The Complex Legacy of EO9066

Mark Mitsui | Start the discussion

On this day 75 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which established what amounted to prison camps in isolated, desert areas where more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were US citizens, were eventually incarcerated — my parents and family among them. There were no charges filed, no opportunity for legal defense and no evidence presented against the Japanese American community.

The order’s enactment was swift and traumatic. All people of Japanese ancestry living within certain “zones” were forcibly removed from their homes, hospitals and orphanages. All assets were frozen resulting in foreclosures on mortgages and loss of other property. They were issued identification numbers, and sent to “assembly centers,” such as Portland’s Exposition Center before being sent further inland to what President Roosevelt called “concentration camps.”

In these camps across the country, all prisoners over the age of 17 were required to answer a “Loyalty Questionnaire.” Two questions in particular had long term consequences, depending on how one answered them.

Respondents were asked if they were willing to serve in the armed forces, and if they would foreswear allegiance to the Japanese Emperor. These questions roiled the community and the answers to them would be divisive for decades to come.

Among those who said “Yes, Yes,” many would go on to serve in the US Army. The all-Japanese American 442nd/100th Regimental Combat Team became the most highly decorated unit for its size and length of service in US military history. The Military Intelligence Service used knowledge of Japanese language and culture to save Allied lives.

Those who said “No, No” pointed out that they couldn’t logically renounce a foreign allegiance they had never claimed. Others questioned how a country that forcibly incarcerated them could legally conscript them into the armed forces. These resisters became known as the “No-No Boys.”

After the war, when incarcerated Japanese Americans returned to their homes, they often found themselves starting over. They began new businesses, bought new houses. Many, including my parents, availed themselves of higher education. Such resilience taught me about the transformative power of education and the enduring opportunities of our democratic society. Those lessons profoundly influenced the course of my life.

It wasn’t until 1988 and the Civil Liberties Act that a formal apology and reparations were made to Japanese Americans. Written into the act was a pledge from the U.S. government to faithfully discourage future violations of civil liberties against its citizens. We must hold our leaders to this promise, and continue to acknowledge with gratitude Americans of all cultural and religious backgrounds who express their patriotism through military service — as well as through principled resistance to injustice.

For me, one of the most compelling stories of this time is about the co-sponsors of the Civil Liberties Act, Democratic congressman Norman Mineta of California and Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming. The two met as fellow Boy Scouts over the barriers of the camp where Mineta was incarcerated as a child. Despite their many differences, they sought and found common ground, becoming lifelong allies and friends.

As I reflect today on the complex legacy of EO9066 for my family and country, I’m inspired by my parents’ journeys but also by that remarkable friendship born of empathy, curiosity and generosity. Now more than ever, these values are critical to our democracy — and to higher education too.

Please join PCC as we mark the anniversary of EO9066 at a remembrance and discussion on Tuesday, February 21.

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