“Remember the concentration camps, stand for redress with your family.”
By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
I found a photograph of a young Mike Masaoka at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum last week. He was with his three brothers, in uniform, at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. Masaoka was an important but controversial Japanese American leader, often blamed for the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) urging Japanese Americans to go quietly into the World War II concentration camps to prove their loyalty to America.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion trained together — and often fought each other — at Camp Shelby. Although they were all young Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans), there were huge cultural and experiential differences between the mainland Nisei (whose families were incarcerated in concentration camps) and the Hawaii Nisei (who had grown up in multicultural Hawaii and whose families were largely not incarcerated).
The Japanese American men were also horrified by the anti-Black racism and segregation that they witnessed in Mississippi, where German POWs had better facilities and more privileges because of the Geneva Convention than Black U.S. soldiers in uniform. However, according to Densho, their outbursts and interventions on behalf of African Americans resulted in reprimands and reminders that they could not end Jim Crow on their own.
What brought the mainland Nisei and the Hawaii Nisei together is a trip organized for the Hawaii Nisei to visit Rohwer and Jerome concentration camps in Arkansas. They thought they were going to meet Japanese American families, eat Japanese American food, and dance with Japanese American girls, but they were shocked when they saw the barbed wire fences and finally understood the reality of the camps.
After that, the young men of the 442nd and 100th were united and went on to become the most highly decorated military unit of its size, even to this day. I first learned about Camp Shelby and that historic visit from a musical put on by the Grateful Crane Ensemble, not from any history book.
Last week was also the Day of Remembrance and the 80th anniversary of FDR’s Executive Order 9066 which called for the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans, 2/3 of whom were U.S. citizens, during World War II. The first Day of Remembrance was organized by Asian American artists Frank Abe, Frank Chin, and others in 1978 as a bit of street theater which emphasized both remembrance and taking action. “Remember the concentration camps, stand for redress with your family.” Japanese American families caravanned to Seattle’s Puyallup Fairgrounds, where they had been incarcerated in 1942, and as they drove there, many Nisei began talking to their families about the camps for the first time.
This year’s Day of Remembrance was also marked by calls for action, art, and solidarity with other communities. Allyship is not easy, and these stories show that even among the same ethnic group, even in the same family, allyship is not automatic. It starts with reaching across differences to learn and better understand each other, not banning books and critical race theory (which is not taught in K-12 schools).
Another approach: In Mississippi, every student visits the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum at least once during their K-12 education.
Some of the reporting for this essay was made possible by the Nissan Foundation.
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