No, we will not "stop talking about Heart Mountain": A Response to the Billings Gazette

Guest Post by Joseph Shoji Lachman

From the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, Okumoto Collection. Inscribed on the back of the photo: "Young girl near guard tower-Ayaho Inouye." She is standing near a guard tower in the barren desert that was home to the Heart Mountain concentration camp.

This is a response to "Stop talking about Heart Mountain", which appeared in the Billings Gazette on March 1, 2017.

There is a dangerous trend today of abusing Japanese American incarceration history to justify surveillance, possibly registry, and even potential incarceration of Muslims in the U.S. We must push back against this wave of ignorance and xenophobic nationalism if we are to preserve the ideals that really can make this country great.

In a March 1st letter to the editor, C.T. Ripley displayed his lack of knowledge about Japanese American history with his letter published by the Billings Gazette. It starts with the question, "How long do we have to hear about the Japanese internment camps?"

I will return to this question later.

Let's debunk a few of the major lies or misleading statements.

1. "A Democrat president did it 75 years ago to protect millions of citizens in this country from possible attacks from suspected subversive elements already in this country but sympathetic to their native Japan."

No, this was not done to protect millions of citizens, but as the government confirmed in Personal Justice Denied, Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity but in reality was the result of "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."

2. "At the time, it was just common sense, but in this day of political correctness, common sense and reason and judgment have gone out the window. Look at mob-like and violent antics of some anti-American groups in our country now that defend Muslim and other refugees coming here."

This shows exactly why Japanese Americans must stand up for the rights of our Muslim brothers and sisters here. It was "common sense" in the sense that anti-immigrant and anti-Asian discrimination became normalized to the point that not even the ACLU stepped in when EO9066 was announced (although they assisted later on).

It is the wartime paranoia and anti-Japanese American propaganda and lies that overwhelmed our better judgment and caused our government and society to abandon their principles by stripping 120,000 people of their rights, 2/3 being American citizens, and the majority also being women and children.

The author provides no evidence of this behavior, only using general statements to label an entire minority population. People made the same claims about Japanese Americans back then, and it is the same paranoia and anti-foreigner propaganda and lies today that have caused many to once again lose that ability to use rational judgment.

The author may have missed a larger point. Even if an incredibly minuscule number of Japanese Americans had committed acts of espionage (which they did not), that would still not justify stripping all 120,000 of them of their basic civil liberties. The same goes for American Muslims today.

3. "I empathize with the internees and what they went through, but had they been interred [sic] by their own countrymen as suspected American sympathizers their fate would have been far worse."

First of all for your reference:

Interned - Refers to imprisonment of non-citizens during a time of war.

Incarcerated - Refers to imprisonment of both citizens and non-citizens (in this case during a time of war)

Interred - Refers to corpses being placed in a grave or tomb, typically with funeral rites.

Now that we have that out of the way...

I'm sorry to say this, but you do not empathize with them. If that were the case, you would not belittle their suffering by saying it was insignificant because others suffered more. One group's suffering does not invalidate another group's.

The phrase "their countrymen" implies that they were not American. This is how Asian Americans are constantly treated as "others." The only reason the first generation immigrants could not become citizens was because they were barred by law from citizenship. They were considered "aliens ineligible to citizenship" by the government. Their children were American citizens by birth, which means THEY WERE INCARCERATED BY THEIR OWN COUNTRYMEN. That's the point.

Furthermore, we are forgetting that 33,000 Japanese Americans did indeed serve in the American military during and immediately after WWII, including the brave soldiers of the 442 Regiment, thousands of whom gave their lives for their country despite the fact that their families were incarcerated behind barbed wire.

4. Let's dwell on the good that America has done, not only here at home but also abroad. It's called positive thought. Constant complaining and victimhood are counterproductive.

Focusing only on the good things America has done and ignoring the rest is a distortion of history. We should not value thinking positively over the truth, even when it is uncomfortable. This is not even just about Japanese Americans as victims anymore. This is about us as activists for our community protecting our legacy from those who would distort it or have people forget it. This is about making sure that it never happens again to anyone.

5. "How long do we have to hear about the Japanese internment camps?"

And now it is time to return to that original question. How long do we have to hear about the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans?

The answer is forever, because it is something we cannot allow to be forgotten. Heart Mountain in particular is an incredibly important part of this history. This next part may be useful to those who are not so familiar with its history.

The Heart Mountain concentration camp was located in northwest Wyoming, where temperatures could go as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter. The hasty construction of the concentration camp barracks meant that many doors and windows were improperly installed and would not close, and cracks between wall boards meant a lack of both privacy and protection from the elements. At its peak, Heart Mountain was the imprisonment site for 10,767 Japanese Americans. Like many of the U.S. concentration camps during WWII, Japanese American professionals were exploited for labor, with even doctors and lawyers being paid as little as $12 to $16 per month.

Heart Mountain is well known among Japanese Americans as the site of some of the most intense resistance to our families' incarceration. The most widely known examples are the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee and draft resistance beginning in 1944.

For example, the majority of working-age men in the camp refused to volunteer to help build a barbed-wire fence around the perimeter of the camp, with 3000 even signing a petition citing it as evidence that they were in a wartime concentration camp.

The army began searching for recruits in the concentration camps in 1943. This was when Frank Inouye established the Heart Mountain Congress of American Citizens to demand that the government restore the rights of Japanese American citizens. This is part of the reason that so few Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) enlisted in the military, earning them the scorn of even fellow Japanese Americans, who felt that they were bringing further suspicion on the whole population.

This is why we say, no, we will not stop talking about Heart Mountain. Or Topaz, or Poston, or Gila River, or Amache, or Jerome, or Manzanar, or Minidoka, or Rohwer, or Tule Lake, and for that matter the Alien Land Laws, that barred our families from owning land or the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the 1924 Immigration Act that barred almost all Asian immigrants from coming to the U.S.

Heart Mountain is part of a history of xenophobia and discrimination going back much further, showing how our country let paranoia, fear, and propaganda overwhelm our good judgment, and led our country to commit one of the greatest injustices in history. These same warning signs are manifesting themselves in the unprecedented number of hate crimes against American Muslims in recent times. In 2015 there were at least 257 anti-Muslim incidents reported, up from 154 the previous year, and the number has only increased since then. In November last year, our leadership at CAIR Washington called for an FBI investigation after a young American Muslim woman studying at the University of Washington was struck in the face with a bottle. While not all incidents are as extreme as this, we have seen unacceptable normalization of Islamophobia, and understanding our history is a crucial part of combating discrimination in all forms.

We cannot allow it to happen again, and that is why we will not stop talking about our history, even when the truth hurts.

I write this to honor the legacy of my Bachan, Margaret Takiko Shoji, Heart Mountain Class of 1945.

Joseph Lachman was born and raised in Seattle, and recently finished his B.A. at Yale University in History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health. He is fourth/fifth generation half-Japanese, and speaks Chinese and Japanese. His current writing focuses primarily on Asian and Asian-American culture, and he is also passionate about civil rights and human rights. Joseph plans to pursue these fields further in law school and beyond.

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