 9066 was paralleled by the challenges of then re-entering society following the end of the war: “We laugh about it now but it was very scary after the war to come back to a community being the only Japanese family and having people stare and chase us.”
The scars left by wartime experiences, panelists suggested, made it difficult for Japanese Americans to confront and openly discuss this period for many years. Yet, each of them discovered a way—teaching, archiving and creative reconstruction of the past—to explore the legacy of Japanese Americans in World War II, both for their own personal understanding and in order to share these stories with others. Hata found that his time at the IUC in Japan “brought clarity and a sense of identity and purpose to my life…I learned about Japanese history and about my Japanese immigrant heritage.” Hata later drew on this when he developed groundbreaking teaching materials in order to introduce the experience of wartime concentration camps into a college survey course on U.S. history. His text Japanese Americans and World War II: Mass Removal, Imprisonment, and Redress, co-authored with Nadine Hata, first came out as a slim 15-page supplement at a time when there were no other suitable materials for teaching this history, and is today a core source in this field. Okimoto, on the other hand, discovered that drawing and painting were her “salvation,” for they offered a way to “express myself about those years that I could not talk about,” which in turn enabled her to document the history of the Poston camp where she and her family were imprisoned during the war in Sharing a Desert Home: Life on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, Poston, Arizona, 1942-45 and contributions to From Our Side of the Fence.
Both Okazaki and yamada turned to documentary filmmaking to reveal unexplored aspects of Japanese-American wartime history. Okazaki’s many films have included a documentary on three men who challenged the legality of Executive Order 9066, an exploration of the life and art of Estelle Ishigo, one of the few Caucasians to enter the camps with her Japanese-American husband, and his third and most recent project All We Could Carry, from which Okazaki shared clips of poignant testimony of camp survivors. Yamada in turn was drawn to a project focused not on the camp experience, but rather the veterans of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), including her father and many other Japanese-American soldiers who served in the Pacific War by translating intelligence, questioning Japanese prisoners, and bravely leading “cave flushing” operations. Yamada’s film on the MIS, Uncommon Courage, which she screened during her presentation, vividly demonstrated how these Japanese Americans employed their language and cultural knowledge to save lives on both sides of the conflict, all while many of their families were behind barbed wire in the United States.
Okazaki affirmed that even after making three films on the subject he remains convinced that there are still stories yet to be told, because the discussion is, in a sense, just beginning. “It shocks me that the discussion is evolving so much still that even the terminology is still in discussion and evolving, and probably will continue to evolve.” Hata directly confronted this previously unexplored aspect—the insidious bureaucratic nomenclature represented in terms like “evacuation,” “relocation camp,” and “non-alien” (rather than U.S. citizen), which “cleverly obscured the reality that U.S. citizens, solely on the basis of their race, were herded without trials or due process into concentration camps as political prisoners, surrounded by barbed wire, watch towers, machine guns and searchlights, and soldiers with orders to shoot anyone trying to escape. Let us never forget what WRA [War Relocation Authority] was designed to do and did very efficiently.” Raising consciousness, diligently archiving the past, and identifying new stories and perspectives, emerged as shared concerns among the panelists, even as they emphasized that fighting historical amnesia was a future-oriented endeavor. Yamada noted that the kind of archiving projects she is involved with enable people of any ethnic background or race to “look at a moment in time—which was the war—and figure out for themselves how they could work through the same kind of issues that are being brought up.” “I hope that no other child in America,” concluded Okimoto, summing up the lessons of her presentation, “has to go through such an experience as that, to stand in a barrack, in a classroom, and have the teacher say ‘Ok children, it’s time to salute the flag.’…You’re in a prison camp but you’re saying ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag’…I hope that there’s no war where an ethnic group would be put in that kind of situation.”
The presentations were followed by a discussion, during which speakers fielded questions from the audience and elaborated on their stories and work. Panelists also remained after the event to meet with participants and sign books and DVDs. The video of the panel presentations is now available online, so that even those who could not attend in person can be inspired to learn more on their own, share this history with students, friends and family members, and ultimately work together to confront the troubling legacy of racial profiling and hysteria in the United States during World War II. “All four panelists were the model of courage in their personal discussions of the meaning of Executive Order 9066,” reflected Levy, “For those who were unable to attend the panel discussion, I am thankful that we were able to make a video record of the event. This recording will be an important part of the lessons I teach my son, and I highly recommend it to all parents and educators who are concerned about the legacy we bequeath to the next generation of Americans.”
- Video Transcript
Streaming flash video