Tuesday, February 19, 2002

He sees parallels in Sept. 11 response

Camps: Ordered by FDR

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Sixty years ago today Franklin D. Roosevelt, president of a nation whose shock had turned to rage over the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor two months earlier, put his pen to Executive Order 9066.

        That piece of paper allowed the government to round up 120,000 Japanese-Americans and force them into relocation camps, without charges or trial.

        For Japanese-Americans like Gordon Yoshikawa — then a 7-year-old living with his family in a small northern California town — it was an ordeal that echoes still.

        “It was pretty terrifying for a young boy,” said Mr. Yoshikawa, now retired and living in Amberley Village. “I did not know much of what was going on, but I knew something was very wrong.”

        Now, 60 years later, the mass imprisonment of people based not on what they did but who they were, seems farfetched to many Americans — an aberration, a disgrace, a mistake of history that could never be repeated.

        But not so farfetched to all Americans.

        “It could happen again,” said Roger Daniels, a University of Cincinnati history professor who is a nationally known expert on the relocation and internment of Japanese during World War II.

        “It is not inevitable that it will happen — this is a far different country today than it was in 1942, in terms of tolerance,” Mr. Daniels said. “But we have to beware.”

        Historians like Mr. Daniels and many in the Japanese-American community have seen disturbing signs since the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11:

        • Detention of more than 1,000 aliens, mostly Middle Eastern Muslims, jailed and questioned but never charged with crimes.

        • The suggestion that military tribunals try certain non-citizens.

        • Government requests of colleges and universities for names of foreign students.

        • Airlines forcing citizens off airplanes because of their looks.

        • “Racial profiling” of Arab-Americans.

        Sixty years ago, it was not just the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that sparked the fear and outright hatred of Japanese that resulted in the detentions and relocations.

        In the early months of the war, the United States had suffered a string of military defeats at the hands of the Japanese. The fear of a Japanese invasion of the American West Coast — aided and abetted by Japanese living there — was palpable among many Americans.

        The result was Executive Order 9066.

        President Bush, Mr. Daniels said, should get “good marks for his insistence that this is not a war aimed at a race or a religion, that it has to do with rooting out evil.”

        But, he said, if terrorist attacks on the U.S. had continued after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of Sept. 11, “would the current government reaction have been so moderate?”

        Mr. Yoshikawa said he understands well the fear many Arab-Americans and Muslims have felt since Sept. 11.

        “People who are loyal Americans are afraid because of the way they look or their religion,” Mr. Yoshikawa said. “It's very similar to what we went through.”

        Mr. Yoshikawa was growing up in the small California town of Marysville with his father, who worked in a grocery, his mother, a brother and two sisters.

        FBI agents showed up at their home in March 1942 and took away his father, Minoru Yoshikawa, for questioning, even though he had been living in America since 1906. Soon after, the rest of the Yoshikawa family was ordered to a relocation camp at Tule Lake in northern California, near the Oregon border.

        Young Gordon, his mother and his siblings did not know where their father was. It turned out he had been taken to an internment camp in Santa Fe, N.M. — one of about 8,000 Japanese separated from their families and detained for questioning.

        Mr. Yoshikawa said he has few memories of the Tule Lake camp. His father joined them a few months later and the family lived together. They had plenty to eat and the children went to special camp schools.

        Some things were almost normal “except that we could not leave,” Mr. Yoshikawa said.

        Late in 1943, when the government began relocating west coast Japanese-Americans in the camps to inland cities, members of Mr. Yoshikawa's family came to Cincinnati.

        Mr. Daniels said that many of the Japanese held in the camps were relocated to midwestern cities, such as Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

        “Cincinnati was particularly welcoming to young Japanese women, because they came here to train to be nurses and the hospitals needed them,” Mr. Daniels said.

        Some relocated Japanese, Mr. Daniels said, became potters at Rookwood in Mount Adams. Others entered the University of Cincinnati — by the late 1940s, there were Japanese-Americans on the school's basketball team, Mr. Daniels said.

        Mr. Yoshikawa stayed in Cincinnati, working at the BASF plant in Evanston until his retirement 11 years ago.

        “This community seemed ready to accept us when we came,” Mr. Yoshikawa said. “It made it easier for the families.”

        Still, he hopes that no other group of Americans will be forced to undergo what his family went through — being the objects of suspicion because of their race, being uprooted from their homes and forced to relocate.

        “It is not,” Mr. Yoshikawa said, “the way things should be in America.”


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