Editor’s note: This is part of our series on the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed on February 19, 1942.
Hours after the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor, my grandmother Chiye Higuchi scoured her family’s farm in San Jose looking for anything that smelled of her native Japan. Photos of Emperor Hirohito, old newspapers with Japanese script and trinkets were thrown into the fireplace to avoid raising suspicion.
It wasn’t enough. The loyalties of the Higuchi family, like those of my mother’s family, the Saitos, in San Francisco, and 120,000 other people of Japanese descent on the West Coast, were immediately suspect.
On February 19, 1942, their fate was decided. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 (EO 9066) that day, my grandparents, parents, and their families were consigned to live at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, one of ten concentration camps located from California to Arkansas.
They lost everything.
Their incarceration was not simply a reaction to war hysteria. The Japanese-American incarceration put an exclamation point on decades of racism that had simmered since the first Asian immigrants arrived in the United States just before the discovery of gold in California in 1849.
The Chinese came first to work in the gold fields of the Eastern Sierras of California and in the valley near Sacramento. In the 1860s, more than 11,000 Chinese workers were hired to build the transcontinental railroad, which was completed on May 10, 1869.
However, it was difficult to know at the time, as Chinese workers were excluded from official photographs taken when the two sections of the railroad met at Promontory Point, Utah.
Chinese workers worked harder and for less money than their Caucasian counterparts. Fights break out between whites and Chinese. In 1882, Congress responded by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The law did not stop a country’s growing demand for cheap labor, so companies turned to Japan. Labor contractors scoured the country for men willing to leave their homes to work on Hawaii’s pineapple and sugar cane plantations, in mines or on the railroads of the continent.
Soon the cycle began again. Japanese immigrants, said white politicians and newspapers, could never assimilate. They brought sickness. They compete unfairly in business.
States like California have passed laws prohibiting immigrants from owning property. Two of my uncles, native Californians who were underage to drive, were the real owners of the Higuchi’s 14.25 acre farm in San Jose.
Congress repeated what it had done in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act with a very restrictive immigration law in 1924 that banned all Asian immigration.
At the time of the signing of EO 9066, racism against Asians, as well as other racial and ethnic minorities, was well established. It has been woven into US law.
We know all of this because the government has meticulously documented every step. Census records from 1940 were used to locate where Japanese American families lived, although the government spent the next few years lying about it.
Prominent photographers such as Dorothea Lange were hired by the government to document the expulsion of Japanese Americans. These photographs were so sinister that the government locked them up for more than 20 years.
FBI agents rounded up community leaders and detained them in a series of separate camps, saying the men posed security risks. A congressional commission in the early 1980s proved that the security claims were never true.
These false accusations often centered on the location of American-Japanese farms. Many were on marginal land near military installations, power plants and railroads that Caucasian farmers thought they couldn’t cultivate until Japanese Americans proved them wrong. My father’s family was forced to sell their farm for pennies on the dollar, like most other Japanese Americans.
The incarceration of Japanese Americans has also intersected with other forms of discrimination and expropriation in US history. Those incarcerated under EO 9066 – which also included Alaska Natives – were confined to camps on occupied Native land.
Today, politicians seeking to sanitize racist aspects of US and world history are pushing to limit how schools teach students and ban books they can read.
Across Texas, school libraries are removing books about racism and LGBTQ rights. A school has pulled a book about former first lady Michelle Obama, saying it encouraged ‘reverse racism’.
New Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin has created a secret “counseling line” for citizens to report “intrinsically divisive concepts, including critical race theory,” a debate among legal scholars about the historical effects of the racism that is not taught in any school in Virginia. Virginia teachers called the whistleblower line an attempt to sanitize the teaching of racism, which Virginia, with its policy of “massive resistance” to desegregation, knows very well.
In January, the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee removed Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, from the eighth grade curriculum, saying it contained “foul and objectionable” language. Author Art Spiegelman said the language was coarse because the massacre of 6 million Jews is “a disturbing story”.
There are few pleasant ways to describe the mistreatment of large groups of people. In the mass shame of the incarceration of Japanese Americans, there are thousands of individual horrors – the death of a baby choking in the dust of a windswept prairie, a large -father dying of cancer abused in prison camp in hospital or the unprovoked shooting of an unarmed prisoner.
These stories combine to make up the story of what happened to my family and thousands of other Japanese Americans, just as the famines, systematic gas murders and deaths from disease are part of the Holocaust.
They cannot be explained by citing only the stories of acts of kindness by white people who watched over Japanese-American farms while their owners were imprisoned or the handful of Germans who hid Jewish families during the Holocaust. These examples should be celebrated for what we should all aspire to, but they can never replace the truth of the horror people are capable of.
That’s why the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which I chair, is dedicated to telling the true story of the incarceration of Japanese Americans and putting it into context with the treatment of other marginalized groups, such as Native Americans, African Americans and other Asian Americans.
We do it in one of the most conservative states in the country with the unwavering support of the local community. Our work would not be possible without the help of our neighbours, the majority of them white. We don’t blame them for what happened on the high desert plains of Wyoming 80 years ago, but we don’t shy away from telling the real story.
Our work has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and we’ve brought dozens of teachers from across the country to learn about incarceration and the history of racism toward Asian immigrants and Native Americans.
We are encouraged by Illinois and New Jersey, which have added new requirements to teach Asian American history in their public schools, and the growing number of schools across the country that are voluntarily adding these subjects to their curricula.
They accept our nation’s complicated history, which shows how a great nation can often be built on the suffering of many people, especially those who seem different from the majority.
The effects of this story are not limited to the books. The remaining inmates and their families face the long-term mental health trauma of incarceration today. My generation never knew the details of what our parents and grandparents went through, because they never talked about it. My mother, Setsuko Saito Higuchi, called Heart Mountain a place of love, because that’s where she met my father. It was only after her death that I realized the trauma she went through and how her coping mechanisms affected me and my brothers.
I titled my book on Japanese-American incarceration Setsuko’s Secret for this very reason.
This secrecy made her suspicious of strangers and obsessed with controlling her family and surroundings. She bought and sold several homes, always seeking to recreate the San Francisco home that was stripped of her family.
I recognize some of his traits in me. It took me years to realize how and why they exist.
The United States continues to live with the effects of its long history of anti-Asian racism, including in the intergenerational trauma that many people carry and in the anti-Asian American violence that continues today.
This is why I remain committed to the continued exploration of history supported by primary sources and rigorous examination of the facts. This is the mission our foundation works every day to accomplish, and we won’t let those who want to sanitize American history obscure what happened 80 years ago – or its continuing lessons for the United States today. today.