Another side of December 7, 1941

I grew up being apprehensive every December 7. I’m Japanese American, and was born long after Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, but for a long time I felt an inescapable sense of responsibility for the attack.

My early years were spent in a military environment — my dad was in the U.S. Army. But I still felt… guilty every December when people started mentioning “Pearl Harbor Day” and when I started to hear comments and sometimes jokes about those “sneaky Japs. ”

Being Japanese American means feeling an ambivalence because for many Japanese Americans, 120,000 of them, December 7, 1941 wasn’t just the day Pearl Harbor was bombed and drew the United States into World War II. Japanese Americans were just as outraged at the attack as everyone else in the U.S. — Daniel Inouye, the senior senator from Hawaii and a WWII veteran and medal of honor recipient, tells the story of being a young man in Honolulu that day, and shaking his fists at the Japanese planes and screaming, “damn Japs!”

There’s another side to this story.

Even though the attack brought the patriots out in us, that day was also the beginning of a dark journey during the war years. Within two months, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the U.S. military to designate areas in the mainland to exclude people of Japanese descent — whether they were Japanese-born or U.S. born. At the time, Japanese nationals were legally prevented from applying for citizenship, even if they wanted to be Americans. Their children were citizens by birth.

Loyalty and patriotism didn’t matter — anyone of Japanese descent along the West Coast of Washington, California, and southern Arizona, were forced to leave behind their homes and businesses, taking only what they could carry, and sent first to temporary camps set up in race tracks and other open spaces (entire families slept in hastily whitewashed horse stalls) and then to more longterm barracks in concentration camps built in desolate locations inland.

The reasoning for this roundup of an entire population was that you couldn’t tell who might be a spy for the emperor of Japan, and there was a widespread fear that Japanese forces would invade the West Coast in a sudden attack similar to Pearl Harbor. However, not a single case of espionage or sabotage was ever brought against any Japanese American.

The U.S. government finally acknowledged it had committed a constitutional wrong in 1988, and found that the Japanese American internment happened because of racial and economic reasons, not a need for national security.

That’s why December 7 is a day of trepidation for many of us. I’ve seen the stares and felt the lingering suspicion.

I mark the date and honor the American veterans of that war, and the men and women who died during the attack on Pearl Harbor. But I also mourn the trampling of the constituional rights of Japanese Americans as a result of Dec. 7, 1941.
This morning, a friend of ours, Aya (Mariagnes) Medrud, who was a teenager living in Seattle when she was interned at the concentration camp at Minidoka, Idaho, got the chance to tell that side of the story on a Denver radio station, KOA.
The morning show hosts wanted to mark Dec. 7 with an interview but not just one with a Pearl Harbor survivor or veteran. So my partner, Erin, put the station in contact with Aya, who is very articulate and has lived a life as a teacher and civil rights activist since her incarceration.

You can listen to her interview here (it’s about 5 minutes long). I’ve also mentioned her in several stories about the Japanese American internment, including here and here.

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