Rounding Up the 'Enemy'

Sixty Years After It Jailed Japanese Americans, Would the U.S. Consider Another Ethnic Internment?

There are few people still living who can claim Kazu Iijima and Minn Matsuda's perspective on post-September 11 America. Friends for over six decades, they were adults in California when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Iijima was one of 120,000 adults and children of Japanese ancestry—including 77,000 U.S. citizens and almost every person of Japanese descent on the West Coast—imprisoned by the U.S. government without charge or trial in 10 remote barbed-wire internment camps between March 1942 and March 1946. Matsuda, who moved inland before the roundup, was among a small minority left outside.

Last September, Matsuda saw the second jet hit the trade center from her ninth-floor terrace in Fort Greene. She watched through the morning, periodically ducking back into the apartment to relieve her 91-year-old heart. Uptown on 190th Street, Iijima was also stunned, viewing the news footage and listening to the analogies to Pearl Harbor, an event she had learned of 60 years earlier during Sunday brunch at home with her sisters.

Then a recent college graduate who worked as a maid because few would give Japanese Americans a better job, Iijima was ordered in March 1942 to show up at a temporary holding center with only the belongings she could carry. President Franklin Roosevelt, caving to political pressure, had issued an executive order giving the military clearance to evacuate Japanese Americans from the West Coast. With friends who slept over the night before so they could go together, Iijima arrived at a hastily converted racetrack in Oakland, where she spent several months under armed watch. She ate amid horse waste, slept on a dirt floor, and waited to take "this horrible train ride where we had to pull the shades down so people couldn't see us and throw stones."

The train took her to Utah's Topaz Camp, "a poetic name for a bleak desert." A year of her life disappeared in the crowded, dusty barracks teeming with 10,000 others. (She married an army man and got out sooner than most.) Matsuda, who had moved to Salt Lake City when California became "too uncomfortable," spent the internment years writing to Iijima and struggling to work despite racial prejudice. She managed to keep her job sketching ads for a retail store, even after a wealthy patron demanded, "I want that Jap removed."

So it was something when the women heard that a Bush appointee had likened popular opinion now to the sentiment leading up to internment back then, and they agreed.

Two weeks ago, Peter Kirsanow of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission drew heat by suggesting that another terrorist attack on U.S. soil could stir public support for mass, ethnicity-based internments as during World War II. He did not advocate such detentions—in fact, he told the Voice that he was absolutely opposed. But he did say at a July 19 public hearing in Detroit packed with Muslim American advocates, "If there's another terrorist attack and if it's from a certain ethnic community . . . that the terrorists are from, you can forget about civil rights."

Some civil rights groups want Kirsanow kicked off the commission. But more alarming than his remarks alone was the response—or lack of it—from the administration. The White House issued a single sentence professing its faith in Kirsanow's best intentions, but it did not take a stand against internment. In fact, when asked point-blank about the possibility, the White House referred the Voice to the Justice Department, where a spokesperson responded, "Everything has to be taken on a case-by-case basis." She declined to renounce the notion completely.

Kirsanow later told the Detroit Free Press, "Not too many people will be crying in their beer if there are more detentions, more stops, more profiling." He suggested there would be "a groundswell of public opinion" as in the days of Korematsu v. U.S., the 1944 Supreme Court decision that upheld the race-based internment of U.S. citizens in the interest of national security. (Kirsanow's point: Quit complaining about liberties violations in the president's homeland security agenda, for it could avert a future attack and racist backlash.)

Iijima and Matsuda remember those days well. Japanese American internment was not, they say, a sudden, inconceivable horror, but rather the extreme expression of a wider political climate. The Pearl Harbor bombing set off long-standing anti-immigrant tensions, leading non-Japanese residents and California politicians in the 1942 election year to demand the imprisonment of the Japanese. Over 2000 Japanese men, along with some Italians and Germans, were secretly detained in the months prior to mass internment. Roosevelt's February 19, 1942, executive order permitted the designation of "military areas," enabling the military to begin the wider Japanese American roundup.

"We had some non-Japanese friends who were supportive. But the majority of people we knew were intent on putting us in internment camps, because they thought we were spies," says Iijima. She recalls the newspaper editorials and movies that inflamed suspicion of "Japs," and a daily life filled with slurs, surveillance, and sometimes violence against her community. "Internment was accepted by a majority of the people, or it couldn't have happened," she says. Adds Matsuda, "It could very easily happen again."

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