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Japanese-American families are seen in April 1942 in Lone Pine, California. They are headed north to the Manzanar internment camp. Photo by Clem Albers. Source: Library of Congress

Equal Voice

A Japanese-American Family and Standing for Justice

February 27, 2019

By Kelly Osajima

Kelly Osajima looks at the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the movement for social justice and human rights in the U.S. She is a former staff member for Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles.

My friends are often stunned when they find out that my dad was one of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans incarcerated in concentration camps on the West Coast during World War II. It feels like the internment happened such a long time ago, they say.

For most people, Executive Order 9066 and all the trauma that followed was nothing more than a two-paragraph mention in their high school history textbook. For my dad, my grandparents and so many others, it was a life-altering experience. He was only 5 years old when Pearl Harbor happened, and our president decided he was enough of a threat to the U.S. to make him leave behind everything he knew for a prison out in the desert for two and a half years.

This moment (now) calls for each of us to look deep inside ourselves and ask what comforts we are willing to sacrifice for freedom.

When he returned, he had to live in a church because his family had doors repeatedly shut in their faces when they tried to rent an apartment. They were left with nothing. He was traumatized for years.

Even though all of this happened to my dad, it felt fairly abstract to me. I’m fourth-generation Japanese-American (J.A.), or as I tell my Asian-American friends with immigrant parents, I’m like your children’s children.

The struggle and success of our grandparents and parents meant that similar to other fourth-generation Yonsei, I grew up in a comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle, reaping all the benefits of all the J.A. institutions our community created out of necessity. I went to Buddhist church in Anaheim, California with all my friends, played in J.A. basketball leagues and participated in J.A. Girl Scouts. I went to school in Yorba Linda, one of the richest cities in the U.S.

Growing up in a bubble of privilege, it was easy to believe that our country’s racist actions were confined to a faraway past. It was easy for us Yonsei to be complacent and apolitical. I encountered racist kids, of course, but my understanding of racism was limited to interactions between individuals.

Japanese American internment, San Francisco, students, civil rights, Dorothea Lange, justice, Library of Congress, Marguerite Casey Foundation, families, Asian Americans Advancing Justice Los Angeles, World War II, photojournalism, photography, Equal Voice, Executive Order 9066
Public school students in San Francisco are seen in April 1942. Some of the students are Japanese-Americans, who would be sent to internment camps. Photo by Dorothea Lange. Source: Library of Congress

It took me a very long time to realize that systemic racism is still in fact very much a reality. It is embedded in our political system, our economic system, our courts, our schools, our prisons. And now that the world has turned upside down and our federal government is citing Japanese-American incarceration as grounds for creating a Muslim registry, others in my community are also starting to reckon with the fact that maybe what happened to us is not as far removed as we wish to believe.

In the wake of this new administration, I’ve been thinking hard about where I, as a fourth-generation Japanese-American, fit into the movement for social justice. And that means I’ve had to remind myself of some ugly truths.

The ugly truth is that I’ve been so insulated against racism only because we, as Asian-Americans, have been deemed as hardworking, submissive, loyal and labeled a “model minority” – as if there were a “bad” or “good” minority. The label benefits me in many ways: I am not typically seen as a threat, and thus, I navigate through our institutions with ease.

It’s so tempting to be complacent in the status quo. But the truth is, as long as white supremacy stands, our stability and success as Asian-Americans are conditional. All it takes is another Pearl Harbor for racism to be redirected toward J.A.s.

This moment calls for each of us to look deep inside ourselves and ask what comforts we are willing to sacrifice for freedom. Will we join the protests when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) drags undocumented immigrants out of their homes the way we were once dragged out of ours? Or will we stay silent? Will we speak out against rising racism and xenophobia, which once devastated our own community? Or will we turn a blind eye?

Our potential as Japanese-Americans in the movement for social justice is unlimited. We should stand in solidarity with our fellow communities of color despite the many benefits our model minority status gives us. And we can do it: we’re one of the most well-organized and well-resourced communities out there, with strong institutions and economic resources to boot. Imagine if we headed over to lobby our elected officials’ offices after church every Sunday, or trained all of our Girl Scout troops in direct action organizing, or got a march together through our basketball networks. We would make a difference.

So, on the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, at a time when immigrants, people of color and LGBTQ folks are under severe attack, I’m going to honor my dad and my community’s struggle by fighting for justice – for everyone. Because I want to live in a world that values all of our lives equally. Do you?


Kelly Osajima is the former voter engagement manager for Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles. This essay is reprinted with permission.

A Japanese-American Family and Standing for Justice