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Friday, February 24, 2012

George Takei's new musical asks us to "Never Forget"

(In this post is the first photo I've ever shared of my own family being held in the Heart Mountain Japanese American internment camp in Wyoming.)

Earlier this week the fun loving and comical George Takei's Facebook wall went from his typical hilarious posts to one of complete seriousness. It was Feb. 19th, the formal "Day of Remembrance" to acknowledge the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II.

George posted:
70 years ago today, the President signed a decree that sent me and my family to a prison camp. Hear my story, and learn how you can help fulfill our pledge: Never Forget. Never Again."

He also posted a link to a video about a new musical he is starring in so I watched the video, visited the website, and learned:

"Allegiance is an epic story of love, war and heroism set during the Japanese American internment of World War II, following the story of the Omura family in the weeks and years following Pearl Harbor, as they are relocated from their home in Salinas, California to the Heart Mountain internment camp in the wastelands of Wyoming. . .

. . .Allegiance sheds new light upon a dark chapter of American history. With its moving score, Allegiance connects the audience with universal themes of love, family and redemption."

How the Internment Affected My Family

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the internment of American citizens with Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, he allowed military commanders to create and designate "exclusion zones," from which "any or all persons may be excluded." Anyone of Japanese ethnicity was then excluded from living along the Pacific coast of the United States from 1942-1945 for fear they might somehow help sabotage the security of our country during World War II.

My mother's family was forced to give up their home and business and were interned at Heart Mountain, Wyoming for over three years. The violation of Japanese American's civil rights during this time was un-American. That it took over 30 years for our government to formally acknowledge it was wrong is shameful. In 1988 Congress passed legislation that President Ronald Reagan signed that finally aplogized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government.

This was my family while being held in the Heart Mountain Wyoming Internment Camp. My uncles and aunties were all born in the United States and had been U.S. citizens all of their lives when this photo was taken. The little girl standing beside my grandmother is my mom.

What is left of one of the barracks that stood at the camp my mother's family was held at is now on display at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. The bare wooden structures were uninsulated. They were dusty in the summer and drafty and cold in the winter. To think of my family living behind barbed wire, with guards with guns in watchtowers, in a wooden building with just tar paper covering the outside during the harsh Wyoming winters where temperatures could drop as low as 30ºF below zero is something that is hard to imagine.

And for what? For being of Japanese heritage. For looking Asian. It seems like in this day and age it would be unnecessary to say "Never Forget. Never Again." But I was shocked by how many people I heard after 9/11, both people I knew and people in the news and on tv, calling for "Middle Easterners" to be similarly rounded up and locked up. So I do believe there is a need for this message and this musical.

The Japanese Peruvians

I also suspect a lot of Americans don't realize, not only did we lock up our own citizens, the US Justice Dept. also agreed to accept and intern over 2000 Japanese Peruvians (and German and Italian Latin Americans) in our camps. (Click Here to read an excerpt from the Yale Human Rights & Development Law Journal)  The majority never returned to Peru. Some were sent back to Japan in exchange for captured Americans, others were sent back to Japan after the war because Peru refused to take them back and the United States refused to keep them.

Years ago I met a man whose family had been forced to relocate to the US during the Peruvian internment. He told me his family owned a successful shirt making factory and that the government wanted to be able to take it over and keep its profits so sending the Japanese-Peruvians away was an easy way for them to take successful companies away from them. I cannot verify the veracity of his statement (though these articles by the Texas State Historical Association and The Asia-Pacific Journal support it) but it is what was told to me and was the first time I'd ever heard of Peruvian and Latin American citizens being held in North American internment camps against their will.

Art Shibayama holding a portrait of his family taken in Peru before they were deported to an American internment camp. Photo by: Tyler Sipe

The Yale Human Rights & Development Law Journal states:

"The United States' motivation for going to all of this trouble and expense, most of which violated both U.S. and international law, appears to have been a desire for hostages to be exchanged for Americans held in the Japanese-occupied territories. . .

. . .Over 500 Japanese Peruvians were in fact included in the two exchanges that took place in 1942 and 1943."

Civil Rights Attorney Wayne Collins
being honored by the
Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress
After the war, Peru allowed Japanese Peruvian citizens and those without citizenship who were married to a citizen to return to Peru. In the end 700 Japanese Peruvians without citizenship were "voluntarily" (meaning were forcibly) repatriated back to Japan as they had no other alternative. Peru refused to take them back and the U.S. refused to allow them to stay in this country.

The article states "There is no doubt that the kidnapping, deportation, incarceration, holding hostage, and forced repatriation of the Japanese Peruvians violated international law."

It was only the efforts of a civil rights attorney named Wayne Collins who was already fighting the forced repatriation of U.S. Japanese American citizens to Japan, who interceded on behalf of the 365 remaining Japanese Peruvians still caught in limbo in the United States, that they were not deported as well. Because of Wayne Collins those who wanted to stay in the U.S. were able to remain here and some were eventually offered citizenship.

Moving Forward

I feel sorry and outraged for my relatives who were forced to endure this humiliation and injustice just as I feel sorry and outraged for anyone of any ethnicity anywhere in the world who had been forced to endure racism and injustice. While many who had nothing to do with the internment will, to this day, offer apologies for what happened in the past, I think the best thing we can all do now is to think differently and do our best to not perpetuate hate and stereotypes in our day to day lives, to vote to end bigotry whenever possible, and to uphold the principle our country was founded upon that all men (and women) are created equal.

Because the internment happened to my own family I will definitely see Allegiance.

Thank you George Takei for bringing this musical to the stage and the message of remembrance to light. I, as do many others, appreciate that you are such an outspoken advocate of civil rights.

Watch the video of George Takei talking about why Allegiance is important to him, and should be to America, by clicking here: AllegianceMusical.com

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