History Repeats: Japanese Internment & Islamophobia Today

Today’s news stories are filled with executive orders, immigration bans, and the “tremendous hatred” from Muslims our president says is infringing upon the USA. Rhetoric targeting Muslims is heard throughout the media, spreading fear and misinformation as political tensions escalate. What is often overlooked is the fact that America has seen this situation before. During WWII, Japanese people were targeted with strikingly similar hateful words. This ultimately led to an executive order that incarcerated mass amounts of people throughout the country, simply based on their race. In a discussion about the suggested registry of Muslims, a prominent Trump backer called on the Japanese internment as setting a precedent for the idea. History has begun to repeat itself. These tragedies must be learned in order to stop the continuation of the USA’s legal injustices, whether it targets a race, gender, class, religion, or other core cultural identifiers.

Flashback 75 years from now. In February of 1942, a few months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This authorized the removal and confinement of any people from “military areas” which was defined as almost the entire west coast. Within months, over 100,000 people of Japanese descent, Americans and immigrants alike, were forced into government concentration camps. The government’s stated reasoning behind this was that Japanese people were seen to be loyal to only Japan, and could commit espionage on American soil. Yet more than two thirds of those imprisoned were American citizens, and 30,000 of those interned were children. Two of the many people living in these camps were my grandparents, Aiko and Shigeru Matsui. Despite being American born, they were forced into the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho for years during the war. The relocation centers held people in inhumane conditions, including housing entire families in single cells, forcing people to live in horse stalls, and a dangerous lack of healthcare and supplies.

Propaganda that targeted Japanese people during this time influenced public opinion heavily. Unofficial “Jap Hunting Licences” were distributed, portraying the Japanese as barbaric yellow caricatures, and encouraging Americans to kill them. Posters advertised Japanese people as the enemy, and within weeks of Pearl Harbor, the American public was recorded in polls with the majority believing few Japanese people would ever be loyal to the US. Business owners began hanging signs that called for “No Japs”. This and other forms of dehumanization were shown in the media constantly, skewing the opinions of Asian Americans extremely negatively.

When we gloss over these events it is easier to forget. And often times with historical issues like these it seems as though it was forever ago. Didn’t this only exist a long time ago, and only during the war? The answer to that question is no. I am only seventeen years old, and the day after my Japanese American father was born, the LIFE magazine photo of the week was a white woman penning a letter to her boyfriend, thanking him for the “Jap Skull” he sent her while serving in the military, as it sits at the edge of her desk. This hatred and violence was far in the past, yet in the majority of public and private schools alike, these issues of racism and prejudice are skimmed over or ignored altogether.

What cannot be recognized if the nation is not educated on this topic is that we are edging dangerously into similar territory. The way that Muslims have been treated in America post-9/11 is remarkably similar to how the Japanese were targeted during the war. Then, America told its citizens it was at war with an entire race, and today it seems to be an entire religion. Islamophobic violence targets foreign born and American Muslims alike, and the same sentiment used to make Americans fear Japanese is used against Muslims. Then, they warned about nonexistent spies and espionage from Japan, and today it is infiltration and terrorism from Islamic countries. Then, immigrants from Japan were barred from becoming citizens, and today we have a ban on immigration from seven Muslim countries. In reality, the ten total people convicted of spying for Japan were all white, and today, the likelihood of being killed by an Islamic terrorist is next to none. Still, the USA does the same as it did then: perpetuates fear and hate. What is stopping America from repeating this history, when so little of our country knows about it fully?

“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” As education systems continues to overlook this tragedy, we edge into a similar political climate today, with simply a new group to channel hatred towards, with few facts or reason behind it. Americans must educate themselves on these events, and gain cognizance of parallels in society from then and now. Read Farewell to Manzanar and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Watch Topaz and The Legacy of Heart Mountain. Look at today’s executive orders, the propaganda, the polls, and just replace the word Muslim with Japanese. It’s practically 1942 again. Was this when America was great?



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