February 19th marks 75 years since Executive Order 9066 was signed and enforced. Recently, I sat down with my parents in Los Angeles, to talk about how the EO affected them as second generation Japanese-American (Nissei). Discussions about internment were never a huge topic in our house growing up. I think my parents like many of their friends lived with a Japanese proverb, “Shikata ga nai (shee-kata-gah-nai). The meaning is something like, “What will you do?” or “It can’t be helped”, or “We just have to accept it”. Truthfully, it’s not the rational realization that we aren’t in as much control as we think, but it reflects a more stoic fatalism and a reluctance to speak up for fear of upsetting things. It’s only been in their later years that I’ve noticed a willingness to talk about it.
Over a three night period we talked about the events that led up to the roundup of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans only on the west coast of the U.S. What should shock people is that nearly 62% of these people were American citizens, some of whom had served valiantly in WW1. When the EO became law in February, the government needed time to build “camps” (notice how the word connotes something different than it really was). What shocked both Kay and I was when we lived in Phoenix we connected with a Japanese-American church. When we asked where were the Japanese-Americans in Phoenix sent, the answer was, “they didn’t go.” For some odd reason the government arbitrarily decided the dividing line was the railroad track that ran north and south through the city. Of course, everyone designated for internment who lived on the west side simply moved over to the east side.
My father was twelve and my mother was seven years old and living in Los Angeles at the time of the EO. They remember family and friends having to get rid of everything. All you would be able to bring with you in internment were the clothes on your back and a few minimal possessions. Everything else either had to be sold or left in the possession of neighbors you thought you could trust. The problems were two-fold. First, people didn’t know where they were going or how long they would be gone. Second, who could be trusted to care for your possessions? People asked Caucasian friends to watch their property only to find out when they came back that those possessions were no longer theirs. Others sold their possessions for pennies on the dollar as some perceived this as “justice” for the enemy. My mother told me that her brother had just bought a new Chrysler and asked a friend to store it. When he returned from internment he found out it was no longer his…
Neighbors looked suspiciously at Japanese-Americans, often concerned that they were spies. Early on after EO 9066 was put into effect, Japanese people were required to register with the Department of Justice. My father remembers the FBI coming to their door asking for my grandfather who had died right before. Still they searched the house for anything that suspiciously looked treasonous. A doctor friend of my grandfather’s was taken in, interrogated, and beaten up to try and get “information.”
Soon after my family was put on a train and sent to a temporary holding ground, a section of Pomona Fairgrounds surrounded by barbed wire fence. Other friends of my parents were sent to Santa Anita race track where families lived in horse stalls until the internment barracks could be built. My mother recalled families in crowded hastily built barracks with no running water or toilets. There were no beds so you had to make your own mattress out of straw.
Looking back on history I think it’s really easy to put yourself in the role of hero where you would have stepped in to love your neighbor. It’s easy to say to yourself, “I don’t see a person’s skin color”. But when in that place where fear and anger are whipped up, while there were white people who actually cared for my extended family, most either ignored what was going, or joined in, or maybe even worse, took advantage of people who suddenly were demonized. And trust me, we all see people’s skin color so let’s not buy into the clichè that somehow we have evolved into a colorblind society.
Who then is your neighbor? When Jesus told the story of the Samaritan who actually stopped to give aid (the unlikely “hero” of the story), it was meant as shock value to a people who were glad they weren’t born a Gentile. In his book, What Jesus Demands From the World, John Piper writes, “”When we are done trying to establish, ‘Is this my neighbor?’ — the decisive issue of love remains: What kind of person am I?” In other words, in trying to answer the first question you have to ask yourself another question – Are you the kind of the person who knows the Father’s love lavished on you that you would be able to recognize your neighbor and have your heart go out to them in compassion?