The anniversary of Executive Order 9066 (1942), February 19, drew extra attention this year because of No. 45’s executive order on immigration and refugees. Since US legislators, executives, and judges are determined to reopen so many of the 20th Century’s civil rights debates, it makes sense to take a new look at the laws, rules, and rhetoric around the scapegoating, marginalization, exclusion, and detention of Japanese people, Japanese-Americans, and others swept up in the 1940s interment orders.
In the classic anthology This Bridge Called My Back, Mitsuye Yamada takes two essays to discuss how other communities diminish or outright ignore Asian Pacific women’s political and social contributions. In the first essay, she describes this as an “unnatural disaster” in which people overwrite actual Asian Americans with enduring stereotypes about passivity and submission. She also reflects on how her own responses to racism and stereotyping may have played into that dynamic:
I did not think anything assertive was necessary to make my point. People who know me, I reasoned, the ones who count, know who I am and what I think. Thus, even when what I considered a veiled racist remark was made in a casual social setting, I would ‘let it go’ because it was pointless to argue with people who didn’t even know their remark was racist. I had supposed that I was practicing passive resistance while being stereotyped, but it was so passive no one noticed I was resisting; it was so much my expected role that it ultimately rendered me invisible.” —Mitsuye Yamada
In the second essay, “Asian Pacific American Women and Feminism,” Yamada alludes to but curiously does not name Mitsuye Endo, the only women among four Japanese Americans to sue the US government over EO 9066. Endo was also the only plaintiff of those four to win her release, and the government changed its policy on the eve of the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling.
“No matter what we say or do,” Yamada writes, “the stereotype still hangs on. I am weary of starting from scratch each time I speak or write, as if there were no history behind us.”
There’s a lot of history behind us, behind Asian Pacific women specifically and behind all of us working in solidarity with one another today.
On reading about Mitsuye Endo, Fred Korematsu, Minoru Yasui, and Gordon Hirabayashi, I noticed the basis on which each one was “selected” to serve as plaintiffs in these test cases.
Endo was a US citizen, a state civil servant, and second-generation Japanese-American who didn’t speak Japanese and had been fired with other Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. Because of her job and her cultural distance from Japan, the US designated her “loyal” and safe enough to elevate.
Korematsu was also a second-generation Japanese-American who was engaged to a White American woman and apolitical at the time of the EO: he dodged the evacuation order to stay with his fiancee.
Yasui was an attorney and US citizen who didn’t want to be treated as non-citizens were: he accepted the government’s categories and application of rights but didn’t want to be on the wrong side of those categories.
And Hirabayashi was a Christian pacifist who objected to the military justifications for the order: he was a plaintiff of conscience, which is something the United States has often grudgingly respected.
But none of these markers of respectability saved any of them. They weren’t left out of detention just because they were easy for White America to interpret and understand. Endo was the lone successful plaintiff among these four and even she stayed detained at Tula Lake, California, and then at a camp Topaz, Utah, through 1945. (The Tula Lake concentration camp is the same one that the government sent George Takei and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita to. Morita later starred as Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid.)
Sometimes the moral high ground in a hostile society is less solid rock and more a trashy canoe in a sea storm: you can be afloat in the water, barely, and you still get rained on. There was no safety for these four plaintiffs in being comprehensible to society when their society was determined to demonize them. And 70 years later, it’s still hard to be heard over the din of stereotypes and suspicion.
Sharing this history this anniversary week is a way to be sober about that reality, and with the federal government planning a new version of its immigration/refugee orders, we need to stay alert.