© Art Mills Photos
So, why on earth would I decide to visit all ten of the World War II Japanese American “Internment” Camps? It is a matter of conscience. As an American citizen, I have always been troubled by the fact that our country imprisoned 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II, simply because they were of Japanese Ancestry.
I know that our government officially apologized with provision for a token reparation payment, but it still seems unresolved in the American culture. As with other such situations, where the dominant white culture imposed one hardship or another on some people of color, our society just has not come to terms with what we did during WW II. In the case of the Japanese Americans, President Reagan did sign legislation that officially apologized. That did set in motion a process of letters of apology going to all living survivors of the Camps, and the letters did include token reparations in the amount of $20,000 per survivor.
Heavy subject, but consider, do we study that in the history of World War II? Do any of us talk about it? Can we honestly say that we have embraced the apology? Has it led us to collectively confront, address, and act on the other instances of mistreatment of people of color in our nation’s history (such as African-Americans, Chinese Americans, or Mexican Americans)?
We became complacent, many of us, about the progress in race relations in our society. Then the Presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump burst on the scene. From it’s very beginning, it was based upon attacks against first Mexican Americans and Mexicans, and then against people of the Muslim faith tradition.
For me, the topper was when Donald Trump justified his suggested policies toward American Muslims by using the precedent of the World War II Japanese American internment. In so doing, he cited the example of President Franklyn D. Roosevelt. Trump literally said if the great President Roosevelt could do that, then he, Trump, could do what he wanted concerning Muslims. I don’t equate the two at all. They are separate experiences. It is a mistake to suggest that they are comparable. It may be a worse mistake to justify the current treatment of American Muslims on the basis of the historical treatment of Americans of Japanese ancestry.
That is when I decided to visit the World War II Japanese American internment camps. For short hand, I refer to them as the WRA Camps, after the War Relocation Authority (WRA) that was created in 1942 to carry out President Roosevelt’s Executive Order.
Three principles… First, I’m going to use straight forward language. As you will see, I will refer to the Camps as prison camps, because that is what they were. Over 110,000 Japanese Americans were taken to those camps against their will and were forced to remain in them, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, held in isolation. Second, I’m going to share photos of the WRA Camp sites as they presently exist, sometimes supplemented with historical images that capture something important. Third, I’m going to share quotes from people who were taken to those camps, Americans of Japanese ancestry, who have shared their memories. This is the most important principle, because it will give their voice the most prominent place, making the narrative theirs, not mine.
My hope is that all of us will remember the World War II experience, will acknowledge and remember it. My hope is that we will do everything in our power to resist efforts of the American government to make a similar mistake in our time, this time relative to Americans of Mexican and Muslim ancestry.
My plan is to complete my visits to all ten camps by summer in 2018. I’ll start with Manzanar in California and Gila River and Poston in Arizona this September. Then, I’ll go to the other eight, ending with Tule Lake in California, hopefully in May 2018. When I’m done, I will share my final journal of each visit, complete with photos, my reflections, and quotes from people who were taken to each prison camp. I will try to capture the hardship and deprivation of the camps, but also the courage, tenacity, and staggering contributions of the Americans of Japanese ancestry who were brought there.
In the meantime, I’ll offer progress reports, including periodic daily impressions as I’m actually visiting the various sites.
Finally, please share you feedback with me. Share any comments, critiques, or experiences you might have. I hope that you will join me on the journey. You can follow my blog by hitting the button at the bottom of the page, and, if you are so moved, you can share my blog with others so they can participate as well.
Grace and peace to you,