SAN JOSE, Calif. - “A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories. Neither can they fully convey our nation’s resolve to rectify injustice and to uphold the rights of individuals.” Tom Oshidari, co-president of the Japanese-American Citizens League, San Jose Chapter, was reading from the letter he had received from president George Bush in October 1990. “We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II.”
His parents – American Citizens – were shipped off from California to the Jerome internment camp in rural Arkansas in 1942 under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Tom was born in the camp. His parents died several years ago. An estimated 60,000 of the 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry interned during WWII are still alive and received redress payments of $20,000 and letters of apology from the 41st president.
About 200 of us gathered last weekend in front of City Hall for the solidarity day organized by the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee and the South Bay Islamic Association. Masao Suzuki, the architect of the rally, explained: “In the lessons learned from 75 years of resistance from 1942-2017, we say No to Concentration Camps and Islamophobia. President Trump’s Executive Order 13769, banning travel from 7 Muslim-majority countries, has brought back painful memories of internment, among the darkest chapters in American history. We will not let Muslim-Americans stand alone. We will stand by them. We will not allow history to repeat. Never again!”
City Hall is about a mile away from San Jose’s Japan Town but when we walked the distance on solidarity day, the weight of history was heavy upon us. The minutes spanned a lifetime of grief and sorrow.
Zahra Billoo and Lisa Washio-Collette
Naoko Fujii, a lawyer in Silicon Valley, never misses such rallies. “It’s a matter of principle,” she said. Her father, only a high-school student in 1942, was moved between Internment camps in Arkansas, Utah and Wyoming, along with his three siblings and parents. To this day she has difficulty imagining the physical and the emotional trauma they suffered in the bitterly cold and unbearably hot camps.
Fumi Tosu, affiliated with Casa De Clara Catholic Worker of San Jose, exhorted the gathering not to repeat the mistakes of the past. “When Nazi Germany was sending Jews to the gas chamber, the supposedly ‘good Germans’ looked the other way. When Japanese-Americans were being hustled off to camps, ‘good Americans’ looked the other way too. Americans right here in San Jose looked the other way. But not all Americans. Quakers protested the internment and helped the interned. Let’s be the Quakers of 2017. Let’s make sure Muslim-Americans don’t suffer the same injustice that our parents and grandparents suffered. Let’s fight for radical equality.”
I looked around: a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon, a perfect spring day for the outdoors, for picnic, for hiking, for taking in the beauty of wildflowers after the profusion of rain in the valley. Yet here they were, my fellow-Americans, sacrificing their time for a cause they believed in, whites, blacks, Latinos, African-Americans, families with infants in strollers, the kaleidoscope that’s America. An elderly white man next to me held up a poster that read “No to Religious or National Exclusion.” Another read “Steve Jobs Was a Syrian.” The man in front of me wore a white T-shirt that listed all the 10 internment camps in America under bold red letters: “Never Again.”
But something was troubling me, although I couldn’t figure out what it was.
The event was being co-emceed by Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), San Francisco Bay Area, and Lisa Washio-Collette, whose father, Kintaro Washio, and brother Zentaro, both spent years in internment camps at Tule Lake and Gila River. Zahra and Lisa reinforced the message of the solidarity day, that every act of injustice must be fought in the court of law as well as in the court of public opinion. A Civil Rights attorney, Zahra was among the first to sue Donald Trump over the “Muslim Exclusion Order” in January, following Trump’s infamous Executive Order 13769.
It was only when Billoo was thanking the rally on behalf of Muslims that I suddenly realized what was troubling me:There were disappointingly few Muslims!
At a mosque later in the day, I lamented to a few of my fellow-Muslims how disappointed I was. So few of us showed up when other Americans had come together to voice their unconditional support for us. There were the usual excuses of “didn’t know about it,” “very busy” and “family obligations” (as if those of us at the rally were not busy or had no family obligations!) which I politely rejected. But then one Muslim said: “Do you really think this rally changed anything?”
I could not let this go unanswered. “I don’t know whether this rally by itself changed anything or will change anything. But I know one thing for sure: It changed me. I met Japanese-Americans whose parents and grandparents were sent to Internment camps, concentration camps, really, even though they were loyal citizens. I no longer think of injustice and racism as abstract ideas. I see them with human faces, and I know that I am of them, and they are of me. If we can change this way, it compels us to act. And when enough of us change and act, mountains move and tyrants fall.”
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