Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Not enough people know about Day of Remembrance
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Not enough people know about Day of Remembrance

Site of the Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming

Maria Hinojosa, a very respected journalist for NPR and PBS who’s currently working on a Frontline documentary about the detention camps holding Latin Americans suspected of being illegal immigrants, visited the University of Colorado this week. She gave a speech Tuesday night but that day she had a casual free lunch discussion with students from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She described the film she’s working on, and some of the heartbreaking stories of families torn apart and the shame and embarrassment the detainees face.

Her description conjured up for me how Japanese American families must have felt in 1942 as they were being rounded up and sent to internment camps in desolate parts of the Western United States during World War II, including Heart Mountain in Wyoming, shown above with a still-standing tarpaper-covered barrack.

I asked her, since February 19 is the annual Day of Remembrance for Japanese Americans, if she found it especially ironic that she’s working on this documentary and giving a speech this week.

Hinojosa looked at me, stunned. She clearly knew about Japanese American internment. But she had no idea there was such as thing as Day of Remembrance for Japanese Americans.

I explained that Feb. 19 1942 was the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which cleared the way for the military to clear anyone of Japanese descent — even American citizens born in the US — from designated areas and collect them in the camps. Every year, many Japanese American communities across the country mark the day with events. Denver’s Mile-Hi JACL chapter is hosting two events at the University of Denver: An all-day Teacher Training workshop for schoolteachers from Colorado and New Mexico to learn about the usually overlooked history of internment for teaching credits on Saturday, and a DoR event Sunday featuring a couple of scholars speaking about internment.

“I’ll have to change my essay!” she said, and asked me to email her information about Day of Remembrance.

I’m a fan of Hinojosa’s work and appreciate her work as a Hispanic journalist covering some of the toughest issues of today. But I was saddened that even among nationally-known journalists — and a journalist of color, at that — JA Day of Remembrance isn’t on the news radar.

I’ll be moderating a panel during the Saturday Teachers Workshop about “Reflections/Impact on Future Generations” that will include my wife Erin as a panelist because her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were all interned, and she’s spoken in the past about “intergenerational transmission of trauma” and the impact that’s had on subsequent generations of Japanese Americans since WWII. There are also panels about the history of Japanese immigration to the US; information about Amache, the internment camp in southeast Colorado; a discussion of the constitution and internment, and how it relates to today’s post 9/11, anti-immigration society; a short documentary film and a workshop on how to teach about internment.

Sunday’s DoR event at DU features Jan Ziegler and Gina Wenger as keynote speakers. Ziegler is the author of “The Schooling of Japanese American Children at Relocation Centers during World War II,” winner of the Adele Mellen Prize, and Wenger is researching how the arts were taught in the camps. The speakers will be followed by a reception and open house showcasing the DU archeology department’s fascinating (and growing) collection of artifacts uncovered at Amache over the past several years.

I’ve been a proponent of Japanese Americans shifting our focus so strongly from the past and thinking more about our place in the larger Asian American community of the present, and even larger US minority community of the future. I’ve feared that many older JACL members’ single-minded interest in the internment era casts us solely as victims and not contemporary activists and disengages us from the vital conversations that need to take place in the resent tense. I believe deeply that the history of internment shouldn’t be forgotten and that Day of Remembrance is an important date to commemorate, but have wanted to rally younger JAs to look forward, not back.

But when I find that someone like Maria Hinojosa doesn’t know about Day of Remembrance, I’m reminded that we still have a lot of work to do to get the word out about the injustices of the past. Because the ghosts of those injustices still haunt many of us today.

Registration’s closed for the Teachers Training Workshop on Saturday, but the Sunday DoR event is free and open to the public, at 1 pm at University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law’s Ricketson Law Building, 2255 E. Evans Avenue. (Parking’s a pain, so go early and find a place on the surrounding streets and walk over to Sturm Hall, which faces the open plaza by the pedestrian bridge over Evans.)