2008 National Conference » Essays


By Thor M. Kjeseth

The Japanese American National Museum’s conference in Denver, Colorado, July 3-6, 2008, brought together members of the Japanese American community, civil liberties advocates, teachers and scholars to look at the human and historical impact of the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during WWII and the redress campaign which eventually led Congress to pass the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. For many of the attendees the conference was a reunion of sorts where members of the Japanese community could share important stories of the past, celebrate the resilience of the Japanese American community and reaffirm a commitment to their country which stripped them of their constitutional rights some 65 years ago but apologized and made redress in 1988. Others joined the conference to learn more about these two related and significant historical events so that we may team with those who lived through the times to bring the story to all Americans.

As an educator I was drawn to the conference because I am alarmed at how few students are exposed to the history of Japanese American Internment or the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Before studying the events in class this spring I asked my 111 Humanities students if they had heard of either EO9066 or the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Only two of the students responded that they had. One of the first questions that I wanted to explore in the conference was why this history is not widely taught? Conversations with other attendees on our site visit to Amache gave me some insight. One former internee, who volunteered for and fought with the 442 nd, explained that during the internment years the Issei and Nisei keenly understood that the EO9066 was unconstitutional however a majority of those interned believed that the first priority of the community was to prove their loyalty to the United States. Instead of engaging in mass protests, they followed the orders without resistance, joined groups supporting the war and volunteered in large numbers to serve in the military. He went on to say that in the years following WWII most American families of Japanese descent spent their energy and efforts trying to rebuild their lives. He reminded me that the surrender of Japan did not stop the public racism toward Japanese Americans. Finally, he explained that many of the efforts behind passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 were behind the scenes where individuals and organizations concentrated on persuading lawmakers to favor the legislation rather than appeal to the general public.

His ideas led me to question why this important legislation, a historical example of the United States admitting to acting unconstitutionally, apologizing and paying symbolic reparation, was not brought aggressively to the attention of the general public. This question was answered in part in Dr. Patricia Limerick’s session, Correcting the Past: The Memory of Historical Injury and the Hope for Remedy. Dr. Limerick argued that the study of EO9066 and the redress movement should be a primary focus of the study of American History rather than a small attachment in many textbooks regarding the home front during WWII. Limerick went on to say that the Japanese Internment experience and redress should be used as a model for current world wide historical injury cases such as the Truth and Reconciliations (TRC) commission in South Africa, the “Stolen Generation” issue in Australia and “Comfort Women” issue involving South Korea and Japan. It should be used but it is not.

Perhaps a reason why the redress movement and Civil Liberties Act of 1988 is not widely used as a model oversees or studied extensively in schools in the United States revolves around the sensitive issue of government culpability. The TRC’s main focus is to move the country forward by allowing victims to face and have dialogue with their perpetrators. Financial redress for victims who suffered under the policies of apartheid is all but avoided in the TRC and the South African courts. John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister for over a decade, carefully avoided an official government apology to the aborigines for the government’s actions regarding the “Stolen Generation” as he thought that such an action would lead to an endless series of lawsuits against the government from those affected by the policy. It is likely that our government also wishes to downplay education and dialogue regarding Japanese Internment and the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 because of a fear that other racial and ethnic groups that have been discriminated against historically, would push for an apology and restitution. In fact, during and after the debate regarding the Civil Liberties Act, a number of prominent African American supporters of the bill, such as California Congressman Ronald Dellums, discussed the possibility of reparations for African Americans, the sons and daughters of slaves, as well.

In signing the American Civil Liberties Act of 1988, President Reagan courageously admitted that our country acted against the Constitution in regards to the relocation and internment of nearly 120,000 people based solely on race. It is estimated that two thirds of those interned were American Citizens. However, it was not only the internees and their families who benefited from the legislation; the civil liberties of all Americans were furthered with the passing of the Act. In the session, Security, Wartime Anxiety and the Erosion of Civil Liberties, panelists Eric Muller and Noel Saleh discussed how civil liberties have been eroded after 9/11. The passing of the Patriot Act of 2001, a few weeks after the terrorist attack gave the president power and a wide range of tools to investigate possible terrorist threats. Again the nation was caught up in a hysteria which seemed to give the government a green light to take whatever means necessary to protect our country. Fortunately for our country, especially Arab Americans, we had people who remembered the Japanese American Interment who quickly reached out to offer advice and assist Arab Americans so actions such as EO9066 would not be taken again. After 9/11 people were rounded up and detained. In fact, nearly 1,500 non- American citizens of Middle-Eastern descent were arrested. However, the American Civil Liberties Act of 1988 did offer protection to Arab Americans. Furthermore, civil liberties advocates have been able to use the legislation in challenging the government on issues such as habeas corpus, government surveillance and legal representation. Both Mr. Muller and Mr. Saleh expressed that the government has to walk a tighter line now than they did in 1942 when implementing practices that challenge civil liberties. Additionally, they both expressed a fear regarding what could happen in the United States if another attack on the scale of 9/11 were to occur. In line with all of the speakers at the conference, they pushed for greater vigilance against the erosion of civil liberties for U.S. citizens and non-citizens during times of crisis as well as more emphasis on discussions and learning regarding this field.

As an educator I am in a position to explore these topics with my students. I have always led students into issues of civil liberties through making connections between historical and current events. For the last few years I have taught a unit on Japanese American Interment following our study of the fall of the Weimar Republic, the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. I end those units with a writing assignment and discussion entitled, “Could it Happen in America?” Immediately following this assignment we look at children’s books regarding Japanese American Internment, followed by a web-quest, two views on Executive Order 9066, a look at statements by Colorado Governor Carr and finally the redress movement which led to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Many of my students leave the unit believing that the loss of civil liberties could happen here. They see that even in a democracy such as the United States, citizens must continue to work to safeguard individual liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.

The session, Enduring Communities Educators Presentation, provided me with an overview of how educators from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Utah covering the issue of Japanese American Internment with kids in their states. I have spoken with Pam Newman and have reviewed the unit plans that she and others have developed for the state. I look forward to including some of her ideas in my classes this year. I would also be interested in working with Pam and JANM to lead a workshop for educators to raise the level of awareness, willingness and expertise in teaching about the Japanese American Internment.

The Conference was educational and emotional for all participants from start to finish. Although I have strong ties with members of the Japanese American community in Denver, this was the first time that I have sat down and heard personal stories from those who lived through the internment and those who struggled for redress. No person in attendance could have remained unmoved on the 4 th of July when we heard from great patriots such as Edward Ichiyama, Hiroshi Miyamura and George Sakato tell of their wartime sacrifices and the sacrifices of other Japanese Americans while their country held many of their family members behind barb-wired fences. Everyone in attendance had to feel respect for and gratitude to Governor Ralph Carr when were heard of his courage and commitment to principles in handling the Japanese American Internment injustice. All of us were impressed with the tales of the tireless work of Norman Mineta, Daniel Inouye, Ernie Doizaki, Akemi Kikumura Yano and others who worked for the redress, the establishment of the Japanese American National Museum and the continued education of all people regarding this important historical event. The conference was filled with humble heroes. However, it was not only the above mentioned people that captured my respect and gained my gratitude, I was also greatly moved by the testimonies of Yosh Kuromiya, Morgan Yamanaka and Hideo Yonenaka in the session, Stories of Resistance: Consciousness, Conscience and the Constitution. These gentlemen also took courageous steps by voting “No, No!” They choose a different and unpopular path of resistance to the unconstitutional wartime policies placed on the Japanese American.

I leave the Conference with a greater understanding of and commitment to exposing my students to the history and continued relevance of the Japanese Internment experience. The conference reminded me of the power of first hand testimonies and I will work to bring speakers into my classes and the curriculum into the classes of my colleagues. The Conference also provided me with the venue to meet other people and make important professional contacts. I sincerely thank the Japanese American National Museum for providing me with the opportunity to participate and look forward to working with the organization in the future.

Thor Kjeseth is a Humanities and Japanese teacher at Castle View High School in Douglas County School District, CO. Thor completed his undergraduate work at St. Olaf College, MN and earned his MA of Education at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Thor has lived and worked overseas for 10 years. Thor challenges his students to improve their understanding of American society by undertaking international studies.