Reflecting on the Japanese Internment That Began 75 Years Ago Feels Frighteningly Necessary Today

Tule Lake, 1945EXPAND
Tule Lake, 1945
Jack Iwata (Courtesy of Japanese American National Museum, gift of Jack and Peggy Iwata)

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. The president stated that, in the interest of keeping the United States safe from spies, the secretary of war would have the power to create military areas for the purpose of holding such persons. With a signature, this order set off a chain of events that resulted in the persecution of an entire ethnic community.

An estimated 120,000 people of Japanese heritage were incarcerated at camps such as Manzanar in California's Owens Valley and Heart Mountain in Wyoming. This population consisted overwhelmingly of U.S. citizens, the children and grandchildren of immigrants known as nisei and sansei, respectively. Moreover, the issei, those who immigrated from Japan, were ineligible for citizenship due to exclusionary laws that had been upheld by the Supreme Court years earlier and would not be rectified until 1952.

In the aftermath of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, a mixture of war anxiety, racism and xenophobia created what is widely viewed as a shameful period in our country's history when U.S. citizens were denied civil rights because they had ethnic ties to an enemy nation.

"When you think of America, that's the twist," Clement Hanami says. "How can this happen in a country that prides itself on being so open-arms to everybody?"

Hanami is the art and program director at the Japanese American National Museum. He's also the curator of "Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066," which opens Feb. 18 and runs through Aug. 13. The exhibition will combine historical documents and art to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 and further tell the story of the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

'No More Japanese Sign" taken circa 1920 in Livingston
'No More Japanese Sign" taken circa 1920 in Livingston
Courtesy of Japanese American National Museum/Gift of the Yamamoto family

The show has been in the works for two years. But, in the wake of President Trump's executive order banning travelers and refugees from certain majority-Muslim countries — and the protests and legal battles that have followed — "Instructions to All Persons" takes on another level of relevancy.

"It's not like we just said, this is a hot-button topic," Hanami says. Indeed, the impact of World War II on the Japanese-American community is deeply intertwined with the museum's mission. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the museum crowd mills between two separate exhibitions. In "Only the Oaks Remain: The Story of Tuna Canyon Detention Center," guests take a virtual tour of a former detention center on the outskirts of the San Fernando Valley where Japanese, German and Italian immigrants were held, while learning the stories of some of the wartime prisoners. Upstairs, in the ongoing "Community" exhibition, artifacts are arranged to form a timeline of Japanese-American history in the United States. It is, at times, a heartbreaking display, where personal objects such as a Boy Scouts figurine, a doll and a violin are mixed with memories of the camps. There are placards explaining the choice of terminology here: JANM frequently calls the spaces where Japanese-Americans were forced to live "concentration camps" based on the term's usage in historical documents and the precision of its definition.

On a wall hangs a framed document that reads "Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry" in bold, capitalized letters. Such signs popped up in towns along the West Coast, directed at "alien and non-alien" people as notice that they would soon be "evacuated" from their homes.

Norman Mineta, former U.S. secretary of transportation, remembers seeing such a sign in his hometown of San Jose. By phone, the Maryland-based chairman of JANM's board of trustees recalls seeing the posts on poles and buildings and asking his older brother what a "non-alien" was. At the tender age of 10, he wondered why he was called a "non-alien" instead of a citizen, which he was. "That's why, to this day, I cherish the word citizen, because my own government wasn't willing to use the word citizen to describe all of us," he says. "I always ask people, when was the last time you stood on your chair and beat your chest and said, I'm a proud non-alien of the United States of America? The likelihood is that you never have."

Decades later, as a member of the House of Representatives, Mineta co-sponsored the Civil Liberties Act that was signed into law in 1988, wherein the nation officially apologized for these wrongs and offered reparations.

The incarceration of Japanese-Americans during WWII is an acknowledged part of U.S. history, and former concentration camps such as Manzanar are now part of the National Park Service. Still, the particulars are perhaps not as well known as they should be.

ManzanarEXPAND
Manzanar
Japanese American National Museum, gift of Jack and Peggy Iwata.

"It was absolutely shocking to me that some people had no clue that EO9066 happened, especially in the Midwest, the South, and even parts of the East Coast," Wendy Maruyama says via email. The San Diego–based artist created "The Tag Project," large collections of replica identification tags that cascade from the ceiling. Her pieces Manzanar, Heart Mountain and Gila River will be part of the exhibition at JANM.

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Maruyama began the series as a way of educating people. "When the project was first started, the country was still reeling from anti-Muslim sentiment because of 9/11, and seeing issues of discrimination against Mexican-Americans and immigrants (via Arizona's controversial SB 1070, enacted in 2010) added more urgency to the cause," she notes.

Maruyama worked with people at schools and at art and religious centers to make the tags. "It was critical to me that the volunteers were able to see the exclusion zone on the map, to see the reams and reams of paper that listed every name of every individual that was forcibly incarcerated in desolate areas of the United States," she explains. "The sheer number of tags was a more effective way of communicating the magnitude of Executive Order 9066 and how many people were affected by its implementation."

Boyle Heights–based artist Mike Saijo says by phone, "There were a lot of lives that were destroyed because of this: family businesses taken away, property taken away, even psychologically as well, within the Japanese-American community, during World War II." Known for printing images on pages of books to create large pieces, Saijo has three works in the show, including his earliest piece, Soldier, which dates back to 1993 and features a WWII-era photo of Sen. Daniel Inouye printed over pages from the Bible. Saijo's other contributions to the show, No Exit and A Dream Deferred, both reflect upon the experience in the camps.

The opening of "Instructions to All Persons" coincides with the museum's Day of Remembrance event. This year, the program is titled "Unite to Uphold Our Civil Rights." Mineta will be among the speakers and the event will include representatives from various ethnic and religious communities.

"I think of this country like tapestry, with individual yarns of different color, and those yarns represent the language, the art, the culture, the history of our forebears coming from countries all over the world, and yet woven together to make a strong hold," Mineta says. "Each of those yarns are vibrant, colorful, strong in their own regard. Yet when they are woven together, they make this strong hold."

Right now, that emphasis on diversity is important. "Instructions to All Persons" wasn't intended to reflect this crucial point in the history of American civil liberties, but it does — and the museum is rising to the occasion. "It's really a goal of ours to share the Japanese-American experience in a way that helps everyone to understand that the diversity of this country is really its strength," Hanami says, "and we're just one part of that."

INSTRUCTIONS TO ALL PERSONS: REFLECTIONS ON EXECUTIVE ORDER 9066 | Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave., downtown | Feb. 18-Aug. 13 | janm.org

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Japanese American National Museum

100 N. Central Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012

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