We knew we weren't the enemy

A familiar knot of anxiety over post-9/11 civil liberties issues shows a nisei how far America has come - and still has to go.

Human rights can be a fragile victim in a nation's zeal to battle an enemy. We Japanese-Americans learned firsthand how, once lost, individual justice is painfully difficult to regain.

So it is that with every news story about Americans hashing through their uneasy post-9/11 relationship to all things with an "Arab face" - from the outright abuses at Abu Ghraib to the detentions without charge of "enemy combatants" at Guantánamo, to the lingering suspicions on America's Main Streets - I'm reminded of what it was like to be an "American with a Japanese face" during World War II.

It was 61 years ago that this newspaper published my account of being a nisei (second generation Japanese-American), born in Seattle, college educated - senior class president at Whitman College - and forced to relocate to a resettlement camp surrounded by barbed wire.

"An American with a Japanese face," as it was headlined, was written 17 months after Pearl Harbor. Though it was cast in the controlled tone of the budding journalist I was, I read it now and recognize all the elements of fear, suspicion, and outrage contained in today's stories of post-9/11 prejudices and injustices. Likewise, I see in it a good bit of the human kindness that peeked through the troubles of the time then - as they often do today. (The article can be read at www.csmonitor.com/hosokawa.)

The 9/11 commission - which heard testimony about the security backlash Japanese-Americans suffered in World War II - touched briefly on the conundrum of security vs. civil liberties in its final report last week: "Our history has shown us that insecurity threatens liberty. Yet, if our liberties are curtailed, we lose the values that we are struggling to defend."

Indeed, this is nothing new. But my own experience is an example of the difficult trial and error - and eventual adjustments - America, under its remarkable Constitution, is capable of.

My article told of the beginning of a fascinating, circuitous, ultimately rewarding American journey through bad times and good - from the warmth of my parents' modest Seattle home to the comfortable house alongside an Orlando area golf course where I write today. As well as my life turned out and as enjoyable and carefree as my retirement years have been, today, the shadow of world hostilities and the way they play out in our American experience troubles me.

The tragedies of 9/11, like Pearl Harbor, have triggered shock and anger. And the resulting war has created hatreds and suffering that will affect us for a long time. As civil rights controversies mount in our "war on terror," I feel that old knot of worry I once knew: Being perceived as an enemy by my own, beloved country.

More than 100,000 Japanese-Americans (citizens and aliens alike) on the West Coast were forced into relocation camps in 1942 because the Roosevelt administration - in the fearful haste of war - deemed us a military threat. We were charged with no crime and denied due process and equal protection out of racist motives. That's clear today. It was not fair. But it was a different time.

The lessons of the past - that a foreign face does not always equate with danger - ought to give Americans today the courage to safeguard freedoms and the wisdom to protect the rights of all who are affected by hostilities of the moment.

Being an "American with a Japanese face" in 1942 was probably emotionally a lot like what people with an "Arab face" feel in America today. All told, I was incarcerated for 10 months and, after release, not allowed to return to the West for two years.

Our family's journey started humbly 100 years ago when my father, a scared 15-year-old Japanese peasant, staggered off a creaky ship at a West Coast port after a month at sea. He'd left home naively hoping to make his fortune as a contract laborer on a railroad construction crew in the western desert. Of course, he never made his stake and didn't return to Japan. Like many other young immigrants, he worked a few menial jobs, liked America, and sent for a picture bride. They settled in Seattle, where their two sons were born.

My role in the placid generational journey took a devastating jolt with Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The brew of suspicion and fear started soon after as West Coast Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to camps. By May, my family - along with 6,000 other bewildered, apprehensive Japanese-Americans from Seattle - was interned at the Puyallup, Wash. fairgrounds.

When the government had announced the mass evacuation some weeks earlier, we were immediately placed on curfew and limited in our movement. We had tried to picture the incarceration - dreading it, despising it, denying it, and finally resignedly awaiting it. We knew we weren't the enemy, and the vast majority of us who did not resist told ourselves that if our government decreed that we be interned, then we must comply as our contribution to the war effort.

The reality of internment was even worse than feared. We all take freedom for granted. There was a frightening desperation that pierced my innards as we were loaded on buses for the 90-minute ride to Puyallup.

My bride, Yoshi, and I held hands tightly as the caravan headed south. She'd dropped out of college so we could be together in whatever our internment would bring.

How would it be behind barbed-wire walls, under watchtowers, living in one bare room per family? Not easy. One June evening, Yoshi and I walked up the steep steps of the fairgrounds grandstand. From the top section we could see the green fields and the wooded hills beyond, soft and lush in the sweet summer dusk. We gazed silently at the countryside - so close and yet out of reach. But as tears ran down our cheeks, we could look no longer. We retreated to our sparse quarters near the livestock pavilion.

The summer was long, but we adjusted as best we could. I was on the recreation staff and planned the limited activities we were allowed. Yoshi worked as a librarian. And in August, the Seattle-area residents were transferred to a camp in a barren reclamation area near Jerome, Idaho. Elementary and high school classes were started. Residents staffed a camp hospital. We even published a mimeographed camp newsletter called the Irrigator. We were coping.

A few months later, word came that those who could pass security and find employment away from the West Coast would be released. And the government reopened military service for nisei volunteers. Americans would learn of heroic young Japanese-Americans who fought in Europe and the Pacific after having volunteered from behind barbed wire. Their wartime service to prove their devotion to the US is a glorious chapter that aided immensely in postwar integration of Americans with Japanese faces.

Yoshi and I knew we must seek release from the Minidoka Relocation Center, go inland, and rebuild our lives. She was several months pregnant, and we didn't want our firstborn to join us in internment.

With prodigious help from Prof. Tom Howells, my journalism adviser at Whitman College, we found a small Missouri weekly newspaper willing to give me an opportunity, sight unseen. So we cleared security and, leaving our worried parents, started a new life in aptly named Independence, Mo.

"The pavement is wet this morning," I wrote in that 1943 Monitor article, "glistening like diamonds where the sunlight falls across it. It is good to be out, walking past houses with neat lawns, flowering tulips and greening hedges. It is good to have somewhere to go in the morning, a place to work, and in the evening somewhere to return ....

"It has not been without interesting episodes. Three subscriptions out of 3,700 were canceled when residents heard of my boss's negotiations to employ a 'Jap rat.' One church had a stormy session ... of elders because a suggestion had been made to invite me and my wife to worship there ... and two war plant workers walked out of a restaurant because I was being served.

"On the other hand, people have gone out of their way to be kind. We have been invited to homes for dinner, and we have attended church and concerts with new friends. People have been interested and friendly enough to stop and talk with us ... on the street."

Friends and neighbors were as delighted as we with the birth of David, who we like to say "was conceived in a wartime concentration camp and born in Independence."

After two pleasant years on my first news job, the Des Moines Register hired me, and with some misgivings we moved on. When World War II ended, I won a journalism fellowship at the University of Wisconsin. In the years following, Yoshi and I lived in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Florida as I pursued professional opportunities in academics, newspapers, and public relations.

Our world changes, but the idea of locking up groups of people does not necessarily. Some time ago, a friend got me involved in speaking to young jail inmates. I urged them to take advantage of their time - wherever it is. But I found that what moved them most was the fact that anyone actually was interested in them - just as people were in us in Independence, Mo.

Despite our current war concerns, I'm hopeful that our diverse society will progress - if painfully sometimes - toward understanding and valuing human rights and safeguarding justice for all.

On my family's long journey there were countless individuals who were kind and helpful without whom our lives would have been drastically difficult.

How far we have traveled. The children and grandchildren - even great-grandchildren - of those young interned Americans now enjoy the blessings of our diverse society. Their progress is a credit to them, but even more to a society that once incarcerated their forebears.

My Japanese face becomes less noticeable, and the younger generations blend more and more into their communities and an ever-evolving America. I hope someday that America's Arab faces will enjoy similar blessings.

Robert Hosokawa is a retired journalist who plays golf and likes to putter on the golf course looking for lost balls and good oranges that have dropped from the trees. His wife, Yoshi, passed away in 1998.

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