1942-Style Bigotry Targets Muslims in the U.S. Today

Lillian Nakano is a third-generation Japanese American from Hawaii and was active in the redress campaign as a member of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress. She lives in Torrance.

Feb. 19, 1942, was a day that changed the lives of Japanese Americans forever. I was a teenager growing up in Hawaii when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which set into motion the removal and incarceration of more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry in inland concentration camps.

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, a tense atmosphere of suspicion and hysteria engulfed the West Coast and Hawaii. Decades of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian legislation and racism had already laid the foundation for the events that soon took place. We were rounded up without due process even though we had nothing to do with the attack. Our family was shipped to California, then to Arkansas and finally to Wyoming, where we spent the duration of the war.

Upon our release from the camps, Japanese Americans began to pick up the pieces of wrecked lives, in the face of continuing racism and hostility. For years, we suppressed our anger, bitterness and shame about the unfair treatment we got.


Today, many in the Japanese American community will attend the annual Day of Remembrance events in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities, with the goal of teaching new generations the lessons from that painful time. Some of my fellow Americans are now being targeted because they are Muslim, Arab or Middle Eastern. When the attacks of Sept. 11 happened, I mourned for the innocent lives that were lost. But I also began to identify and sympathize with the innocent Muslim Americans who immediately became victims of the same kind of stereotyping and scapegoating we faced 63 years ago. They too have become targets of suspicion, hate crimes, vandalism and violence, all in the name of patriotism and national security.

Feb. 19 is a day I do not wish upon anyone else. Now, the lessons are not just about events in a distant past, but events as they are occurring on a daily basis.

Let’s not forget the infamous words of Gen. John DeWitt -- who was in charge of West Coast defenses -- in 1943, “A Jap is a Jap.” Or Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who said, “Their racial characteristics are such that we cannot understand or even trust the citizen Japanese.” How painfully familiar it seemed to see Muslim and Arab Americans suspected and ostracized as potential terrorists solely on the basis of ethnicity and religion.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, inspired by the civil rights struggle, the Japanese American community fought a 10-year-long campaign and won redress and an apology from the U.S. government in 1988. This was to be the official government acknowledgment that the internment was morally and legally wrong, and we were given hope that such an event would not be repeated.

Yet today there are renewed attacks on civil liberties in the name of the “war on terrorism.” Legislation such as the Patriot Act and the government’s willingness to arrest and charge innocent people contribute to an atmosphere that could lead to future internment camps.

Some ideologues on the right seek to rewrite history in order to justify government policy and racial profiling. One example is Michelle Malkin’s 2004 book, “In Defense of Internment: The Case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in World War II and the War on Terror,” which not only rehashes the untruths that Japanese Americans have heard for years but also asserts: “The most damaging legacy of this apologia and compensation package [redress won by Japanese Americans] has been its impact on national security efforts. The ethnic grievance industry and civil liberties Chicken Littles wield the reparations law like a bludgeon over the War on Terror debate.”

There is no justification for racism or denial of civil liberties -- not in 1942 and not in 2005.