Lessons From the World War II Experiences of Japanese Americans for Today’s Muslim Americans

09/13/2017 11:28 am ET

During the 2016 presidential campaign, candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, respectively, were open to the ideas of a U.S. Muslim database and surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods. As President, Trump signed executive orders that effectively banned travel into the U.S. by people from a selected list of predominantly Muslim countries. Multiple Trump supporters have openly suggested the need to segregate Muslims into prison camps, pointing to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II as precedent for such actions to “protect America.”

This year also marks the 75th Anniversary of the beginning of the World War II mass incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans. Japanese Americans, like me, who have a personal connection to the World War II incarceration experience are speaking out. By providing a “living history” of these events, we can point out the current parallels and warn others to take a stand against any similar encroachment of civil liberties.

My Family’s “All-American” Story

My family’s history in America began in 1907, when my grandfather Kunitomo Mayeda emigrated from Japan. He was only 16 years old but had aspirations to study English and become a diplomat to promote better relations between Japan and the United States. As is often the case for new immigrants, his dreams were never realized. Instead, Kunitomo worked as a houseboy and a cook before getting into farming near San Diego.

Kunitomo Mayeda and his five children, circa 1935
Kunitomo Mayeda and his five children, circa 1935

My father Ray was born in 1922. In the mid-1930s, Ray’s mother passed away. Kunitomo was unable to work and also raise five kids, so the family (except for eldest son Al) moved back to Japan. Kunitomo remarried but eventually returned to America in 1937 to work as a gardener while his second wife remained in Japan to raise the children. A few years later, Ray also re-joined his father and brother Al, and enrolled in school. At Coronado High School, there were only about 10 Japanese American students out of around 400 in the student body. But my uncle Al was a star running back on the football team and a “big man on campus.” My father Ray was student body treasurer, on the staff of the school newspaper, and ran hurdles on the track team. It was basically an “All-American” existence. But then, the Imperial Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor and everything crumbled around the Mayeda family.

Ray Mayeda, circa 1950
Ray Mayeda, circa 1950

“Home Alone”

About three months after the Pearl Harbor attack, my father, an American teenager, was left “home alone.” His sisters Yoko and Moriko, and a younger brother Frank, were still living with their stepmother in Japan. His older brother Al had enlisted in the U.S. Army within weeks of Pearl Harbor. So it was just my father Ray and his father Kunitomo in the uncertain days on the West Coast after the Pearl Harbor attack.

Kunitomo was a leader in the local Japanese Association, a group that tried to help newly arrived immigrants and to maintain cultural ties among the Japanese Americans in San Diego. Within a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, however, the FBI came to question Kunitomo and ransacked the house. Kunitomo was a gardener in his 50s, hardly a rabble rouser or other threat to America. But he knew he looked like the enemy and, unlike his sons, was an Issei, a Japanese immigrant who was forbidden by law from becoming a U.S. citizen. Kunitomo had the foresight to realize that he might be picked up for further questioning or held by the government, so he prepared my father. “Ray, I have money, American dollars, and I’m going to sew it inside the linings of coats that are hanging in the closet. If you come home from school and I’m not here, rip open the seams and you can live off that money until I come home or you can get a job.”

Sure enough, one day in March 1942, Ray came home from high school to find the house empty, his father Kunitomo nowhere to be found. Then, within three weeks, Ray himself was forced to leave San Diego and join 120,000 other Americans of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast, to eventually live in so-called “relocation camps” in compliance with Executive Order 9066 signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In reality, these were American-style concentration camps imprisoning both citizens (American-born “Nisei,” second generation like my father) and aliens (foreign-born, first generation “Issei” like my grandfather) without due process for nearly the duration of World War II.

A fortuitous discovery

I know my father Ray was initially taken from San Diego to a temporary facility on the grounds of the Santa Anita racehorse tracks. He told me of living in a converted horse stable that reeked of manure while the larger camps were being built inland. Eventually, Ray was shipped off to live in one of the three Poston, Arizona camps. Since he had no family with him, he had to live in a barracks with middle-aged bachelors. I never learned from my father (who passed away in 2014) where his father was taken after he was arrested in San Diego—other than that Kunitomo ultimately ended up in a Department of Justice prison camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I did recently learn more about Kunitomo through a series of fortuitous coincidences. In April, I saw an exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum about the Tuna Canyon Detention Station. Tuna Canyon was located in the Tujunga area of Los Angeles and was a temporary facility used in World War II to house mostly Japanese immigrants but also some Italian and German immigrants who the government believed were immediate threats to public safety. It suddenly dawned on me that perhaps my grandfather had been detained at Tuna Canyon and this was confirmed when I saw Kunitomo’s name on an “Honor Roll” listing each Tuna Canyon detainee.

My post about this discovery was seen by my Facebook friend June Aochi Berk, who then gave Kunitomo’s name to Russell Endo, a retired University of Colorado professor who was conducting research in Washington, D.C. (June and Russell are both leaders of a coalition to keep alive the history of Tuna Canyon.) A few weeks later, Professor Endo began to email me documents about my grandfather that he had found in the National Archives.

The FBI is after my grandfather

The very first document took my breath away: a memo dated February 20, 1942 recommending the issuance of a Presidential Warrant for the arrest of my grandfather, hand-signed by none other than FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Subsequent documents revealed that Kunitomo was arrested on March 19 and detained for a time at Tuna Canyon, before eventually being transferred to Santa Fe. During this process, no charges were ever filed against him. Instead, a hearing was held in Santa Fe, an apparent attempt to comply with the 1929 Geneva Convention, thereby revealing that the government viewed the arrested Japanese aliens as essentially “prisoners of war.” There was no due process and no defense counsel allowed.

FBI Memo advising issuance of a warrant for Kunitomo Mayeda’s arrest a few weeks after Pearl Harbor
FBI Memo advising issuance of a warrant for Kunitomo Mayeda’s arrest a few weeks after Pearl Harbor

The FBI Report used at the hearing detailed the “evidence” against Kunitomo. On the one side was Kunitomo’s speech urging the merger of two Japanese associations in San Diego; that a “Confidential Informant” advised the FBI that a week after Pearl Harbor, “a reliable informant” had reported to the first informant that “someone turned a powerful spotlight onto a high-water tank” during recent blackouts; and that Kunitomo had once given thirty dollars to the “long-term military relief fund” that was sent to Japanese relief ministries in Tokyo. Despite a thorough search of Kunitomo’s home, and translating letters written in Japanese, the FBI turned up nothing that could be used against him. Another section of the report indicates that the caretaker of the aforementioned water tank advised that “the light was not a powerful spotlight but was apparently from an ordinary flashlight” and that it was not on long enough to trace back to the original source, other than to note that Kunitomo’s house was a block away from the water tower.

FBI “evidence” against Kunitomo
FBI “evidence” against Kunitomo

The remainder of the FBI Report contains numerous pieces of exculpatory evidence including that a few days after Pearl Harbor, Kunitomo signed a Loyalty Pledge stating that Japanese aliens residing in Coronado “do hereby pledge our resources, our children and our lives toward a victorious conclusion of the war upon the Axis nations.”

FBI Report noting Kunitomo signed public pledge of loyalty to U.S. shortly after Pearl Harbor
FBI Report noting Kunitomo signed public pledge of loyalty to U.S. shortly after Pearl Harbor

The report also noted that Kunitomo’s oldest son, my uncle Al, had enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly after Pearl Harbor. It also contained excerpts of interviews from the gardening clients of Kunitomo, including a retired Brigadier General who stated that Kunitomo “is a much better American than most American citizens,” and the wife of a current Army commander advised that Kunitomo “has always seemed loyal to the United States.”

FBI Report summarizes interviews with Kunitomo’s gardening clients
FBI Report summarizes interviews with Kunitomo’s gardening clients

Because these hearings were conducted with the reversal of the usual presumption of innocence--the detained “enemy aliens” were presumed to be guilty of complicity with the Japanese enemy unless they could prove their innocence--Kunitomo was held for the duration of the war. My grandfather eventually asked to be repatriated to Japan where he could be with his wife and three of his kids. He knew that this meant separation from and possible estrangement with his two eldest sons but Kunitomo felt he had little choice since he had been imprisoned by the government for years without charges due solely to his race.

Kunitomo Mayeda circa 1969
Kunitomo Mayeda circa 1969

Could it happen again?

In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, officially proclaiming the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 was a “grave injustice…motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” No Japanese American, citizen or alien, was ever convicted of espionage, sabotage, collaboration with the enemy, or similar charge during the war. Conversely, thousands of Japanese American Nisei (including my uncle Al Mayeda) served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 100th Infantry Battalion, or the Military Intelligence Service, proving their loyalty to the United States and suffering tremendous casualties, even as their parents were kept behind barbed wire on American soil.

Could it happen again? Recall that days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush cautioned against targeting American Muslims: “In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.” Can anyone have confidence that President Trump’s reaction to a major terrorist attack in the United States by Muslims would elicit a similar measured response? It seems far likelier that his response would veer closer toward World War II-era curfew and internment orders to “keep America safe” than toward restraint and adherence to the Bill of Rights. After all, President Trump recently pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt related to racially profiling Latinxs in violation of their civil rights.

If an effort were made to register, imprison and/or conduct surveillance of Muslim Americans, our WWII experience teaches that even mundane activities such as studying Arabic, exchanging letters with Middle East relatives, being a mosque leader, or maintaining cultural traditions could be deemed suspicious and trigger reporting from anonymous “informants.” In such event, our political leaders should listen to Americans of Japanese ancestry who have personal experience with the dangers of racial prejudice and wartime hysteria. Our family stories contain profound lessons that must be retold to safeguard the constitutional liberties of all Americans.

Ray Mayeda in 2011 holding the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to his brother Al for serving in U.S. Army during WWII
Ray Mayeda in 2011 holding the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to his brother Al for serving in U.S. Army during WWII
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
CONVERSATIONS