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We Remember

We remember. We are Yonsei, fourth-generation Japanese Americans, hapa, hyphenated-Americans. While we may have grown up in different places, while you may not recognize us as Japanese, our roots stretch deeper than what your eyes can see, and we remember our history.

We were seeds yet to be born when our grandparents and great-grandparents were labeled as “enemy aliens,” but the logic of white supremacy is as deeply embedded in this country as our ancestors’ blood. We know that the language used to dehumanize our ancestors is still being used today against our Latino, Black, and Muslim brothers and sisters.

We remember December 7, 1941, a date that will live in infamy. On September 11, 2001, we felt the reverberations of history as the Twin Towers came crashing to dust. We remember how the bombing of Pearl Harbor gave the representatives of white supremacy license to classify ALL Japanese Americans as “terrorists.” This blanket doubt and suspicion was likewise cast across a new generation of people in the wake of September 11th.

We remember a time when the government, led as it so often is, by racists (white supremacists, thinly veiled today as the “alt-right”), capitalists, and those blinded by their own power, authorized the “evacuation” and “exclusion” of our people on the basis of nothing but racist lies. The imaginary “fifth column” no more real than the threat of Syrian refugees. We remember a time when the government, led as it so often is, by white supremacists, capitalists, and those blinded by their own power, illegally disclosed confidential demographic information to the military in order to effectuate Executive Order 9066.

We too remember a time when we had to register. We remember when we registered as “persons of Japanese ancestry, including aliens and non-aliens.” We remember how we were given numbers, told to bring only what we could carry, and to dispose of the rest.

They hope that we have forgotten how they came for jiichan, for our fathers, for our leaders. But, we remember. We remember the climate of hate, assault, arson, and vandalism that ensued in the wake of December 7, 1941. We remember how we lost family members to unbearable grief, depression, and suicide.

We remember having to sell a lifetime’s worth of the American Dream to the junkman for pennies on the dollar. We remember carefully packing beloved belongings to be stored in churches and bathhouses, promising a return that would never come.

We remember lining up for the buses, child seen sitting on luggage, tag in lapel, apple in hand, not knowing where we were going.

In a matter of months, all of us Nikkei had been forcibly removed from the West Coast.

In the name of national security. In the furtherance of war.

We remember hastily whitewashed horse stalls turned barracks, straw-filled sacks as mattresses, lines in the mess hall, no privacy, so many people in such a small space. Not unlike the “hieleras” where young detainees are kept in ICE run detention centers today.

We remember boarding trains with blacked out windows, speeding us to unknown destinations—to the deserts of Manzanar, the swamps of Rohwer and Jerome, far far away from the only homes we had ever known. We remember the barbed wire fences, the guard towers with the guns pointed in, for our “protection.”

We remember the scorching sun, the grit in our teeth and sand in our eyes as the dust storms whipped through flimsy tarpaper barracks. The rows and rows of identical blocks, prison for those charged with no crime.

We remember too beautiful gardens made from desert landscapes, socials and community created from trauma, baseball and the art of gaman. We know resilience, but those who seek to profit from the promotion of racist policy cannot rely on the resilience of the oppressed.

And when we got out, we remember the signs. “Japs keep moving, this is a White man’s neighborhood.” We remember houses promised to be looked after by neighbors, broken into, ransacked, empty.

We remember what it felt like to have our neighbors turn their backs, refuse to help. We remember when it was easier, safer, to differentiate, “I am Chinese American,” than to stand in solidarity.

We remember the crushing silence of the many, keep your head down, don’t make waves, shikata ga nai. We remember train tickets out of camp, to far-flung destinations where ours were maybe one of a handful of Japanese names in the phone book. We remember our parents growing up thinking “camp” was like summer camp, and trying to assimilate. We remember the silence of our grandparents and great-grandparents around what really happened to them in the concentration camps and all they endured.

We remember our parents, some of them doing their best to achieve the American Dream, believing it to be accessible to us. We understand, the myth of the meritocracy is seductive, the promise of capitalists enticing, the model minority myth gives the illusion of agency, of access.

We understand, we don’t resent those who made that choice.

However, we also remember our parents, coming of age in a revolutionary time, standing in solidarity with anti-colonial independence struggles abroad, fighting for liberation at home. We remember our parents realizing that no one is truly free unless we are all free, fighting alongside black, brown, and indigenous brothers and sisters. We remember where we come from, we inherit this legacy of solidarity, and we reaffirm it today.

We remember the fight for reparations. We remember the “experts,” the politicians, those JA organizations that would speak for all of us, pushing a “good loyal American” narrative around our incarceration, seeking to silence Issei and Nisei voices. We remember the internal work we had to do in our own community to even see redress and reparations as a priority.

We remember, and we choose to align ourselves in the strength of our parents and our grandparents who answered “No-No” to loyalty questionnaires, who resisted the draft, who served and felt the deep hypocrisy of liberating death camps abroad while their families were behind barbed wire, who organized, who overcame their fears and their silence and spoke up, who submitted testimony and to this day support reparations for black folks. We will continue to be the thorns in the sides of our communities that were silent, condoned, or sadly, even voted blatant racism, misogyny, islamophobia, and homophobia into the White House. We remember, because there are those who have chosen to forget.

And we say to our communities, to those who have forgotten—what is the point of our ancestors being released from concentration camps if we choose to remain mentally enslaved to the logics of capitalist white supremacy and xenophobia? What is the point of our freedom if we do not stand in solidarity with those whose freedom is threatened now? Do we no longer need watchtowers and prison guards to keep us timid and silent? Have we given way to fear? Is our ignorance and comfort worth the cost? How will we embody the spirit of gaman and ganbatte in solidarity with each other and others today?

We, Yonsei, we have inherited these memories for times such as these. In the wake of an election that took the mask off of who and what America still is, we must stand up. We, the descendants of those who experienced such a collective breach of civil liberties, such violation of due process, of human rights, we will not forget, nor will we stand by and allow such acts to be carried out in the name of American democracy once more. We say “never again.”

We remind you, President Elect, we choose not to forget. Here, the analogies are too clear, the similarities too close to home, there is no distinction between Muslim Americans “registries” and what President Roosevelt perpetrated on our ancestors. The forces of white supremacy behind the deportation of our ancestors are the same as those behind the deportation of today’s Latino immigrants. Those who sought to profit from the white supremacy behind the deprivation of our ancestors’ land and property are the same as those who seek to profit from the white supremacy behind the militarized takeover of Indigenous lands in North Dakota. You, with the benefit of history, should know better. As it is, we do not trust for a moment that you will remember this nation’s history as the history of the oppressed is always forcibly forgotten. But, out of resistance comes recovery of lost memories. We will not let you forget. We will not let our ancestors’ bloodshed, pain, and sacrifice be for naught. We will not sit idly by, and we will not go quietly.

As two Nikkei women, this piece was co-written in honor of our grandparents and our collective memories as Japanese Americans who have resisted and will continue to resist the violent logic of white supremacy. We invite our communities to circulate this piece and to use it in discussion circles. How can we use our histories to thread together narratives of resistance and how can we elevate these dialogues from words to action?

* This article was originally written as a reaction to the 2016 presidential election and the authors are gathering signatures to their piece. Click here to add your signature to their article.


Editor’s note: Discover Nikkei is an archive of stories representing different communities, voices, and perspectives. This article presents the opinions of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the views of Discover Nikkei and the Japanese American National Museum. Discover Nikkei publishes these stories as a way to share different perspectives expressed within the community.


© 2016 Laura Misumi and Jessica Yamane

activism concentration camps discrimination generations interpersonal relations racism social action World War II World War II camps Yonsei
About the Authors

Laura Misumi (“she”/“her”/“hers”) is a Workers’ Rights staff attorney at the Community Development Project (CDP) of the Urban Justice Center. CDP’s model is to provide legal, participatory research and policy support to strengthen the work of grassroots and community-based groups in NYC to dismantle racial, economic, and social oppression.

Laura is Yonsei born in San Francisco like her father and grandparents, and grew up in Massachusetts, near where her maternal grandparents resettled after getting out of the camps. Laura’s Sansei parents were very much involved with the grassroots organizing of the redress and reparations movement, and worked in solidarity with other people of color and other oppressed folx for liberation and self-determination. Laura’s grandparents helped found the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund, a scholarship organization for Southeast Asian refugees with other Nisei in New England in the spirit of ongaeshi. Laura seeks to follow in her parents’ footsteps and honor her grandparents’ legacy through her work and life, and also hopes that this conversation will clarify JAs’ particular role to play in solidarity with other folx being targeted today.

Updated December 2016

Jessica Yamane (“she”/“her”/“hers”) is a staff attorney at the Central American Resource Center (“CARECEN”). CARECEN was founded in the 1980s by Salvadoran refugees fleeing civil war, and it has grown since then to become the largest Central American organization in the country engaged in the areas of immigration, education reform, and worker’s rights.

As a Chinese-Japanese-American, Jessica grounds the work that she does in her own history as a grandchild of a Japanese American soldier that fought to free others from concentration camps abroad while those of his own ethnicity were incarcerated and deported without access to due process of law in the U.S. during World War II. She is here today to draw inspiration from our collective histories of resistance as the logic of white supremacy has continually been shifted throughout time to label new generations of people as “enemy aliens,” “terrorists,” or “illegal.” Jessica also identifies as queer and Christian, and she is horrified by how the Christian Right’s message of hatred and exclusion has found a foothold in the hearts of so many. Jessica hopes that this conversation will bring all our struggles to bear in a way that can move us forward.

Updated December 2016

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