It’s not clear how, or if, the nation’s birthday will be observed Wednesday in federal immigration detention facilities. But we do know how tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans – most of them citizens, almost half of them children – marked their first Fourth of July in captivity during World War II.
They celebrated the occasion with a rush of patriotism. They sang, paraded and acted out skits. They recited the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. They pledged allegiance to the flag. If they didn’t have a flag, they drew one on a wall.
They swallowed their fear and anger. “It was our Independence Day celebration,’’ the interned Sachi Kajiwara would recall, “though we were behind barbed wire, military police all around us, and we could see the big sign of ‘South San Francisco’ on the hill outside.’’
Which suggests that sometimes those who most love America, or most desire it, are those it treats most harshly.
Last week the Supreme Court, in the process of allowing President Donald Trump’s travel ban, finally declared unconstitutional the 1944 decision that upheld the wartime internment.
Left unsettled is whether, in its treatment of migrants near the Southern border, the nation has again lost its moral compass.
There are many differences between the prisoners of 1942 and 2018.
The former were Americans; the latter merely want to be. But some people, including former first lady Laura Bush and former “Star Trek”helmsman George Takei, have noted a visceral similarity between then and now.
On Independence Day, that resemblance becomes stark. And the tension between American ideals and American actions becomes acute.
The holiday tension was palpable in 1942 at Manzanar, in the high desert of eastern California, where many Japanese-Americans were interned. For people who’d been “herded into camps and guarded by the bayoneted sentries of their own country,’’ editorialized the inmates’ newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press, “it will be a doubly strange and bewildering day.”
It had been a strange and bewildering year. Five months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt allowed the relocation and detention of anyone with Japanese ancestry in much of the coastal West. Eventually, more than 110,000 were interned – the greatest single violation of civil rights in U.S. history.
It was not a fluke. Two years later, in Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of an order that was motivated not by national security but by white racism, war hysteria and political expediency.
July 4, 1942, found Japanese-Americans scattered across the West in a network composed of main camps in remote locations, like Manzanar and Tule Lake, California, and of makeshift “assembly centers’’ in or near big cities.
Most had fences with barbed wire, guard towers with armed sentries, and few comforts. In Portland, Oregon, school buses took more than 3,500 Japanese-Americans to the livestock yards, with its black flies and smell of manure. Families were housed in 14-by-19 foot spaces and slept on Army cots with hay-stuffed canvas bags for mattresses.
The new residents of this archipelago were nostalgic for what one would call “the carefree, joyous Fourths of our childhood,’’ with weenie roosts on the beach and fireworks at dusk. And so they strove to celebrate Independence Day in good cheer.
Manzanar planned dances, “all-star” baseball games and a Miss Manzanar pageant with 29 contestants. At Tanforan Assembly Center south of San Francisco, girls took yards and yards of newspaper, colored them red, white and blue, and made paper chain decorations to transform the camp rec hall (Building 6) into “The S.S. 6’’ for the holiday dance.
The Pomona Assembly Center’s evening music program included traditional Japanese selections and American tunes. “I’m an Old Cowhand” was sung by Isamu Zaiman. Nobuko Suto and Niko Watanabe performed a boogie-woogie piano duet
In Fresno, where about 5,000 people were sleeping in tents and huts in the infield of the fairgrounds race track, teacher Mary Tsukamoto’s elementary school class stood in front of a large picture of Abraham Lincoln with an American flag and recited the Gettysburg Address.
Those interned at Santa Anita racetrack organized the “Anita Funita’’ talent show, with “the cream of the camp’s entertainers …. many of them professionals.’’
Beneath the gaiety, there was frustration.
“I get so tired of the flag waving,’’ Charles Kikuchi wrote in a diary archived by Densho.org, which documents internment history. “It is difficult to reconcile some things that have happened with true Democracy. Negroes are sent out to fight for Democracy; at home they don’t get a full share of it. Nisei (U.S. Japanese) boys serve faithfully in the army; their parents are sent to Tanforan,” where he was interned.
At Tule Lake, James Sakoda wrote, the camp director “read a prepared speech on Independence Day and Democracy, but it did not click with the audience. He might as well have been talking over the radio, because he was not talking to the Japanese people here. He did not mention once the plight of the Japanese.’’
Frank Mori, 22, whose family had been relocated from Santa Barbara to the Tulare Assembly Center, noted the presence of Japanese-American World War I veterans at the celebration. “Under the circumstances,’’ he later recalled, “the event bordered on the ridiculous.’’
That was hard to deny. But an editorial in the Tanforan camp paper tried:
“To some, both here and on the outside, our observances of America’s Independence Day will undoubtedly seem a paradox. … But to let the mind dwell on this single facet of the matter would not only be fruitless; it would be prejudicial to all our hopes of returning eventually to the mainstream of American life as useful citizens.’’
Saburo Masada was one of the schoolboys who recited the Gettysburg Address in Fresno. Years later, he explained to The Associated Press the mindset of many who’d celebrated on that Fourth: “In Japanese culture, we were taught to say, ‘There is nothing you can do about it,’ so you have to grin and do the best you can. We buried our emotions, and tried to make life as normal as possible.”
Return to Manzanar
Today, with the approach another Fourth of July, the plight of those in the camps 76 years ago resonates in a nation that detains tens of thousands of migrants, including children separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance’’ policy.
Bush wrote this month in The Washington Post that the images of children held in makeshift conditions near the Southern border were “eerily reminiscent’’ of the wartime internment, “one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.’’
Takei, who on July 4, 1942, was being held at the Santa Anita racetrack with his parents and siblings, argues that “in one core, horrifying way,” the detentions today are even worse: “At least during the internment, when I was just 5 years old, I was not taken from my parents,” he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.
Whatever the validity of comparisons between 1942 and 2018, there are today few places better to contemplate the issue than Manzanar. The old camp, one of 10 in a network that stretched from the Sierra Nevada to Arkansas, is now a national historic site.
A visit there has become such an intense experience for some people that one National Park Service ranger, Ph.D. historian and former newspaper reporter Patricia Biggs, keeps tissues ready to hand out.
Reactions to the story of Manzanar, and its relation to contemporary federal installations such as the tent city for immigrant children at Tornillo, Texas, can be gauged from the visitors log book.
The entries do not constitute a scientific gauge of public opinion. But they have a theme: History is repeating itself.
“Our country is still imprisoning immigrants (i.e., illegals), separating parents from their children. We must educate ourselves and work against this. We are not powerless.’’ — Susan Scott.
“What an irony to be here, seeing past injustice, while during the past 18 months we have seen similar prejudice against immigrants.’’ – Leslie.
“We say, ‘Never again,’ but meantime there is talk of building a wall. Children are separated from their parents. … Hatred, unfortunately, is alive and well.’’ — Mary Wright
For some visitors, it’s the children that unite Manzanar and Tornillo – especially after they hear the story of the Children’s Village.
The Manzanar Children’s Village was populated by orphans of Japanese ancestry who’d been living in foster care or institutions on the West Coast. After April 1942, even they were relocated – orphaned again.
On July 4, 1942, there were 61 children in the village, half under age 7. The village consisted of three buildings, which – unlike other camp barracks – had bathrooms and running water.
An orphan’s life at Manzanar at least had the advantage of routine – until the war ended. Then, because many children were relocated without the appointment of a guardian, they had no one to claim them. And, because some records were lost, camp authorities sometimes had to search, not always successfully, for relatives.
For many of the orphans, “Leaving the camp was the most traumatizing experience of incarceration,” according to the Densho Encyclopedia. “Many of them were leaving the only family they knew.’’
It’s an unhappy portent for children who are now separated, with little identification, at the Southern border. And it’s another reason why the ranger carries tissues.