I think of a woman in Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii, who never said a word to her children about being in an internment camp during World War II. “I didn’t want my children to know how their country shamed us so much. I wanted them to be proud of their country and to become very good citizens,” she confided to me.
A friend and her family here in Sacramento, never spoke about their time in an internment camp. They do not want to relive the indignities and humiliation they experienced, the homes and farms that were confiscated by neighbors and strangers, and their parents’ struggle to restart their lives after the camp ordeals were over.
If only this silencing of past inhumane experiences, authorized and imposed by the United States had resulted in what Japanese Americans had sought: Dignity, respect and the full acceptance of the Japanese Americans as being as American as any other citizen.
If only our country had learned to never again use fear and ignorance to dehumanize fellow human beings.
But this is not happening, not even after the government, in 1988 officially recognized that a horrific mistake had been made and apologized to those who suffered through the Civil Liberties Act. This law won congressional approval only after a decadelong campaign by the Japanese American community. It was Rep. Doris Matsui’s husband, Robert, who worked on this law. (“Reckless campaign rhetoric evokes an injustice”; Forum, Jan. 22)
That apology becomes meaningless when internment camps are being used as precedents.
This silence of “gaman” has been there, but not the resolve. The recent resurfacing of hostility and xenophobia toward those of different races and nationalities tells us the silence of our families has only been a mask to hide the practice of declaring those who are different do not deserve the basic rights and respect due every American.
So this caution to the Sansei and Yonsei (third- and fourth-generation Japanese Americans):
Gaman, to suffer in silence the threat of new indignity, may do more damage than good today. We cannot ignore what our ancestors suffered at the hands of our own government. We cannot bury and ignore the present leaders’ fear, ignorance and plain inhumanity with silence. What our families thought was over and done with is rising again, and we need to be a voice, a loud and clear voice, to stop the recurrence of the horrors of internment camps in any form, and the rhetoric that announces its arrival.
Our ancestors, who quietly suffered this inhumanity, cannot be honored by our silence, complacency and ignorance. Yes, ignorance. Get out those history books, visit the Japanese cultural centers and museums, hear the voices and stories of our ancestors, see the images of their faces, read their poetry, then use your voice to stop this from ever happening again. Use your voice to those who represent us in Congress and in public offices.
This is not simply because we are Japanese by ancestry but as much because we are Americans.
Once we allow the internment camp to become a “precedent,” will slavery become our next “precedent” for implementing human trafficking and indentured servitude?
We owe this to our ancestors, and you are their last remaining voice. If you don’t speak, our ancestors remain victims in a country they so honored and respected, and their suffering and loss of dignity and humanity would all have been for nothing. This is not the country we inherited. Boycott is an active stance.
Frances H. Kakugawa is a writer, poet and former teacher who lives in Sacramento. Read her blog at franceskakugawa.wordpress.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.