Image: Robin Lee
I was asked to write an essay about the Asian American experience for The Washington Spectator. Here’s an excerpt. I hope you find it interesting.
April 16, 2018
By Setsuko Winchester
The Olympics have come to a close, and in their wake I’ve been thinking about a stubborn phenomenon that was illustrated most recently by the flack a New York Times columnist named Bari Weiss received after tweeting: “Immigrants get the job done,” together with a picture of Mirai Nagasu, the U.S. ice skater who won a gold medal. Many asked: What do you mean, immigrant? She’s an American.
Weiss defended herself by observing that Nagasu’s parents are immigrants. Well, if the standard at the Times is to identify you by your last immigrant relation, then we should take into consideration the immigrant parents and forebears of a lot of our newsmakers, most notably those presently in the White House. We should recognize Trump’s German and Scottish immigrant background, along with that of his Yugoslavian (now Slovenian) immigrant wife and former–Soviet Bloc Czechoslovakian-Scottish-German-immigrant sons and daughter. And how about the Belarusian-Jewish son-in-law, whose family escaped the Holocaust? When you see things the Weiss way (who I’m assuming, by the name, is a German-American immigrant), I think it’s strange that the Times doesn’t question Trump’s “American” bona fides or for that matter his America First policy, with its demands to close the doors on “immigrants,” since his presidency is clearly an example of the rise of the recent immigrant. Rather than hide it, as if it were something to be ashamed of, shouldn’t the White House celebrate how wonderfully open and generous America has been to his immigrant family?
You can read the rest here.
Twenty years ago, on April 3, 1998, an exhibition opened on Ellis Island which explained the difference between two types of government facilities used in the US during WWII to imprison citizens and non-citizens of the US. It poses the question..what do you do if your government turns against you, not for what you did…but for what you are? And did having US citizenship matter? In the 1940’s, the answer was no. There is a term for that kind of imprisonment...
US Internment Camp
- A Matter of Due Process -
US Concentration Camp
- A Form of State-Sanctioned Racism -
One tea bowl = 1,000 individuals
Image 1: “Ellis Island - 16 tea bowls”
Over 31,000 individuals were rounded up and put in internment camps run by the DOJ and the INS. These Individuals were mostly foreign nationals.
Those imprisoned in these facilities were arrested with charges and given a hearing. If they were unable to prove their innocence, they were held until deported. These facilities were protected by the Geneva Conventions. This was legal.
11,500 German foreign nationals
3,000 Italian foreign nationals
16,500 Japanese foreign nationals (most were released to one of the ten US concentration camps)
Image 2: “Manzanar, CA - 120 tea bowls”
The US concentration camps were run by the military and administered by the WRA. Anyone with 1/16th Japanese blood in the western half of the western states (where most of them lived) were rounded up (even orphans in orphanages) and imprisoned for the duration of WWII. No one was ever charged, given a trial or hearing, and the prisons were not protected by the Geneva Conventions. This was not legal.
Concentration camps are historically a very specific kind of incarceration which has been used as a tool of empire. It’s the imprisonment of a concentration of a particular group of people solely for who they are, not for what they did.
FDR helped promote universal human rights and yet removed the rights he said were a basic part of all Americans’ lives from certain citizens, most of whom had been in the US for multiple generations and who had committed no crime.
There is a historic pattern of “removing the other” in America. It continues to happen today.
A friend just sent this to me. If you read the latest books about the roundup of Japanese Americans, this information is in there, but as we know these kinds of books are not read or reviewed…it seems as a rule.
But even when it’s in a publication like Scientific American, this kind of American history never gets into the "lay-readers’” diet of information that is fed to them by the purveyors of “general interest” news organizations as the NY Times has recently described itself and its readers to me in a correspondence with their Standards Editor about a similar matter.
"Thanks for this additional background. I definitely don't discount or minimize the importance of the topic or the need for historical accuracy. I do find, though, that in many areas there is a gap between the precise legal or historical terms used by experts and the ordinary terms used by laypeople to describe the same things. The best terms for a historian writing a scholarly paper wouldn't necessarily always be the best usage for a general-interest newspaper."
In trying to find this story in the NY Times, I found this from Dec. 2017 under the category “Lesson Plans/US History”: Teaching Japanese-American Internment Using Primary Resources
As we are teaching history:
Lesson one: Headlines matter. It would probably be more accurate to say the US forced roundup and mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans.
Lesson two: Internment was used not to detain Japanese Americans, but to imprison Germans, Italians and Japanese foreign nationals (and some of their children and spouses).
Lesson three: Japanese Americans were not placed in Japanese Internment Camps, but in what we now know were called US concentration camps by FDR and his administration.
I didn’t know what to expect when we got to the first camp…which was Rohwer, in Arkansas. It had a cemetery and a memorial and a row of kiosks to explain what happened there in what is now row after row of flat agricultural farm land, perhaps cotton? Most everything had been harvested. It was pretty warm and it was December.
We just had a rudimentary map and just sheer determination to find all these places. For a city girl who’s lived in NY City, Washington, DC and a year and a half in Tokyo, going to these sites gave me a new insight into my country, what democracy means and what life can be like for folks who don’t live in areas with every amenity available to mankind. Even living in a tiny, sparsely populated rural town in the Berkshire Mountains of MA didn’t prepare me for the sense of isolation at some of these locations, often a vastness which could seem deadly but beautiful at the same time.
The journey also tells a different story of America and Americans (white, native American, Latino and black, rural and remote) than what I was used to, a story which seems more relevant today than when it happened 75 years ago. Back then we didn’t know or didn’t want to know. Today, to do the same would be to return to those days...of looking the other way. On a brighter note, the journey of looking for these places will also take you near some spectacular geological landscapes like the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, Yellowstone or Crater Lake, depending on how you’d like to connect the dots.
At almost all of these sites, people have taken care to rebuild, resurrect or preserve a part of the history there. A few have amazingly well put together interpretive centers while others are in the process. To let them disappear would be a shame because it means we will lose an essential part of this country's story, the struggle to become an American, which is central to understanding who we are as a nation.
Although the deadline for the Call to Action has passed, I thought I’d share this with you.
JANM is joining Japanese American organizations across the nation in an important call to action to help support continued funding for the Japanese American Confinement Sites grant program. Please consider lending your support by contacting your elected representatives.
Call to Action
Tell Your Representative to Support JACS
Support the continuation of funding for the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program (JACS) by contacting your representative!
JACS funding is vital to the preservation of the legacy of incarceration endured by Japanese Americans during World War II. This funding is used across the nation in many capacities, such as art, education, and recording of oral histories.
Rep. Doris Matsui is leading a Dear Colleague letter that expresses support for continued JACS funding. We are asking for your help by contacting your representatives and asking them to sign on to Rep. Matsui’s letter. This will show that you, as their constituents, care about this funding. The deadline for the letter is March 16th, so act fast!
Also, if you or your family has any connection to a specific incarceration camps, please consider contacting the Representative of that camp’s location. Below is a list of each camp and the Representative of that area.
Please use the samples below to get in touch and show your support!
Camps by District and Representative
Jerome and Rohwer—Rick Crawford AR-1, French HIll AR-2, Steve Womack AR-3
Granada Amanche—Ken Buck CO-4
Topaz—Chris Stewart UT-2
Gila River—Krysten Sinema, AZ-9
Poston—Martha McSally, AZ-2
Tule Lake—Doug LaMalfa CA-1
Manzanar—Paul Cook CA-8
Minidoka—Mike Simpson ID-2
Kooskia Work Camp—Labrador ID-2
Heart Mountain—Liz Cheney
Dear … :
I am writing you today to ask for your support of the Japanese American Confinement (JACS) Program.
JACS was passed in 2009 with bipartisan support and has funded many important programs.
Preserving Japanese American history is important to me because …
I have personally benefited from JACS through … (list program and its importance to you).
I am asking you to sign on to Rep. Matsui’s letter to the appropriations committee in support of JACS. Any questions can be directed to Andrew Heineman of Rep. Matsui’s office at Andrew.Heineman@mail.house.gov.
If you are unable to sign onto the letter, I ask that you consider including JACS funding in your individual appropriations requests.
Thank you for your time,
Additional Reasons to Highlight
Sample Phone Script
Hi, my name is … and I am a constituent. I am asking Rep. … to support continued funding for the Japanese American Confinement Program. This program is important in educating the public about Japanese American incarceration and preserving this chapter in America’s history. I personally support JACS because … I ask Rep. … to sign onto Representative Matsui’s Dear Colleague letter or to submit an individual request for the continued funding of it. Thank you for your time.
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.
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?