February 19th is a significant date for Japanese-Americans. On this day in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which gave the U.S. Army the authority to remove civilians from the military zones established in Washington, Oregon, and California during World War II. This led to the forced removal and incarceration of at least 122,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast, who had to abandon their jobs, their homes, and their lives to be sent to one of ten concentration camps scattered in desolate, remote regions of the country. Executive Order 9066 was both unconstitutional and without executed due process.
Entire families were rounded up like criminals because of race prejudice, wartime hysteria and failure of political leadership. Their bank accounts and assets were frozen, and farms, homes and businesses were stolen. These families were forcibly sent to camps where they endured nearly four years of living hell because of their Japanese heritage. At the closing of these American concentration camps in 1945, most people rebuilt their lives with little to no resources, relying on the resilience of the individuals, family and their community.
No Japanese-American citizens were ever charged, much less convicted, of espionage or sabotage against the United States of America. Yet they were targeted, rounded up, and imprisoned for years, simply for having the “face of the enemy”.
Japanese-American communities commemorate Executive Order 9066 as a reminder of the impact the incarceration had on their families and our country. It is an opportunity to educate others on the fragility of our civil liberties in times of crisis, and the importance of remaining vigilant in protecting the rights and freedoms of all. During the period from 1942 to 1946, Japanese- Americans were deprived of their rights.
The first Day of Remembrance was held on November 25, 1978, at the Puyallup Fairgrounds in Washington state, one of the 20 government concentration camps during the early months of World War II. An estimated 3,200 people attended, despite some opposition from the local American Legion.
The next year, Oregon held its first Day of Remembrance in Portland at the former Pacific International Livestock Exposition (just blocks from where I now live), where, in 1942, animal stables had been turned into living quarters for more than 3,500 Japanese-Americans.
37 years after the signing of the executive order and 46 years after President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and apologized for the government’s “mistake”, 1,000 Oregonians came together to receive this public recognition of a forgotten injustice. Mayor Neil Goldschmidt declared this a Day of Remembrance in Oregon; speakers included Oregonian Minoru Yasui, who had openly challenged the constitutionality of the government’s order.
In 2013, a ceremony was to be held in San Francisco’s Japantown. In 1986 Governor George Deukmejian declared February 19, 1986 to be a Day of Remembrance in California, the first such designation by the state of California.
Actor and LGBTQ Rights activist George Takai was just five years old when his family was taken away from their home in Los Angeles and sent to a detention center in central California and then to one in Arkansas. He has spent a lifetime speaking out about the human rights violations of the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war. Takei is an ardent supporter of The Japanese American Citizens League, Human Rights Campaign, and he is Chairman of the Japanese American National Museum. He is most importantly an outspoken advocate for the Asian American and LGBTQ communities, speaking out and working tirelessly against California’s Proposition 8.
Based on his own family’s heartbreaking experience in one of our country’s shameful Japanese-American internment camps, Takei developed the musical Allegiance which had a sold-out world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 2012. Allegiance has a score by Jay Kuo with a book by my friend Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione. It played on Broadway autumn and winter of 2015, with Takei starring in both versions. The musical garnered respectable reviews, but only had a short run on Broadway.
In 2018, when the White Nationalist administration started to cage brown-skinned refugees and children at the border, Japanese-American concentration camp survivors and their descendants protested this inhumane treatment and remind all Americans that we can never repeat these acts that add to the long and shameful history of discrimination against people of color.