The Weight of Internment

Friday, February 17, 2012

My grandmother, Sumi (middle), with her parents and sisters
“Five FBI man come take Papa away.” On Friday, March 13, 1942, these are the words told to my grandmother who came home from school to find her mother sitting alone in their home that had been completely torn apart. It would be the beginning of their journey through internment—from Pomona, California to Heart Mountain, Wyoming and finally, Crystal City, Texas.

This Sunday will mark seventy years since FDR signed Executive Order 9066, which began the forced internment of Japanese Americans in the United States. I have heard different pieces of my grandmother’s experience growing up and have never had much of an opinion on it, other than that it was obviously unjust to force people into camps because of their race. After all, this wasn’t my experience and I didn’t live through that time—what else could I have to say about it?
First edition of The Crystal City Chatt
Lately I have been trying to imagine what that experience would have been like for me, and in the process, I have finally started to ask my grandma direct questions: Did you know they were going to take your dad away? Were you angry about it? Are you still angry? Did you resent our government for this?

I was surprised to find that my grandmother actually came to peace with this while she was still living in the camps. Since the war ended, she has rebuilt her life and left that situation behind. She acknowledges that she was wronged, but that it was a time of war and that our government acted out of fear. There was a year where she acted out in rebellion, but since then, she has tried to make the best out of a bad situation.

My family ended up at Crystal City, one of the only family internment camps run by the Department of Justice. They formed a tight-knit community during those years and to this day, she shares lifelong friendships with the people she met during internment. She has even been writing a newsletter, The Crystal City Chatter, for more than twenty years now. In addition to staying in touch via newsletter, they go to Vegas together every year. This is a true testament to how our families are able to thrive, even under demoralizing conditions.

I’m starting to realize that I have some unresolved emotions around this. I didn’t get lifelong bonds from a shared experience or a strong, resilient community like my grandmother did. What I did get was a family history that tells me that at one point, my country did not trust me because of my race. That without any regard to the effects that it may have on Japanese-American citizens, it was okay to uproot us and force us to abandon the lives we had.

I am just starting to feel the weight of the injustice that was thrust upon my family. For the first time, I’ve realized that I’m allowed to have my own feelings about what happened to my family...and I feel angry. I actually feel furious about this—bitter, even. I feel a deep resentment towards our government and our country for removing my family from their home, even more so because it resulted in the loss of everything they owned, including their business and all of their possessions. After the war, they had nothing to rebuild their lives with.

This was an act rooted in racial prejudice, regardless of the hysteria that was occurring at the time. In a similar light, our country has reacted abhorrently to Arabs, Muslims, and Sikhs post-9/11. Though they were not physically relocated to camps, many people's civil liberties were infringed upon because of the widespread fear that swept across the country. It’s been over a decade now, and people who appear even remotely Arab are still being discriminated against. This is the progress we've made in over fifty years.

How can we move forward without unjustly lashing out at a particular group? During times of crisis, tensions are high and people want to feel secure. But we need to be working from a place of rational, unprejudiced thinking. Fear has the power to corrupt even the most well-intentioned people, but we need to stand up for others to ensure events like internment, the holocaust, and various genocides occurring at this very moment will become a thing of the barbaric past. We can embody our vision of a just future if we choose to live according to our best intentions and aspirations rather than our greatest fears.

Jeanine Shiamatsu, ACRJ Staff