How do you explain to your child what an internment camp is when she is still so little?
“Grandma and Grandpa were imprisoned in the middle of the desert when they were even younger than you!”
Okay, that’s not going to work.
“Our government thought Grandma and Grandpa were a threat to society even though they were just little kids.”
Hmm, probably not the right approach either.
I always try to teach my daughter to have love for others. Not just because I’m a pastor or it’s the right thing to do. But also because as Japanese-Americans, our family was discriminated against. So we owe it to others to reject stereotypes, and to treat them with the basic love and respect all people deserve.
Seventy five years ago, my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles were taken to the middle of nowhere and put behind barbed wire fences surrounded by armed guards, simply because they were of Japanese ancestry. This was due to the Executive Order 9066, signed in February 1942, sending all citizens of Japanese heritage to internment camps. They were scattered across the country to protect the American people. But weren’t they Americans, too?
Some people were lucky, and they had friends and neighbors who volunteered to watch their homes, farms, and belongings while they were gone. I have heard amazing stories of farmers who would work at their Japanese neighbor’s farm to keep the land fertile, and sell the crops for them so they had money upon their return.
But most weren’t that lucky. People took advantage of the situation, offering little to those heading to the camps. Prejudice against the Japanese was a running current in the country, not simply fueled by war hysteria. The Japanese were accused of stealing the brains of white people (an actual headline), along with stealing American jobs. They were considered a threat just because of their ethnicity.
The Los Angeles Times wrote, “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched — so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents — grows up to be a Japanese, not an American.” And that was one of the tamer sentiments from the press. So, it was no surprise that when it came time to round up the Japanese, very few stood up to the waves of prejudice and hate that enveloped our country.
When my daughter Emma was in third grade, she had to do a project based on history. I encouraged her to do one on the internment. I took Emma with me to visit the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles, where they showed replicas of the barracks that Grandma and Grandpa lived in. They also reviewed the living conditions of the camp. She, then, interviewed her grandparents about their experiences. My dad was old enough to recall his time there, and I heard stories that were even new to me. She did a great job on the report but, more importantly, it opened her eyes to a time in history that is important to remember.
I don’t want Emma to grow up and be bitter about this dark chapter in our history. Instead, I hope she learns compassion, love, and empathy from it. I hope she will grow up and be an advocate for those who have no voice. I hope it will inspire her to never give in to fear, and live up to the ideals our country was founded on. I love being an American, but believe that ignoring our past is a surefire recipe for disaster.
I hope that Emma’s generation will continue to learn and grow from our mistakes, and the mistakes from our past generations. And, I hope they become the generation who truly loves their neighbors.