This past Sunday, February 19, marked the 75th anniversary of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which cleared the legal path for the forcible removal and incarceration of the Japanese- American community on the West Coast under the pretense of protecting the country “against espionage and against sabotage.”
Though this history can feel distant, it reverberates for us on the UW Tacoma campus, which sits just south of the former location of the Nihonmachi (Japan Town). This community was scattered during World War II and later saw physical demolition in the 1960s under the project of urban renewal.
In commemoration, local historians Tamiko Nimura and Michael Sullivan led a walking tour of the neighborhood. The tour started at the iconic UW Tacoma “W,” tracing the ghosts of this once-thriving community by highlighting the now-demolished Japanese language school, wood-framed boarding houses, and single-family homes that once dotted the Hillside. Stops included the Buddhist temple — still standing and active — and the Japanese Methodist Episcopal church, which now serves as the Whitney art building.
But the vacant lots throughout our neighborhood and the physical landscape we see today is the direct result of the incarceration of Japanese — over 120,000 across the West Coast — and over 1,000 families from Tacoma and the Fife valley. After incarceration – facing discrimination, a dispersed community, and lost homes and businesses – few families returned.
Following the walking tour, a new play and panel discussion at the Broadway Center highlighted the contemporary relevance of this anniversary and asked the audience to consider the ongoing struggles for civil rights. “Nihonjin Face,” written by Janet Hayakawa and Tere Martinez, has been toured to schools throughout the state, reaching over 14,000 young people. Set in Tacoma, it stretches across decades to emphasize the intersectionalities of the Japanese-American, African-American, Latinx, and other communities’ struggles for racial justice.
In a discussion following the play, several panelists noted the timeliness of this conversation. They connected the Japanese-American experience to the contemporary Muslim-American experience, discussing the process of racialization: an imposed “othering” of a particular group, often to justify unfair treatment, discrimination, or a denial of civil rights. Racialization is often a necessary precondition for defining a group as less than human.
While it is tempting to see the incarceration of the Japanese as a historical accident, in the early 1940s, the fomentation of fear created the social and political environment that made the imprisonment not only possible but also politically expeditious. Instead of viewing this historical moment as an accident, we ought to consider it a grave mistake never to be repeated. When we learn of the incarceration of an entire community based solely on race — and what the 1988 Civil Liberties Act acknowledged was “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” — we ought to sit up, pay attention, and say “never again.”
At the end of the play, the performers ask young people a simple question: Rights protect us, but who protects our rights?
This question is not distant. We, on the UW Tacoma campus, walk every day through a landscape marred by this violation of basic civil rights. To acknowledge this injustice is more than an act of remembrance, although remembering is a necessary first step. In the face of contemporary efforts to again erode the rights of immigrants and ethnic communities based on hysteria and fear-mongering, recognizing our plural identities as part of our common humanity is a radical act of solidarity.