By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Jenny Chomori teaches about Japanese internment
“They were told they were going to the camps for their own protection. But the guns weren’t facing out. They were facing in.”
There is silence as Jenny Chomori describes how innocent Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Sixth-graders at Thomas Starr King Middle School in Los Angeles are shocked that U.S. residents were locked up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor just because they were Japanese. Most lost their homes and all their possessions. How could that happen, asks Chomori, in a land dedicated to justice for all?
Her class is creating podcasts and movies about the Japanese American internment and reading “Farewell to Manzanar,” a memoir about a concentration camp near Mt. Whitney that once held 10,000 Japanese inmates.
For Chomori, the internment issue is personal. Her father’s relatives were imprisoned in Manzanar while her father fought in the U.S. Army. Her mother’s relatives were sent to an “assembly center” at Santa Anita, also in Southern California, where they were put in horse stalls before being shipped to a camp in Arkansas and then relocated again to Arizona.
“When they registered at the camps, they became just a number,” says Chomori, a member of United Teachers Los Angeles. “How would you like to no longer be a person and just be a number?”
Students wonder why the inmates didn’t try to escape from Manzanar.
“They had nowhere to go,” Mikhail Holliday says to his classmates, explaining that Manzanar was surrounded by wilderness and the Mojave Desert.
Anniversary of an injustice
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 signed by President Roosevelt, which resulted in 120,000 Japanese Americans being relocated to detention camps. Inmates lived in primitive and challenging conditions.
Those interned at camps such as Manzanar reacted in different ways. The Japanese culture taught “gaman,” to persevere or to endure, so some accepted their fate. Others resisted, protested, or organized politically. Many others enlisted or were drafted.
“Nisei” are the first generation to be born in America. Ten thousand volunteered in the all-Nisei 100th Infantry Battalion, the foundation for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Active for just the last two years of the war, the 442nd was the most decorated unit, for its size and length of service, in the history of the U.S. military. Some 6,000 served in the Military Intelligence Service, playing a key role in the Pacific Theater, intercepting and decoding enemy messages.
Thousands who served defended the reputation of their community with their lives while their families were interned. It wasn’t until the 1988 Civil Liberties Act (often called the Redress Bill) was signed into law that the United States apologized for the unjustified internment of Japanese Americans.
“There was shame in being incarcerated. They wanted it to be forgotten,” Chomori said, adding that she is grateful her parents talked about the camp, because many former inmates never discussed it.
As a college student, Chomori visited Manzanar with other activists and helped raise awareness about what happened there. Manzanar Pilgrimage Day became an annual event thereafter, held the last Saturday in April and attended by people from throughout the country. Now a national historic site, Manzanar still has the original guardhouse plus reconstructed barracks and mess hall.
Redlands Teachers Association member Gary Peplow takes his fourth- and fifth-graders to Manzanar every year. He believes that studying the Japanese internment helps students question what the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence really stand for. Both are required reading in his class.
Student Carl Schubert called the visit “amazing. We could see the guard towers. The cabins had dirty wood floors, no insulation or walls to separate the cabins. It’s hard to imagine that thousands of people lived that way.”
Peplow says his students are always indignant to learn about this unpleasant chapter in American history, and for that reason alone it should be taught.
“I use the past to focus on what’s going on right now. I ask them to consider whether racism still causes people to react in the same way today. By learning from our mistakes, we can make the world a better place.”
History repeats itself?
To commemorate the anniversary, CTA’s Pacific Asian American Caucus conference in May was titled “Manzanar: A Living History Experience.”
Cliff Kusaba, chair of the caucus, describes the conference as a powerful experience. “For me, it was personal. It was where my family lived.”
Attendees ate meals in the reconstructed mess hall and met in the auditorium. They visited the interpretive center, talked with former inmates and visited the campground, ending the conference at the Manzanar monument and cemetery.
Now, 70 years later, history may not have repeated itself, but it did take a similar turn after Sept. 11, observes Kusaba.
“The panic after 9/11 was similar to what ensued after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,” says the Teachers Association of Long Beach member. “The Patriot Act brought civil rights and privacy into question. Members of the Muslim community have come to Japanese Americans to ask us about our experiences. They feel a connection to us because they are also under attack.”
Kusaba says that the Japanese American internment story is usually glossed over in history books and seldom taught in depth. “But these things should be taught — it’s an issue of civil rights, freedom and what it means to be a United States citizen.”