Seventy-five years ago on Wednesday, the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II and subsequently ushered in the nuclear age.
It also prompted the U.S. to round up about 120,000 people ― most of them American citizens ― and throw them in prison camps because of their ancestry.
Today, Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated during World War II are speaking out about how that dark time is especially relevant in the age of President-elect Donald Trump.
Trump suggested the idea of creating a Muslim registry or database during his campaign for the Oval Office, saying it would be possible through “good management.” Then, a Trump surrogate brought up the wartime incarceration of Japanese-Americans as a “precedent” for creating such a registry.
Though the remarks were widely condemned, Trump had already suggested that he might have supported imprisoning people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Indeed, Trump’s presidential campaign and victory has energized a base of Americans who support racist policies and ideologies.
New York-based survivors Suki Terada Ports, Teddy Yoshikami and Madeleine Sugimoto see echoes of the past in today’s increasingly harsh attitudes toward immigrants and minorities, and they don’t want the country to forget the lessons from their imprisonment. Here’s what they have to say in response to proposals like a Muslim registry and other acts of bigotry and hate:
Madeleine Sugimoto was 6 years old when she was sent to a prison camp in 1942. Gathered in an assembly hall near her family’s home in central California before they were incarcerated, she thought she was there for a picnic.
After a bit of time in the hall, she told her parents she was getting tired. It was only later that she understood they were going to be imprisoned because of their Japanese ethnicity, she explained to The Huffington Post.
“I’m having a really good time, but I’m getting ready to go home,” Sugimoto recalled telling her family. “And it turned out that we weren’t to go home. This was the beginning of our experience of being incarcerated. And so what turned out to be what I thought was a picnic … turned out to be the beginning of our incarceration.”
And so what turned out to be what I thought was a picnic … turned out to be the beginning of our incarceration.”
Sugimoto said she’d later learn that following the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was deep mistrust of Japanese-American people.
“It was considered that we were ‘enemy aliens’ even though we weren’t in the United States as a group. The suspicions were such that we couldn’t be trusted; therefore, we went into the concentration camps. Not that anything had happened to indicate we were not to be trusted.”
She also pointed out that two-thirds of the camp’s prisoners were U.S. citizens.
Sugimoto said anti-Muslim discrimination and recent talk of measures such as a Muslim registry are causing “reverberation and remembrance” for her.
“When they were talking about ‘rounding them up,’ that’s exactly the term that was used for us, in putting us into the camps,” she said. “It’s very difficult for the Muslims, because they’re experiencing kinds of hate and suspicion that was something that we experienced during World War II.”
(Audiogram above): Madeleine Sugimoto discusses prejudice toward Japanese-Americans in the above clip, which also features her father’s artwork illustrating his prison camp experience.
Sugimoto’s family was incarcerated in Arkansas and eventually moved to a camp that was barricaded by barbed wire. She described the housing as similar to Army barracks, made out of wood and covered in tar paper.
She says she feels lucky that as a child, she was unaware of the realities her family faced. Instead, she looks back on her artist father Henry Sugimoto’s paintings, like the one he created of a Japanese-American child running after her father as the FBI takes him away for questioning.
Her father also painted Sugimoto wearing a name tag with an assigned number, illustrating how the government basically reduced each family to a numerical identity.
Following the war ― and after the government found no cause to worry about Japanese-Americans ― camp survivors were given $25 to start a new life, Sugimoto said. Her family went to New York and didn’t face many problems readjusting, but other families weren’t welcomed so easily, she explained. “Some people didn’t want to see the Japanese return again.”
It’s very difficult for the Muslims, because they’re experiencing kinds of hate and suspicion that was something that we experienced during World War II. Madeleine Sugimoto
Sugimoto says she wants to implore the government and the rest of the country to be more open-minded after this year’s election. “Try to be accepting and affirming of our individual differences.”
Asian-Americans should speak out about their experiences and on behalf of disenfranchised groups when they can, she said ― even though members of the older generation can be understandably hesitant.
“It’s their culture to be quiet in what they believe and not try to disrupt everything,” Sugimoto said. “It’s probably the young people that will help to change the way they approach things that they don’t agree with.”
Teddy Yoshikami was born in the Tule Lake Segregation Center in California. Though she doesn’t remember much of her time in the prison camp, she describes her birth certificate as a small piece of Tule Lake ― a symbol of the way people of Japanese ancestry were treated during that time.
“When I saw my birth certificate ― it doesn’t even look like a birth certificate,” she said. “There’s no footprint or handprint or thumbprint ― anything on it. It just says I was born in Tule Lake ... I even got a second-class, third-class birth certificate.”
Tule Lake was the largest prison camp the U.S. government established for Japanese-Americans, and it serves as an example of what can happen when a group is unjustly marked as a security risk.
(Audiogram above): Teddy Yoshikami discusses the historical context behind Japanese-American incarceration in the above clip, which also features photos of prisoners at the time.
As the War went on, the camp was reclassified as a “segregation center” reserved for Japanese-Americans who were labeled “disloyal,” based on their responses to a controversial loyalty questionnaire that was meant to categorize adult prisoners.
The targeting of Muslims today is something Japanese-Americans understand all too well. And that’s why Yoshikami, who fears that history could repeat itself, adamantly opposes the creation of a Muslim registry and other Islamophobic acts.
“It was all based on race hysteria, xenophobia in the past, and you don’t want that to repeat again. But that’s what’s being encouraged at this point, and that’s not what America stands for.” Teddy Yoshikami
“All that is absurd,” Yoshikami told HuffPost. “It was all based on race hysteria, xenophobia in the past, and you don’t want that to repeat again. But that’s what’s being encouraged at this point, and that’s not what America stands for.”
Yoshikami remains unsure of the country’s future, but believes in the power of knowledge and taking a stand against further bigotry. After all, discrimination takes an emotional toll that lasts long after an act of hatred is committed.
“The effect on our community was really very difficult, and it has taken me almost my whole lifetime to understand what happened, to figure out why people did what they did,” she said.
Suki Terada Ports
After the Pearl Harbor attacks, authorities put Suki Terada Ports’ mother under house arrest until the end of World War II. Ports said the political climate ended up having a profound effect on her family, though she was too young to understand why at the time.
After the FBI questioned their neighbors about the family’s use of window shades and whether they spoke in Japanese, Ports’ mother got rid of all their apartment’s shades and burned old photos that provided evidence of visits to Japan. Ports mentioned her parents also stopped speaking Japanese to their children in an effort to prove their loyalty to the U.S.
Ports’ mother was also unable to live the free life others did. She had to call the FBI any time she wanted to leave the apartment. Leaving the island of Manhattan was out of question.
“My mother on house arrest understood what it meant to have your liberty limited,” Ports said. “I don’t know how many times a day she picked up the phone.”
Witnessing both her mother’s loss of civil liberties and the xenophobic, anti-Japanese sentiment of the time, Ports understands the consequences of discrimination. And she believes that any support for a Muslim registry stems from a lack of knowledge.
“When somebody says we’re going to incarcerate or register all the Muslims, they don’t really know what it means,” Ports told HuffPost, describing the Islamophobic rhetoric surrounding the recent presidential election. “I think part of this ignorance is being shown in the hate crimes ... People have been given a green light to be hateful.”
“There are very few Asians [involved in politics] because we have been taught not to speak out, not to make noise.” Suki Terada Ports
This kind of discrimination has lingering effects, Ports warns. Japanese-Americans’ fears of seeming disloyal to the U.S. led many to believe it was safer to blend in, stay “invisible” and refrain from being politically active, she said.
“There are very few Asians [involved in politics] because we have been taught not to speak out, not to make noise,” she added.
However, seeing the uptick in acts of hatred and increasing Islamophobia, Ports says it’s more important than ever to speak up. She urges people to be proactive and call their representatives so that the injustices Japanese-Americans suffered don’t afflict Muslims today.
“Muslims are here and they have come to the U.S. because we’ve said that we’re a democracy, we’ve said we welcome people,” she said. “And we’ve got to live up to that.”
(Audiogram above): Suki Ports discusses the discrimination her family faced during World War II in the above clip, which also shows propaganda images depicting anti-Japanese sentiment.
Supervising Producer: Teresa Kim
Producers: Omar Kasrawi and Sharaf Mowjood
Editor: Terence Krey
Associate Producers: Erika LaRose and Dzana Ashworth
Fellow: Ishika Gupta
Cameras: Dan Fox, Shane Handler, and Artem Golub
Audiogram Producer: Damon Scheleur