Editors’ note: This is part of our series on the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed on Feb. 19, 1942.
Within hours of the Japanese empire’s attack on Pearl Harbor, my grandmother Chiye Higuchi scoured her family’s farmhouse in San Jose searching for anything that smacked of her native Japan. Pictures of Emperor Hirohito, old newspapers with Japanese writing, and knick-knacks were cast into the fireplace to avoid creating suspicion.
It wasn’t enough. The loyalties of the Higuchi family, like those of my mother’s family, the Saitos, in San Francisco, and of 120,000 other people of Japanese descent on the West Coast, were immediately suspect.
By Feb. 19, 1942, their fate was cast. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 (EO 9066) that day, my grandparents, parents and their families were consigned to live in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, one of ten concentration camps located from California to Arkansas.
They lost everything.
Their incarceration was not simply a reaction amid wartime hysteria. The Japanese American incarceration placed an exclamation mark on decades of racism that brewed since the first Asian immigrants came to the United States just before the discovery of gold in California in 1849.
The Chinese came first to work in the gold fields in California’s Eastern Sierras and in the valley near Sacramento. In the 1860s, more than 11,000 Chinese workers were hired to build the transcontinental railroad, completed on May 10, 1869.
The law did not stop a growing nation’s demand for cheap labor, so businesses turned to Japan. Labor contractors scoured the country for men willing to leave home to work on Hawaii’s pineapple and sugar plantations or in mines or on railroads on the mainland.
Soon, the cycle began again. Japanese immigrants, white politicians and newspapers said, could never assimilate. They brought disease. They competed unfairly in business.
States such as California passed laws that banned immigrants from owning property. Two of my uncles, native-born Californians not old enough to drive, were the actual owners of the Higuchis’ 14.25-acre farm in San Jose.
Congress repeated what it had done in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act with a highly restrictive immigration law in 1924 that banned all Asian immigration.
By the time of the signing of EO 9066, racism against Asians, as well as other racial and ethnic minorities, was well established. It was woven into U.S. law.
We know all of this because the government meticulously documented each step. Census records from 1940 were used to locate where Japanese American families lived, although the government would spend the next years lying about it.
Prominent photographers such as Dorothea Lange were hired by the government to document the expulsion of Japanese Americans. So grim were these photographs that the government locked them away for more than 20 years.
FBI agents rounded up community leaders and held them in a separate series of camps, claiming these men were security risks. A congressionally authorized commission in the early 1980s proved the allegations about security were never true.
These false accusations often focused on the location of Japanese American farms. Many were on marginal land near military installations, power plants, and railroads that Caucasian farmers believed could not be farmed until Japanese Americans showed they were wrong. My father’s family was forced to sell its farm for just pennies on the dollar, as were most other Japanese Americans.
Incarceration of Japanese Americans also intersected with other forms of discrimination and expropriation in U.S. history. People incarcerated under EO 9066 – who also included Native Alaskans – were confined to camps on occupied Indigenous land.
Now, politicians seeking to sanitize the racist aspects of U.S. and world history are pushing to limit how schools teach students and to ban the books they can read.
New Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin created a secret “tip line” for citizens to report “inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory,” a debate among legal scholars about the historic effects of racism that is not taught in any Virginia schools. Virginia teachers have called the tip line an attempt to sanitize the teaching of racism, something that Virginia, with its “massive resistance” policy to desegregation, knows plenty about.
In January, the school board in McMinn County, Tennessee, removed Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, from the eighth-grade curriculum, saying it contained some “rough, objectionable” language. Author Art Spiegelman said the language was rough because the slaughter of 6 million Jews is “disturbing history.”
There are few nice ways to describe the wholesale mistreatment of large groups of people. Within the mass shame of the Japanese American incarceration are thousands of individual horrors — the death of a baby choking on the dust of windswept prairie, a grandfather dying of mistreated cancer in a hospital prison camp or the unprovoked shooting of an unarmed prisoner.
These stories combine to make up the history of what happened to my families and thousands of other Japanese Americans, just as the starvations, systematic murders by gas, and deaths from disease are part of the Holocaust.
They can’t be explained away by only citing the stories of acts of kindness by white people who watched over Japanese American farms while their owners were imprisoned or the handful of Germans who hid Jewish families during the Holocaust. Those examples should be celebrated for what we should all aspire to, but they can never substitute for the truth of the horror of which people are capable.
That’s why the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which I chair, is dedicated to telling the accurate history of the Japanese American incarceration and putting it in context with the treatment of other marginalized groups, such as Native Americans, African Americans, and other Asian Americans.
We do this in one of the nation’s most conservative states with the steadfast support of the local community. Our work would not be possible without the help of our neighbors, the majority of them Caucasian. We don’t blame them for what happened on the high desert plains of Wyoming 80 years ago, but we don’t shy away from telling the real history.
Our work has been backed by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and we have brought dozens of teachers from around the country to learn about the incarceration and the history of racism toward Asian immigrants and Native Americans.
We are encouraged by Illinois and New Jersey, which have added new requirements to teach Asian American history in their public schools, and the growing number of schools around the country who are adding these topics to their curricula voluntarily.
They are coming to terms with our nation’s complicated history, which shows how a great nation can often be built on the suffering of many people, particularly those who look different than the majority.
The effects of this history are not confined to books. The remaining incarcerees and their families deal with the long-term mental health trauma of the incarceration today. My generation never knew the details of what our parents and grandparents experienced, because they never talked about it. My mother, Setsuko Saito Higuchi, called Heart Mountain a place of love, because that is where she met my father. Only after her death did I realize the trauma she experienced and how her coping mechanisms affected me and my brothers.
I titled my book about the Japanese American incarceration Setsuko’s Secret for that very reason.
That secret left her suspicious of strangers and obsessed with controlling her family and environment. She bought and sold multiple homes, always seeking to recreate the home in San Francisco that was stripped from her family.
I recognize some of her traits in myself. It has taken years for me to realize how and why they exist.
The United States continues to live with the effects of its long history of anti-Asian racism, including in the intergenerational trauma that many people carry and in the anti-Asian American violence that continues today.
That is why I remain committed to the continuing exploration of history backed by primary sources and rigorous examination of the facts. This is the mission that our foundation works each day to complete, and we will not let those who want to sanitize American history obscure what happened 80 years ago – or its continuing lessons for the United States today.