February 19 marks the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. In signing it, President Franklin Roosevelt, riding a wave of post-Pearl Harbor war hysteria and political expediency, ignored the U.S. constitution to arrest and imprison 110,000 U.S. citizens and legal aliens of Japanese descent without evidence or trial. Their three-year confinement in ten desolate rural camps has come to be known euphemistically as the Internment. President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, repudiating and apologizing for EO 9066. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush authorized restitution of $20,000 per person to be paid to each living internee. Now EO 9066 is passing into history along with the “Issei” and “Nisei”, the immigrants and their children who experienced it first hand. Yet the issues of immigrant rights and racial profiling are as alive as ever in the U.S. Has the Japanese American community healed from the wounds of EO 9066? And what does it mean to U.S. citizens today?

For two decades after the war, there was little public discussion of the Internment, even within the Japanese American community. In the late 1960’s the Sansei or third generation, inspired by the civil rights movement, sought answers and justice. Few Sansei are old enough to remember the Internment. Language and cultural barriers kept the Issei from telling their stories. Most first-person accounts are the voices of the Nisei, young adults at the time, who stepped into the leadership void left by their disenfranchised parents and assumed the tasks of reestablishing and reinventing the post-war Japanese American community.

“Some have been able to reconcile, for some it’s still difficult,” observes Jeffrey Hattori. As CEO of Nikkei Concerns, he knows many Internment survivors among his organization’s clients and residents. “Whatever challenges we think we have, they pale in comparison to what our parents and grandparents went through,” he says. Hattori draws on the wisdom, humility and “ganbaru” (persistence) of his senior residents and looks for ways to connect them with younger generations before it is too late.

The Wing Luke Museum marked the 50th anniversary with an exhibition: “EO 9066: 50 Years Before and 50 Years After.” A cathartic event for Seattle’s Japanese American community, it was the first of the Wing’s community-based exhibition projects, launching the museum’s rise to national prominence and creating a model for community involvement that has been widely adopted by other museums. Looking at their audience today, Deputy Executive Director Cassie Chinn observes, “The incarceration experience continues to have lasting significance. Many visitors continue to come to the museum both to gain historical knowledge … as well as to be inspired to fight against social injustice.” Even 20 years after that landmark exhibition, Chinn hears, “So many families still mention that ‘we just didn’t talk about the incarceration,’ and exhibitions, art workshops, and public programs at the Museum hopefully are providing those opportunities to spark conversations, provide a safe place to share struggles and find healing.”

Artist Roger Shimomura was a child of three when he entered the Minidoka Relocation Center. “Personally I was too young to have any political sense of what was happening at the time,” he says. Shimomura has drawn on his memories, those of other family members, and his grandmother’s diary, to reexamine the Internment through his art. “I feel blessed to have had an outlet for expressing this shameful moment in our history,” he reflects, “However, I feel most sorry for the Nisei … What they experienced in unnecessary shame and guilt stigmatized that entire generation in ways we will never be able to measure.” Shimomura feels that recent history reinforces the need for vigilance in guarding against the abuse of power in time of war. “Let us hope that the comparisons between Pearl Harbor and 9/11 do not extend, once again, to the injustices committed towards citizens of our own country.”

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