Yoshio Nakamura was in 11th grade when Executive Order 9066 came down.
The wartime injunction, signed in 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, authorized the internment of more than 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the West Coast — including Nakamura and his family.
“If you were to go home one day and your family told you, ‘You are no longer part of the family,’ that’s the impact it had on me,” Nakamura, 91, said about the order. “All of a sudden I went from being an American to being an enemy alien.”
Nakamura, who had been living in the city of El Monte in Los Angeles County, said that he went to Pasadena where he boarded a train to Tulare in the Central Valley.
When he arrived, he went to an old racetrack where he found barbed wire, searchlights, armed soldiers and horse stalls that had been converted into living quarters.
“Probably the most traumatic incident in my life was the walk from the Tulare train station to the racetrack,” said Nakamura. “The feeling of being isolated and punished for something we had not done was really demoralizing.”
Nakamura spent the next two years there, before joining the Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-JapaneseAmerican unit that fought in Europe during World War II.
This year, during the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, Nakamura and other Japanese Americans are telling their stories of internment as a painful reminder of what can happen in a climate of fear and racism — something they say the country has entered into again.
“We have a special duty,” said Nakamura, who now lives in Whittier. “We feel a real need to tell people about our experience so it isn’t repeated. At least we can make a little dent in the problem.”
On April 20, Nakamura and other community leaders will share strategies on how to ensure this history doesn’t happen again at a panel discussion in Newport Beach.
“The parallels are just incredible,” said Ken Inouye, a Huntington Beach resident and past national president of the Japanese American Citizens League.
Inouye, who will also participate in the April 20 panel, pointed to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which was charged by Congress in 1980 to study the circumstances surrounding Executive Order 9066.
It found three main causes of internment: “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
Each of these three, Inouye said, is still present today in relation to Muslims.
Mark Furuya, president of the Japanese American Bar Assn., agreed, citing this year’s executive order barring people from several majority-Muslim countries.
“As the Japanese-American community, we have to make sure that we are explaining to the younger generation that this current executive order is not something controversial, this is not something that warrants a conversation,” said Furuya, who will moderate Thursday’s panel discussion.
“It’s something that’s wrong on its face. This is the same kind of thing that we fought 75 years ago. We talked about how this could never happen again, but it’s happening again.”
Nakamura recalled the immense fear many Americans felt during World War II.
“All of a sudden, a Japanese American who had a porch light on because he or she forgot to turn it off would be looked upon with suspicion that it was a signal to somebody,” he said. “People believe all of these things if they’re fearful enough.”
“If you stir up people enough, you’d better be careful,” Nakamura went on. “They’re more willing to accept these extreme measures, that that’s what happened during World War II. The fear I have is that we could slip into that, so we have to be very careful that we don’t repeat the same mistakes.”
Nakamura’s wife, Grace, who was interned at Manzanar, added that given the country’s current political climate she could envision the return of internment camps.
“Yes, I think it could happen again with the present leadership of this country,” she said, “by not understanding, by not studying history.”
Sylvia Kim, regional director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Orange County, one of the groups hosting the April 20 event, said Japanese Americans have been at the forefront of resisting bigotry today.
“It’s powerful to see the Japanese American community come forward and say, ‘We know what it’s like to be targeted, we know what it’s like to be demonized without any ties to logical or factual narrative, and we want to be part of the leading charge to stand in solidarity with another segment of the community that’s being targeted,’” she said. “We feel that’s a really powerful display of solidarity.”
But for the JACL’s Inouye, solidarity today is also about respecting the past.
“You honor your ancestors by making sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
If You Go
What: “Never Again” panel discussion
When: Noon to 1:30 p.m., Thursday, April 20
Where: 610 Newport Center Drive, Suite 1700, Newport Beach
Information: Katelyn Ogawa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil is a contributor to Times Community News.