In a previous blog, I speculated why the Asian American experience is seldom included in discussions about race and the history of discrimination in America. This despite a long history of anti-Asian legislation that’s been passed, starting when the first Asians migrated to the US in the mid 1800’s. (By 1941, there were more than 800 pieces of legislation, federal, state and local, specifically targeting Asian people). I suspected this lack of discussion was because instead of it being illegal (as it was to discriminate against black people or discriminate against religion), discrimination against Asians was de jure...in other words it was perfectly legal.
Most of these laws have been slowly contested and either vacated or overturned. Here’s one that still is on the books in a state in the United States and it’s not on the west coast.
Hope you find it interesting!
While it hasn’t been reported widely, you can now help celebrate and spread the word that January 30 was unanimously adopted as Korematsu Day in New York City as of December 19, 2017.
January 30 is celebrated as The Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution in California as of September 23, 2010.
It’s also celebrated in the states of Hawaii (2013), Virginia, (2015), and Florida (2016) and recognized in perpetuity.
It was also celebrated in Illinois in 2014, but it is not clear whether the proclamation extended past the year. Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Utah have submitted resolutions honoring the day, and South Carolina has submitted a bill to their legislature.
Korematsu v. United States is an important Supreme Court case that was tried in 1944. It is considered a landmark Civil “Wrong” in the world of jurisprudence.
To learn more, see my "Justice for All? Justice for Some..." blog post (below), which explains how it distorts the idea of Justice for all.
I had heard that the term “racism” first entered the Supreme Court lexicon in the 1944 case Korematsu v. United States.
In my search to find that incident, I came across this handy list of 10 Racist US Supreme Court Rulings which illustrates the issue of not civil rights, but Civil Wrongs:
1 Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856)
2 Pace v. Alabama (1883)
3 The Civil Rights Cases (1883)
4 Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
5 Cumming v. Richmond (1899)
6 Ozawa v. United States (1922)
7 United States v. Thind (1923)
8 Lum v. Rice (1927)
9 Hirabayashi v. United States (1943)
10 Korematsu v. United States (1944)
Of these ten, five were ruled against Asians and Asian Americans. Of the five, three were rulings found against a person of Japanese ancestry.
I always wondered why Asians were not included in discussions about discrimination in the US and I suspect it is because for most of this country’s history, anti-Asian discrimination was (and is still deemed legal by some, in some form, to some degree).
Korematsu v. United States is a good example of that.
In 1942, a Japanese American named Fred Korematsu questioned the constitutionality of EO 9066, which gave the US military license to exclude anyone from what they declared to be a military zone. It didn’t specify race but when enacted, the government chose to exclude only persons of Japanese ancestry. Korematsu refused to comply and was arrested, and he and his case made its way through the courts, finally making it to the Supreme Court in 1944.
In a 6–3 decision, the Court sided with the government, ruling that the exclusion order was constitutional. Six of the eight appointees of President Franklin Roosevelt sided with Roosevelt. The two others and the lone Herbert Hoover appointee, Owen Roberts, dissented.
Justice Frank Murphy issued a vehement dissent, saying that the exclusion of Japanese "falls into the ugly abyss of racism", and resembles "the abhorrent and despicable treatment of minority groups by the dictatorial tyrannies which this nation is now pledged to destroy". He also compared the treatment of Japanese Americans with the treatment of Americans of German and Italian ancestry, as evidence that race, and not emergency alone, led to the exclusion order which Korematsu was convicted of violating:
“I dissent, therefore, from this legalization of racism. Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting, but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States. All residents of this nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land. Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States. They must, accordingly, be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment, and as entitled to all the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.”
The Entry of “Racism” into the Supreme Court Lexicon
Justice Murphy's two uses of the term "racism" in this opinion, along with two additional uses in his concurrence in Steele v Louisville & Nashville Railway Co, decided the same day, are among the first appearances of the word "racism" in a United States Supreme Court opinion. The first appearance was in Justice Murphy's concurrence in Ex parte Endo, 323 U.S. 283(1944). The term was also used in other cases, such as Duncan v. Kahanamoku, 327 U.S. 304 (1946) and Oyama v. California, 332 U.S. 633 (1948). It then disappeared from the court's lexicon for 18 years—it reappeared in Brown v. Louisiana, 383 U.S. 131 (1966). It did not appear in Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967), even though that case did talk about racial discrimination and interracial marriages.
In 1983, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California Judge Marilyn Hall Patel overturned the 1944 decision and vacated Korematsu’s conviction. By writ of coram nobis, the court’s finding said that government misconduct (namely the suppression of key evidence by the prosecution) enabled the government to win its case.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court decision still stands, but the federal Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians concluded in its 1983 report, "Personal Justice Denied," that the Korematsu case "lies overruled in the court of history."
That report also found that no person of Japanese ancestry was ever found guilty of treason or espionage.
Whether Korematsu can be used as precedent still arises however. Recently, it has been referred to as precedent by some Trump supporters. Most legal scholars believe it’s deemed overturned.
Constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein argued that the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 granting reparations to the Japanese Americans who were interned amounts to Korematsu having been overturned by history – even though the Supreme Court has not explicitly overturned it.
According to Harvard University's Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Noah Feldman, "a decision can be wrong at the very moment it was decided – and therefore should not be followed subsequently." Justice Anthony M. Kennedy applied this approach in Lawrence v. Texas to overturn Bowers v. Hardwick and thereby strike down anti-sodomy laws in 14 states. The implication is that decisions which are wrong when decided should not be followed even before the Court reverses itself, and Korematsu has probably the greatest claim to being wrong when decided of any case which still stands. Legal scholar Richard Primus applied the term "Anti-Canon" to cases which are "universally assailed as wrong, immoral, and unconstitutional" and have become exemplars of faulty legal reasoning. Plessy v. Ferguson is one such example, and Korematsu has joined this group – as Feldman put it, "Korematsu's uniquely bad legal status means it's not precedent even though it hasn't been overturned."
On a more positive note:
January 30 : Officially Korematsu Day in New York City
While it hasn’t been reported widely, you can now help celebrate and spread the word that January 30 was unanimously adopted as Korematsu Day in New York City as of December 19, 2017.
January 30 is celebrated as The Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution in California as September 23, 2010.
It’s also celebrated in the states of Hawaii (2013), Virginia, 2015, and Florida (2016) and recognized in perpetuity.
It was also celebrated in Illinois in 2014 but it is not clear whether the proclamation extended past the year. Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Utah have submitted resolutions honoring the day, and South Carolina has submitted a bill to their legislature.
Ever since February 19th and the 75th Anniversary of FDR’s signing of EO 9066, a host of unexpectedly fortunate things have happened to my tea bowls and the images that tell their story, including being featured at the FDR Library and Museum in Hyde Park earlier this year (until the end of December) and being selected for a juried sculpture show at The Mount in Lenox, MA, this summer. As that chapter closes, another one has begun.
This fall has been particularly extraordinary because of a collaboration with Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (aka MCLA) in North Adams, MA. In early spring, the head of MCLA’s Berkshire Cultural Resource Center, Michelle Daly, contacted me to say that she and members of the faculty were interested in bringing the Freedom From Fear/Yellow Bowl Project to campus.
The first phase was to bring the project to MCLA’s Gallery 51 (located a block away from MassMOCA), for a show that opened at the end of September and where it will be on exhibit until the 19th of November, 2017.
This was followed by two extraordinary days on campus in October, where I was given the opportunity to talk to different classes about the FfF/YBP in the context of various disciplines and perspectives: what happens to civil liberties during war for a “US Government and Public Policy” class; the challenges of getting one's message out for an “Arts Management” class; the role of community engagement and the power of art for a “Culture, Power and Protest” class; the importance of historical context and empathy for a “War, Science and Society” class; how experience in journalism shaped my project for a “Writing for Arts and Culture” class; and, last but not least, talking about the Asian-American experience in a “Conversations on Race” class.
Even though I came to teach, I learned a lot from the questions and the exchanges that ensued. One in particular I’d like to share:
After one of the history classes, a student came up to me to say there is a song she couldn’t stop listening to and asked me if I had ever heard of it…it was called “Kenji” by the group Fort Minor. She could tell no light bulb was going off as she looked at my blank expression. She prompted me some more…the lead singer is one of the founders of the group Linkin Park? Now a small glow of recognition appeared on my face. I had heard of Linkin Park, but I have to admit I knew nothing about them other than the fact that they were a rock band.
I now know (from Wikipedia) that they have been called the best-selling band of the 21st century, one of the world’s best-selling music artists overall and a two-time Grammy winner with an international fan base.
What I didn’t know that I learned from the student was that one of the founders of the band and lead vocalists is a Japanese-American guy named Mike Shinoda. Fort Minor is one of his side projects, for which he wrote a song called “Kenji”, which is about his family’s experience of being forcibly sent to one of the US concentration camps during WWII. He uses real out-takes from interviews with his father and his aunt which give an unexpected documentary feel to what is a rap song.
Here is a link to the song.
Finally, in November, I got to see some of the results of an assignment that Dale Fink, a professor of education at MCLA and an expert on children’s literature, gave his students. He called it “An Image of my Own Resilience.”
The challenge, inspired by the FfF/YBP, was to create a conceptual work of art in order to tell the story of resilience in the face of a personal setback, hardship, difficult situation or challenge the student had to get through at some point in his or her childhood or adolescence (or even recently). He instructed the students to find or create an object or memento that said something about themselves, identify a place that would bring out the meaning of the difficulty, pose the object and document it with a photograph. He told them to submit one to three photos and a caption that was as short as 25 words or as long as two paragraphs.
An alternative was to focus on the challenges faced by an entire group of people (by ethnicity, language, gender, sexuality, religion, etc.) rather than on a personal history.
I was surprised at the unexpected power of the students' work. The pain in some and the ultimate acceptance and ensuing catharsis in others was palpable.
I found the experience not unlike appreciating a good haiku. The structure is simple and straightforward, but the impact of the truth it revealed lingered long past the experience of seeing the images .
I am hoping to share some with you, but I will refrain until I get these artists’ permission.
Perhaps in the near future…
On August 20, 2017, the spoken word poet Stanley Spencer narrated his verse while standing next to my tea bowls nestled on the forest floor at The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts. Stan was invited to create a work of art out of one of the SculptureNow pieces installed at the historic site. I’m honored that he chose mine.
Stan Spencer is a retired school administrator. He is a frequent participant in the Word by Word Festival based out of Pittsfield, MA, and has qualified annually in their story and poetry slam finals. He has been fortunate enough to have performed in bookstores, pubs, galleries, art centers, museums, and of course, a barber shop. Part of the process that his poetry deserves is that it should be read aloud. Several times. Speak it aloud as if you were preparing to read in front of a noisy group with their arms folded, just daring you to read poetry to them. Play with the timing. Don’t rush it. Get the arms going. Have fun. The poem will let you know when you get it right. Stan lives in Lenox, MA with his wife Jan, who is his editor, mentor, censor, and interpretive coach. She does not take criticism of his work lightly.
For those who are interested in what happened here in the US in the 40’s when those in power decided that an entire ethnic group was a danger to society, the playwright Jeanne Sakata manages to illustrate it beautifully in just 90 minutes with one actor playing more than 20 different roles in a powerful new play called “Hold These Truths.” It’s the story of Gordon Hirabayashi, a second-generation Japanese American, who defied the curfew placed on all alien and non-alien persons of Japanese ancestry after the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor. Gordon was attending the University of Washington when he decided that he could not comply with these orders on principle and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
It’s also a story of how the Quakers (one of the only groups to offer help to the Japanese American community) came to his aid when nearly all civil rights organizations had abandoned his case, even the American Civil Liberties Union.
I’m not a theater critic, but I have been to enough performances and have had to go through enough arts events as an editor and producer at NPR to know when I’ve seen something very special. Greg Watanabe’s portrayal of Gordon brings to the audience a taste of what it was like to be Japanese American in the American west not that far in the distant past. He shows us how his decision to defy government orders came at a great personal cost but without losing his sense of humor or ultimately his optimism for his country. He shows us how there is more than one way to fight for your country and what it stands for, especially when those rights and liberties were being tossed out as an inconvenience. The other factor that makes one aware that one was seeing something rare was the fact that an Asian face was playing everything and everyone on the stage, convincingly, from his mother to General John DeWitt, switching from one to the other, sometimes in one sentence. He makes it clear that he can and should play anything and anyone.
On the writing of this review, the play will have closed at the New Century Theatre in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where it was in production for too brief a time.
Here is the review that a friend sent that got me off my behind and to the theater ASAP:
I’m glad I caught it just in time. The production will be moving to other cities, Washington, DC to name one, in the near future, so if you find that it is playing near you, I would grab a ticket right away.
Here are two stories which try to answer the question “Who’s an American?”
This first story appeared in the LA Times the day before July 4, 2017. It’s about a 91-year-old Medal of Honor recipient (the US Military’s highest honor) whose surname happens to be Miyamura, not Mayberry or McDonald.
The second story concerns the tradition of resistance and fighting against injustice that are rooted in the origins of this country. Contrary to popular belief, many Japanese Americans chose to fight for American values not in the battlefields but resisting what they believed was an un-American act from within the camps. A new documentary by Konrad Aderer called “Resistance at Tule Lake” tells their story. Here’s a mention of it in the NYTimes. Here is more background on Konrad Aderer and his film.
Canadian author Margaret Atwood has a new TV series coming out based on her best-selling novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a non-specified dystopian American future. She wrote an essay which appeared in the March 10, 2017 New York Times on “What The Handmaid’s Tale Means in the Age of Trump,” in which she notes some parallels to events in history.
I couldn’t help noting some of my own…
Early in the piece, I was especially struck by this paragraph:
"I experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing. So did the repurposed buildings. 'This used to belong to . . . but then they disappeared.' I heard such stories many times."
"Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established orders could vanish overnight. Change could also be as fast as lightning. 'It can’t happen here' could not be depended on: Anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances."
Again, that familiar refrain, “It can’t happen here.” Which I’ve read over and over again in many accounts.
And then the words in the first line and last line in the next paragraph:
"Why do we never learn the real name of the central character, I have often been asked. Because, I reply, so many people throughout history have had their names changed, or have simply disappeared from view."
How many remember Fred Korematsu or even know about Gordon Hirabayashi, MinoruYasui, and Mitsuye Endo? Anyone in the 442nd?
Later she notes:
"The scene is the one in which the newly conscripted Handmaids are being brainwashed in a sort of Red Guard re-education facility known as the Red Center. They must learn to renounce their previous identities, to know their place and their duties, to understand that they have no real rights but will be protected up to a point if they conform, and to think so poorly of themselves that they will accept their assigned fate and not rebel or run away."
This brings to mind the image of school children pledging allegiance to a flag—but behind barbed-wired fences guarded by armed soldiers in watch towers.
“All power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none. Some of the controlling Aunts are true believers, and think they are doing the Handmaids a favor: At least they haven’t been sent to clean up toxic waste, and at least in this brave new world they won’t get raped, not as such, not by strangers. Some of the Aunts are sadists. Some are opportunists.”
This can be said of anyone in the midst of war, whether it was behind barbed wire or not…
But most of all, this sounded eerily familiar:
“But there’s a literary form I haven’t mentioned yet: the literature of witness. Offred records her story as best she can; then she hides it, trusting that it may be discovered later, by someone who is free to understand it and share it. This is an act of hope.”
Although she never mentions it, as you’ve probably guessed, these words and deeds bring to my mind all the research and reading I’ve done regarding what happened to US citizens of Japanese ethnicity here in the US during WWII.
“Will their messages be suppressed and hidden? Will they be found, centuries later, in an old house, behind a wall?”
Many of the books I’ve read were not even available until recently. Decades of painstaking research into censored and impounded material has finally given credibility to those messages hidden in an old house, behind a wall. Many of the stories that have trickled out earlier were not available in most bookstores or were never published in the first place. If they were, they were often not reviewed, written about or cited. When talking about wholesale injustices in the US or around the world, the fate of these Japanese Americans was seldom mentioned or even acknowledged—despite the fact that the events happened in the most powerful country in the world, in the most written about war. Or perhaps it’s precisely because of that.
So my question is: Will it remain just an obscure and irrelevant tale that belongs in the “minority bin”? Or will it be remembered and given it’s proper place in American history along with other cautionary tales that DID happen here and that could happen again. Not just in popular fiction. But in fact.
Here’s the entire essay.
Here are some interesting links to help people better understand what most Americans didn’t know and were not taught, for most of the 20th century:
From Internee To College Student: UConn’s Enrollment Of Japanese-Americans During World War II (audio)
One East Coast College that made a difference for a lucky few, featured on WNPR’s “Where We Live”
Prisoners in their own land: 75 years after Japanese internment (video)
A brief but very informative explanation which illustrates what happened to those in Washington State
Japanese Internment and its Implications for Today
How censorship worked during WWII and beyond here in the United States, as seen through the story of photographer Dorothea Lange
One-Two-One-Seven: A Story of Japanese Internment (video)
An award-winning video which tells a very poignant story of what happened to a once prosperous Japanese-American family in California
When Lies Overruled Rights
Contrary to what is believed, many challenged incarceration and four even went to the Supreme Court, but it’s taken 75 years and a President Trump for their voices to be finally heard.
For those who expressed interest in my project, I have finally made all ten images from the camps and five images of “iconic landscapes” available online for people to see. This is to acknowledge the 75th Anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which ordered the evacuation of all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast of America. You can access them from the home page on this site.
Six of my images will also be part of the FDR Library and Museum’s new exhibition called “Images of Internment” which opens February 19, 2017 in Hyde Park, NY. George Takei of Star Trek fame, who was incarcerated as a child, will be there as well as Kermit Roosevelt, University of Pennsylvania Law Professor and great, great grandson of Theodore Roosevelt.
I was on the front page of the Berkshire Eagle, the leading regional newspaper in New England: What are we really afraid of?
My Yellow Bowl Project hopes to spur discussion around these questions: Who is an American? What does citizenship mean? How long do you have to be in the US to be considered a bonafide member of this group?