Building bridges with the Muslim community

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Late last year, Erin and I were lucky enough to travel to New York City to see the Broadway musical “Allegiance” starring George Takei. It’s a story about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and it vividly and powerfully brings to life the emotional toll of the experience on JAs for generations since then. I wrote about the play and interviewed Takei and others for AARP’s AAPI Community.

Two nights after attending the show and while we were still in New York, the Paris attacks happened. The next day, we had scheduled a visit to the 9/11 Memorial and museum in lower Manhattan. Like the way “Allegiance” evoked the racial hatred against my community 75 years ago, it was a powerful reminder of the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. There’s a lot in the museum exhibit about the terrorists who committed the acts, and the aftermath that included hate crimes, not just against Arab Americans but also Sikh Americans. I saw a photo of the slogan that someone put up on a banner in the Ground Zero site: “United We Stand.”

The rest of the day, I was haunted by the 1970 hit song, “United We Stand” by a group called the Brotherhood of Man: “United we stand, divided we fall; And if our backs should ever be against the wall; We’ll be together, together, you and I…”

The song was widely played in the days after 9/11, though most people probably missed the spirit of uniting with Arab Americans and Muslim Americans.

I was proud that JACL, the Japanese American Citizens League, held a press conference within days after 9/11 to decry violence against Arab Americans. We were the first voices nationally to warn against racial profiling in the wake of the attack, because we knew too well the potential disaster that can be sparked by fear and ignorance.

Unfortunately, there were hate crimes committed in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, including against Sikh Americans, who aren’t even Muslim. And some commentators supported rounding up Arab Americans into concentration camps just like the Japanese Americans during WWII.

Sadly, the hatred and fear that was aimed back then at Arab Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, South Asians and anyone who might represent “the Other” are back.
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Immigration, refugees and the gift of citizenship

Denver's Mayor Michael B. Hancock welcomes the 100 applicants and their family members to the citizenship ceremony.

Denver’s Mayor Michael B. Hancock welcomes the 100 applicants and their family members to the citizenship ceremony.

I was born in Japan, but because my father was born in Hawaii when it was a U.S. territory, I am an American citizen. I didn’t have to take a test, and recite an oath of allegiance. After my family moved to the States in 1966, I remember helping my mother, who’s from a small town in northern Japan, study for her citizenship test. I was eight years old.

I don’t remember the ceremony when she repeated the oath and was given her naturalization certificate, but it was probably something like the wonderful ceremony I saw today, on the top floor of the Emily Griffith Technical College, a school that teaches English as a second language and gives many immigrants the skills for them to find jobs in America (full disclosure: I’m a member of the Emily Griffith Foundation‘s Board of Directors).

One hundred people became American citizens today in Denver. They came here from all over the world, from Bhutan to the Ukraine, Canada to Cote d’Ivoire. Some held small American flags in their hands as they waited, and waved them when they were asked to stand to represent their soon-to-be-former countries.
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The students protesting for their high school history curriculum are fighting for JAs, too

Hundreds of Lakewood High School students, including this one, left their classrooms in September to protest a proposed history curriculum they believed would lead to censorship. Students organized the walkouts using social media sites like Facebook. Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat Colorado

Hundreds of Lakewood High School students, including this one, left their classrooms in September to protest a proposed history curriculum they believed would lead to censorship. Students organized the walkouts using social media sites like Facebook. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat Colorado)

I grew up as part of a generation that found our collective voice in protest, for African American civil rights, against the war in Vietnam, and to advocate for women’s and LGBT rights and Asian American studies.

College students have been at the forefront of many of these social movements. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was a cornerstone of the civil rights movement. College students led the free speech movement at the University of California at Berkeley, and the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society was formed at the University of Michigan. Students led protests across the globe, including the Prague Spring in 1968 all the way to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Even the Taiwan protests earlier this year and the current and Hong , Kong democracy protests.

But in Colorado where I live, my admiration goes out to a group of high school students, who have been protesting in Jefferson County, the school district where I graduated in the 1970s.
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2012 was a good year for Denver’s Japanese and Japanese American community

Campai at Emperor's Birthday Reception in Denver

Kimiko Side, recipient of the Order of the Rising Sun award from the Emperor of Japan, toasts “campai” during the Emperor’s Birthday reception Dec. 3, with Consul General Ikuhiko Ono at the left of the photo and Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock behind her.

This was a good year for Japanese and Japanese Americans in Colorado. A lot of the credit goes to Ikuhiko Ono, the Consul General who came to Denver late last year, and has made a concerted effort to reach out to the local JA community.

Previous Consul Generals have invited local JA leaders to the official residence for private dinners and to special receptions and events, including an annual reception at a downtown Denver hotel to mark the birthday of Emperor Akihito, celebrated Dec. 23 as a national holiday in Japan on his actual birthday.

The birthday reception is a lively annual reunion for the local Japanese and JA community. We end up seeing a lot of people only at this event, and get to catch up with each other.

But Consul General Ono and his staff do much more than just hold a birthday party every December. During the past year he’s interacted with the community in lots of other ways. Partly, that’s because of the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan. Ono arrived in Colorado in the wake of a number of fundraising efforts for disaster relief, including events and donation drives by the Japanese community.
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Richard Aoki, the Asian American Black Panther, was an FBI informant

When journalist Seth Rosenfeld wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle article in August that Richard Aoki, the mysterious Japanese American who was one of the leaders of the radical Black Panther Party, was an FBI informant during the turbulent 1960s, the revelation exploded within the Asian American community.

The bombshell brought on a fussilade of defenses of Aoki’s place as a revered activist and civil rights leader.

Aoki had become a godfather of Asian American activism for his role as “Field Marshall” for the Panthers, and getting the revolutionary group its first guns and firearms training. After his time as the only high-level Asian with the Black Panthers, he became an educator and counselor, and committed suicide in 2009 after an illness and hospitalization.

Rosenfeld’s article was a sham, and not based on credible or complete information, claimed the critics. After all, it ran in the Chronicle the same week that his new book about the FBI’s long history of surveillance and infiltration of radical groups at the University of California at Berkeley, “Subversives,” was published. But after the FBI released stacks of more documents that confirmed Rosenfeld’s assertions, even diehard Asian American supporters and Panther-era friends had to admit that Aoki must have lived a double life.

He was apparently recruited in the early 1960s as an informant starting when he was a student after getting out of the Army, and stayed on the FBI’s payroll well into the 1970s, when he had settled into a career as a college counselor and teacher, and had no more radical organizations he could inform on.

Here’s a video about Aoki and the FBI that was produced by the Center for Investigative Journalism, where Rosenfeld works:
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