A New Beginning for Japanese American Activism in Minnesota

December 15, 2017 • Feature, In-depth

Paul Kitagaki Jr. with Yuichiro Onishi, Sophia Kim and Romare Onishi at the opening reception of “Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit: Japanese American WWII Incarceration, Then & Now.” (Photo: Cheryl Hirata-Dulas)

The Twin Cities chapter of the JACL hopes to bring equal treatment for all not just in the Land of 10,000 Lakes but throughout the U.S.

By Yuichiro Onishi, Contributor

The Twin Cities chapter of the JACL marked the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 in its activities throughout 2017. This year gave us an opportunity to reflect on our stance as an organization for justice and civil rights. The collective sentiment is that the chapter is on the cusp of ushering in a new beginning.

On Nov. 18, a half dozen members drove northwest, an hour from Minneapolis/St. Paul, to take part in educational outreach in St. Cloud, another Mississippi River city located in central Minnesota. The chapter members set out to engage the people of St. Cloud on why the wartime experience of the Japanese American incarceration matters more than ever today.

The Education Committee of TC JACL has been doing this type of outreach activity for several years. The committee’s work typically involves issuing a reminder to the public that the Japanese American incarceration was a tragedy of democracy that was far-reaching, and that it ought to not happen again to other vulnerable and marginalized people.

Sally Sudo, a steadfast local Nisei activist-leader, has been the cornerstone in the committee, doing much of the speaking engagements to all ages and constituents. Sudo shares with her audience her first-hand accounts of being imprisoned for three and half years, first in the Puyallup detention facility, and later in Minidoka as a little girl with her family.

She and her Issei parents and Nisei brothers and sisters were forcibly uprooted and removed from Seattle when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. Her story is archived in the Densho Digital Repository and a myriad of other projects, including the St. Olaf College’s digital humanities project called “Beyond the Barbed Wire: Japanese Americans in Minnesota.”

The Education Committee has also taken some key initiatives in the past to lead TC JACL to become an advocacy group. Particularly noteworthy was its work with the Minnesota Department of Education. In 2003, Sudo and her colleagues, Cheryl Hirata-Dulas and Lucy Kirihara, as well as other Asian American leaders and educators, tackled head on the Minnesota K-12 History and Social Studies Standards, which in its initial version did not include a single standard related to the Japanese American World War II incarceration experience.

The committee successfully lobbied to update the draft. Because the Military Intelligence Service Language School that was located first in Camp Savage and later Fort Snelling in Minnesota from 1942-46 was included under Minnesota History, the committee created a curriculum guide for teachers to highlight the Japanese American military service as one of the key contributions that Minnesota and its people made during WWII.

Most recently, the TC JACL Education Committee, co-chaired by Janet Carlson and Carolyn Nayematsu, spearheaded planning for a yearlong commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066.

The committee showcased Roger Shimomura’s iconic prints at Macalester College in St. Paul, as well as brought Paul Kitagaki Jr.’s photo exhibit “Gambatte! Legacy of of an Enduring Spirit” to Historic Fort Snelling.

Members also worked toward the Day of Remembrance, which was held on Feb. 19 at the Minnesota History Center. A sense of urgency surely abounded in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential campaign. Against the backdrop of Trump’s triptych to build a wall, deport immigrants and bar refugees and Muslims from entering the United States, Gordon Nakagawa, a local Sansei activist and educator, stepped up.

Nakagawa is of the generation of Japanese American activists that honed political consciousness in the milieu created out of Japanese American struggles for redress in the 1980s, specifically the work of the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations. He drafted a statement of solidarity in collaboration with Executive Director Jaylani Hussein of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Minnesota (CAIR-MN) to articulate a shared commitment to push back the rising temper of racial nationalism.

While the chapter did break new ground politically at the Day of Remembrance ceremony, there is much work to be done to begin carving out the shape of cross-racial solidarity to resist current heightened xenophobia and vulgar racism.

The chapter has inserted itself in the nerve center of white resistance regarding the integration of Somali American and Muslim American people. St. Cloud, a small white majority city with a population of 67,000 residents, is such a place. Somali Americans are often targeted, and their small yet growing community is perceived as a threat to the existing racial status quo.

Speaking directly to Hussein, they demanded, “Are you tied to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood? I am asking a yes or no question!” The majority of the audience was thoroughly cognizant of the irony of it all.

Racist and bias incidents have been persistent in the last several years, while statewide and nationally, the number of such cases has gone up noticeably. To further heighten the alarm, when a stabbing incident that wounded 10 people occurred at a local mall in St. Cloud in September 2016 and the assailant was identified as a young Somali American man, it fueled the already potent xenophobia and racism.

Even as a group of local residents, #UniteCloud, stood together with Somali neighbors to prevent this incident carried out by a single individual from being wrongfully cast as a collective one, white backlash ensued. Unfounded claims and misleading assertions proliferated.

Just a month prior to the chapter’s co-sponsored event, for instance, a local councilman introduced a resolution calling for a moratorium on refugee resettlement in St. Cloud. It was decidedly anti-Muslim and racist. Although it was rejected on a 1-6 vote, it revealed the coordinated exercise of power buoying the campaign of Islamophobia at the grassroots level.

Cognizant of this political climate, the chapter chose the path of moral suasion, all the while amplifying the power of Sudo’s storytelling. Members also drew a parallel between Asian exclusion enacted through racist fears and violences commonly known as “Yellow Peril” in the past, which were buttressed by laws and policies, as well as the current demonization of Muslim people in America.

Both John Matsunaga, a Sansei visual artist/photographer, educator and activist whose parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles were all incarcerated during World War II, and CAIR-MN’s Hussein sharply presented just how the tragedy of the past is playing itself out today. Together, TC JACL has made known the cultural, legal and political forces, then and now, that make racial and religious minority groups to be treated as perpetual foreigners, if not criminals, terrorists and enemies.

A handful of people at the forum refused to link the past to the present. In one exchange, a Muslim American man stood up to convey his loyalty to this country by emphasizing his contribution to the local economy as a businessman and successful assimilation through educational attainment. But an elderly white woman snapped, shouting, “Show me your tax forms!”

In another exchange, a white woman lamented, “I don’t want them (Muslims) to take away from Christianity.” The most recalcitrant and abrasive reaction came from two white women sitting in the front row. Presenting a trumped-charge against CAIR and speaking directly to Hussein, they demanded, “Are you tied to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood? I am asking a yes or no question!” The majority of the audience was thoroughly cognizant of the irony of it all.

After the event, Sudo reflected, “I have spoken about my experiences during WWII countless times to schools and community groups, but rarely have I had an opportunity to see first-hand the fears and concerns of people who have Muslims living in their community. It is so reminiscent of my experiences facing racial hatred and misunderstanding growing up as a Japanese American. In my experience, so much of the hatred toward me and my community was based on rumors, misinformation and outright lies. It took many years of people getting to know us on a personal basis for us to gain the acceptance we have today.

“The vast majority of the population agrees that what happened to us in World War II was a tragic mistake made by our government,” Sudo continued. “And yet, many of the same people cannot see the parallels to what is happening to the Muslim American community today. When will people learn that looking like the enemy does not make you the enemy? Looking like a terrorist does not make you a terrorist.”

Yet, strikingly, these same people that exhibited enormous contempt toward local Somali Americans would turn to Japanese Americans on the panel and offer an apology for harms done. They would not speak ill of Japanese Americans. In fact, in their eyes, Japanese Americans are the rehabilitated, the embodiment of the model minority, and the antithesis of Somali and Muslim Americans.

Sudo also said searchingly, “I hope the day will soon come when [everyone] among us can gain the same acceptance that we as Japanese Americans enjoy today.”

This hope, at its core, is a matter of human liberation — what it is to be human. While its fulfillment is a challenge, all Americans play an important role.

The TC-JACL Education Committee with CAIR-MN in St. Cloud. Pictured (from left) are Gordon Nakagawa, Ben Hartman, Karen Tanaka Lucas, Yuichiro Onishi, John Matsunaga, Jaylani Hussein, Sally Sudo, Teresa Hartman and Cheryl Hirata-Dulas. (Photo Courtesy of Cheryl Hirata-Dulas)

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