I can think of no one more thoroughly American than my late mother, Alyce Sato Takami, who was raised in Honolulu and lived for 30 years in New York.
Alyce loved the jitterbug, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald. She was fond of Jimmy Stewart movies and MGM musicals. She learned gourmet cooking from Julia Child (and learned it well!) but still craved McDonald’s cheeseburgers. She was a devotee of the Art Linkletter Show and Walter Cronkite. During the 1960s she described herself politically, and proudly, as a “Rockefeller Republican.”
I think of her today, on the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that set into motion the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans, two thirds of them American citizens, including my mother.
Seventy-five years ago, when she was 19 years old, Alyce was evicted from her residence—the home of a family friend in Los Angeles, where she was studying fashion design. She was taken away to a temporary “assembly center” and from there to Manzanar, a concentration camp in a desert area of central California. Incarcerees were allowed to take only what they could carry. Thousands of families lost their homes, businesses, and communities.
It’s important to note that none of these prisoners was accused of a crime. There was no due process of law. Many Japanese Americans, including those in Washington state, were ordered to give up their weapons (and their 2nd amendment rights). For the duration of the war and afterwards, no Japanese or Japanese American who had been incarcerated was ever convicted of espionage or treason. In fact, more than 30,000 Japanese Americans volunteered or were conscripted into the U.S. Army, many of them giving their lives for the country that was imprisoning their families back home. Others bravely resisted the draft and the incarceration.
My mother surely made the best of the rest of her life after the war but she was clearly scarred by her experience. She was never willing to talk about it except to say, choking back deep emotions, “Dave, you have no idea what I went through. No idea.”
In the wake of another Executive Order, No. 13,769, which restricts refugees and potential immigrants from Muslim countries, I think of what happened to my mother and Japanese Americans on the basis of their race. Although federal courts have blocked implementation of order for now, another executive action is imminent. The need for vigilance has never been more important.