The meaning of Manzanar
Contemplating the evil that governments can do when a compliant populace is fearful
The Orange County Register
One of the most disturbing lessons I've learned following the 9/11 attacks is that many people will go along with just about any government-imposed outrage if it's couched in the right terms and plays on their fears.
In the past few years, we've seen the federal government become increasingly aggressive in its efforts to spy on, detain, wiretap, monitor, imprison, search and harass not only suspected "enemy combatants" but pretty much anyone, at its discretion.
I never thought I'd see civil liberties treated so shabbily or witness so many Americans who so willingly submit to the authorities, but odd circumstances lead to troubling results.
It's too difficult to draw broad lessons from contemporary, ongoing political disputes. So this week I zero in on events from 1942, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which called for the creation of military areas "from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion."
Then Gen. John DeWitt – the Western Defense commander, who referred to Japanese as members of an "enemy race" – ordered the removal of 120,000 ethnic Japanese from their homes along the West Coast and their placement in internment camps in the desert.
The justification was to protect against espionage and sabotage, although there was scant evidence that Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals living on the West Coast had engaged in any such activities. An official propaganda video of the time declared that the immediate internment – Japanese-Americans had only days to sell their possessions and board buses bound for the camps – was actually for their own good, to protect them from anti-Japanese sentiment. Such are the excuses that governments make.
It's disturbing that more Americans did not defend the Japanese and the Constitution at the time, even though it's not hard to understand the conditions that allowed for such massive obliteration of civil liberties. World war was raging. Only 14 months earlier, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor. The media were pounding the war drums. One columnist, quoted in the book, "Reflections," about the Manzanar relocation center in California, made this argument: "I'm for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior … let 'em be pinched, hurt, hungry … let us have no patience with the enemy or with anyone who carry his blood. Personally, I hate the Japanese."
Last year when I first researched this topic, I found such bile to be common in newspapers. At the time, The Orange County Register's longtime co-publisher R.C. Hoiles was one of the only West Coast newspaper publishers to come out against the internment.
Recently, I drove to Manzanar, a National Park Service site just off U.S. Highway 395, east of the Sierras near Lone Pine. I walked the 200-acre high-desert site. The main auditorium is the only original building remaining, and it's now home to an extensive museum. Two barracks from the era have been moved to the site and are being restored. Mostly, a visitor will see vast open spaces and foundations of buildings that housed 10,000 people at one point.
A stone monument in the cemetery bears the Japanese characters that translate, "Soul Consoling Tower." But it's hard to imagine anything consoling about having been moved there against one's will. Wedged between the high Sierras to the west and the Inyo Mountains to the east, the location is breathtaking, but it could be unbearably hot in the summer, bitter cold in the winter. Those imprisoned there lived in long dormitories, with little privacy and few protections from the dust, winds, snow and rain that seeped in through the cracks in the shoddy buildings.
Consider, as "Reflections" pointed out, that most of these people were second-generation Americans or Nisei, "American born, American-educated and American in heart and mind. No charges were filed, no hearing held, only the vague term 'military necessity' was used." Most had been living normal lives in major Western cities. You cannot look at the photographs of dads holding their children, or of schoolchildren at the camp pledging allegiance to the flag, or of men formerly interned at the camp, dressed in military uniforms and heading off to fight the war in Europe, and ignore the great injustice done here.
I was moved by a piece of beautifully crafted furniture, built by a prisoner who used crates as the material. I saw the remains of landscaping – old rock gardens and fountains – and even of a basement where sake was made and stored. These are testaments to the human spirit – the desire to create beautiful things even amid ugliness.
The artwork accompanying this column was painted by Yorba Linda resident Henry Fukuhara, decades after his internment at Manzanar. I was drawn to it by the deep emotions expressed in vivid colors. Surely, such an unsettling event would leave its scars. Yet I've talked to camp internees and am astounded by their enduring patriotism and lack of bitterness.
I'm not sure I would ever get over such an abuse. Many of those agitating for the removal of the Japanese from the West Coast were local business owners, farmers and residents who coveted the Japanese-Americans' property. Reason magazine reports that the interned Japanese were deprived of $150 million in property losses alone, in 1940s dollars, and that eventual compensation amounted to a pittance.
Some conservatives at the time ranted about the yellow menace, but progressives, such as FDR and California Attorney General (and later U.S. Chief Justice) Earl Warren were among the chief architects of the internment. As I've learned over the years, our liberties are in the deepest peril when Left and Right are in agreement on anything.
Strangely enough, the internment camps are still defended by some people, such as writer Michelle Malkin in her 2004 book, "In Defense of Internment: The Case for 'Racial Profiling' in World War II and the War on Terror." It's hard to imagine anyone defending such nonsense. Here we have a "conservative" of Asian descent defending an FDR policy to deprive Japanese-Americans of their freedom and their property based on their race. These are, indeed, strange times.
Too often, Americans look back at events in other countries or from the past in a detached way. We don't think of the people involved as real people. It's easier to talk about the "military necessity" of relocating populations from their homes or of bombing "enemy nations" than it is to think about what those actions mean for those who are experiencing the policies.
The Manzanar exhibit leaves visitors pondering this question: What would we think if the government took us from our homes and, without any evidence of wrongdoing or due process, bused us to prison camps in the desert? It serves not only as a memorial to a sad chapter in American history, but as a reminder to everyone about the evil deeds that governments are capable of doing, especially with a compliant populace.
STEVEN GREENHUT, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
click on the image for a larger view
Henry Fukuhara, 94, of Yorba Linda, spent part of his late 20s at the Mazanar relocation camp and painted the Commentary cover illustration above decades later in retirement.
Fukuhara and a number of family members lived at Manzanar during World War II. He eventually settled in Long Island, N.Y., where he established a business, and returned to California after he retired.
He painted the original of the Manzanar print above in his retirement (although he had dabbled in art over the years).
Fukuhara's good friend, Albert Setton, assistant vice chancellor for graduate programs at UCLA, helped us secure permission to reprint the painting, and asked Fukuhara what he was thinking when he painted it.
Fukuhara responded: "When I paint at Manzanar I can't help remembering some aspect of life when I was here in the interment camp with my family [there are 16 Fukuharas listed at the Interpretive Center]. But I really don't dwell on that. I focus on making a painting, identifying the simple shapes that can serve as symbols of the place [the gate houses at the entrance, the monument in the cemetery, the guard towers and the Sierras in the background]so as to create a painting."
He says he is not "reporting" what is in front of him, but interpreting it and expressing his own views and emotions. It is up to the viewer to complete the process by responding to the painting individually.
Setton says of the artist: "Henry is a remarkable man. Those of us who know him hold him in great esteem not only because of his artistic vision but also because of his spirit and generosity."
Despite failing eyesight in recent years to a point where he is now blind, Fukuhara paints on, literally feeling the edges of the paper to orient himself. His new work is abstract, more gestural, but still recognizable as a Fukuhara, Setton says.
This print is available for sale at the museum gift shop at what is today the Manzanar National Historic Site, (www.nps.gov/manz/).
Video: "And Now, A Documentation of Internment"
Comment from the poster of the video: "If you have a feeling that something is wrong, don't be afraid to speak up." - Fred Korematsu
My daughter created this video for a 2007 high school project on the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII. Over pictures from the camps, she overlaid an audio interview of Dr. Mary Oda, now in her 80's, who was forced to leave UC medical school for internment at Manzanar