2008 National Conference » Essays


By Jordan Clementi

Just imagine for a moment that you can’t speak, but you have something very important to say. What you have to say is becoming sort of old news, but it’s relevant to a situation in today’s world. How do you get what you want to say out? The fact is, the Japanese American internees aren’t getting younger. Eventually, the firsthand story will die out, and it worries me, what will happen to the story of the Japanese Americans as soon as the first hand is inaccessible. Frankly with the current curriculum regarding American history, the story is going to die out. In my school, a top school in Colorado, there was little talk of the Japanese Americans, we spent a day tops talking about how we felt if we were interned, of course none of us have experienced this travesty, so none of us knew how to react. This was in 8 th Grade. I went through 9 years of education before ever catching wind of the story.

I could bet that I, being the only one to have done a history day project on the matter, am the only one who still remembers that day in class. To tell the truth I barely remember the day, I remember the 3 months I spent on the project. So I know, the person who did it the 2008 school year knows, and the teachers probably have the little information that they have branded into their heads know. In my opinion, that’s kind of frightening. Our education system isn’t exactly improving, and that means that that specific part of World War Two may be forgotten.

For the sake of all the veterans and internees I met at the Whose America? Who’s American? Conference, we need to keep this chapter in history alive. We can’t allow what’s happened so many times before to happen again. I personally believe that this conference helped show something more than just what happened back then, it showed what happens to the race or group that drew the shortest straw when we ignore something that happened to them. What’s going to happen after the current war is over? Are we going to, as a nation, do what we always do and try to forget something embarrassing happened? Sure, it’s okay that we detained several Middle Eastern looking people, American Citizens none the less, for looking the way they look.

I suppose the idiom history repeats itself is true. As a nation we haven’t learned that jailing innocents because of a scare to our national security isn’t a good idea. Being the way we are, we also tend not to take kindly to minorities. We shy away from new cultures and we take the word foreign way out of proportion. We even take pride in our racist stereotyping: all British drink tea, Mexicans populate the ghettos, every black person likes rap. There are hundreds of stereotypes out there, and a lot of our social interactions in this country are based on that. Now, the biggest stereotype we think about is with Arab-Americans. Seem familiar? The same thing happened a bit more than 60 years ago, when terms like “Jap” and “Slant” were coined to group of harmless people who were the same race as a group of attackers across the Pacific. This perfect storm of thinking is what caused the Japanese Americans so much pain during World War Two.

The weekend I was up in Denver I didn’t hear the statement that taught me the most from anyone at the conference; I learned the most from my uncle, while sitting around a dinner table on the fourth of July. He does heavy work as an electrician, and he has an affiliate from Morocco. This affiliate couldn’t hurt a fly, let alone a person. Regardless of this truth, my uncle’s seen him get discriminated against. He’s even one to say times have changed and it’s hard to trust anybody, but the type of discrimination he sees against his friend is too far from distrust.

The Japanese American experience is something that we can all learn from. The internment of innocents is something we can learn from. It could even be considered a social experiment. What has to happen for us to deny constitutional rights to US citizens, not just by state, but by popular demand? Apparently we’re a much more paranoid nation than we paint ourselves to be. All it took was an overseas scare to get us to distrust a large base of our nation. What suprises me though is that we didn’t think to consider another “very real” threat: Italian Americans and German Americans. If we’re going to be unfair, I think we should at least be unfair to all parties involved, with the large displacement of Germans, it wouldn’t be hard for a spy to get into the US before 1941. Besides, the Germans, a much less “sealed off” culture, would be more willing to send a spy than the Japanese who hadn’t been open to the rest of the world for that large of a time.

In the end, it all comes down to logic. What ifs seem to be our favorite questions about the past. What if the Japanese had brought a spy in from Japan? How illogical and flat out stupid would it be to send a spy into a hostile country (mind you most Japanese-Americans had been citizens for more than a few years) to map out coastal cities? Even if they got that far, the Japanese would have had to sneak an Armada into American waters without being caught. After that, they would have to attack a very large city, and probably with at least some forewarning on the opposite side, making it hard to make the attack very successful. Therefore, even the militaristically expansive Japanese empire would have shied away from the idea of attacking even small coastal cities.

There is a fine line between just and in constitutional. Paranoia can blur that line, not only blur the line, but practically erase it. We did almost as much to the Japanese in order to ruin their lives as Hitler did to eliminate the Jews, or as much as the Young Turks did to eradicate the Armenian population. We didn’t kill any Japanese Americans, but we tried to break their spirits. We essentially ruined their lives in a country driven by a capitalist market by taking all their money in a closeout of all things non-personal, so that, in case they were allowed back into society again, they wouldn’t have lives to go back to.

Aside from wrecking lives we managed to also scar a generation. Because of the culture my grandfather was raised in, he still calls Japanese Americans “Japs” and other races by their respective racial slurs. It makes me uncomfortable because now these kinds of things aren’t acceptable, but in his youth, they were. He sees no problem with it, he was taught to think this way because of the environment he grew up in. Going through the largest recession in history and a world war isn’t the easiest life. Of course, he was also persecuted for his race; an Italian-American doesn’t get a lot of respect from people, especially those against organized crime, something that all Italian Americans have to deal with as a common stereotype.

As a nation we have the power to fix these kinds of faults that have been listed. But, first and foremost, we need to fix our education system, and we need to focus more on history, math and science are great for progress in society, but too much progress gets a nation to where our is now. History can teach us how to avoid mistakes we made in the past, it is truly a way to fix economic issues, foreign policy issues, and of course domestic policy issues, including ones that entail the detaining of a certain race against its will. Children are the future, and if they can’t get a good education, the future will begin to gray out for our fledgling nation, and chapters in history will be trimmed away, ones that could change which road we take in the future.

What we need to do afterwards is make aware to all other nations, not only to ourselves that we’d made a mistake. The Germans were forced to put the Holocaust into their textbooks, but most don’t know of what happened at the internment camps in the US deserts. At the very least we need to make it aware to ourselves that we attacked our own citizens, and we should be held accountable for that.

Now one could wonder where this argument is going, but here’s what I think: many events in the world that I’ve learned about can be related back to the Japanese American experience. First of all, we’re not a country that should be based on hyphens. Italian-Americans, Latin-Americans, Irish-Americans, Japanese-Americans, they don’t need to be hyphenated, we’re all Americans, we speak English as a first language and most of us have the same or similar accents. We don’t need to separate ourselves by saying where we came from a few hundred years ago, or even just a few decades ago! We’re part of the same culture, bottom line. I think more than anything that’s what the Whose America? Who’s American? conference taught me. Americans have no sense of pride in their heritage here, only in their heritage across the ocean. When America is united, with no discrimination between race, we will see better decisions being made when it comes to the treatment of other races, and I believe that that’s the goal of the Japanese American National Museum, not only to spread word of what happened to their parents and grandparents, but to show America how it’s doing minorities a crime by forcing them to do things against their will.

Jordan Clementi was born on October 1, 1992, he was born in Pueblo, Colorado. He currently goes to school at Fountain Valley School of Colorado, and wants major in World Languages and Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon University.