Japanese Americans commemorate the 74th anniversary of World War II internment

japanese internment day of remembrance
A photo of Jean Mishima taken in 1943, and her report card from the elementary school in the Gila River internment camp.

By Jenny G. Zhang

Jean Mishima was 6 years old when she and her family were forced to leave their home in California and relocate to an internment camp 600 miles away in Gila River, Arizona.

“My parents, they lost everything,” Mishima recalled.

Their five acres of farmland, their livelihoods, their dignity – all of it vanished when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed and issued Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, authorizing the deportation of Japanese Americans to so-called “relocation centers” around the country in response to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Mishima, 79, was one of approximately 120,000 people – including individuals of Japanese descent and a smaller number of Italians and Germans – on the Pacific Coast who were rounded up and incarcerated during World War II under the guise of national security.

The Gila River camp, Mishima remembered, was surrounded by a desert crawling with scorpions and rattlesnakes. Only the latrines, mess hall and laundry room had running water. Quarters were small; privacy was nonexistent. While adults mourned the loss of everything they had known, children played outside and ate together in the mess hall, any semblance of a family structure destroyed.

“I didn’t realize we were incarcerated or imprisoned until I was a young adult,” said Mishima, who now serves as the president of the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society. “My parents never talked about it at home.”

The mass incarceration was later revealed to have been the product of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” as admitted in the the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

The legislation, which was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan and granted reparations to the surviving incarcerees, was the result of years of lobbying and activism by Japanese Americans.

japanese internment day of remembrance
Mishima and her family moved to Chicago after they were released from the internment camp in 1944. Her father, whose self-worth was shattered by the experience, later left the family and moved back to California. (Jenny G. Zhang/MEDILL)

Now, 74 years after the signing of Executive Order 9066, Japanese Americans continue to celebrate their redress movement’s unique victory on the Day of Remembrance, an annual event that has commemorated Japanese American internment since its creation during the redress movement in 1978.

“Day of Remembrance is an opportunity to educate others on the fragility of civil liberties in a time of crisis, and the importance of remaining vigilant and protecting the rights of all,” said Rebecca Ozaki, a member of the Chicago chapters of the Japanese American Citizens League and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, during Chicago’s Day of Remembrance on February 21.

“Today, in our country, we have many individuals who, because of the color of their skin, because of the country of their origin, because of the god they choose to worship, because of the person whom they choose to love, face discrimination and justice,” said keynote speaker Mitchell T. Maki, who co-authored Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress.

Ozaki, Maki and event organizer Ryan Yokota pointed out parallels between the widespread suspicion of Japanese Americans during World War II and the discrimination that Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs and other Americans face today.

The responsibility of the Japanese American community, Maki said, is to find ways to take their stories and their experiences and transfer them in meaningful ways to other marginalized groups.

“We were denied our rights as American citizens,” said Mishima, who volunteered at this year’s Day of Remembrance, as she does every year.

“We need to learn about the past so that we don’t repeat it.”

Photo at top: A photo of Jean Mishima taken in 1943, and her report card from the elementary school in the Gila River internment camp. (Jenny G. Zhang/MEDILL)