50 Years Ago, a Hard-Won Step on the Path to Freedom
MANZANAR ... The name means Apple Orchard, and though the valley floor is parched today, a few stunted apple trees still bloom each spring. Here, in the Owens Valley 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles, a different kind of life bloomed 50 years ago when rows of wooden barracks went up to house more than 10,000 ethnic Japanese. The barracks-dwellers, 70 percent of whom were American citizens, had been forcibly "relocated" by an executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942.
"Above, the snow-crowned mountains; below, the desert's hot breath," wrote Minoru Hori in a poem commemorating his internment. Mr. Hori, a Japanese citizen at the time of Pearl Harbor, was arrested the day after Pearl Harbor and wound up with his family in Manzanar after a period spent in a camp for enemy aliens in Missoula, Mont.
"Shikataganai - it couldn't be helped," says Hori of his internment. Although he had been in the United States since the early 1920s, he was Japan-born and therefore ineligible for American citizenship. (Asians were not given the right to become citizens until after World War II. The first US nationality law, passed in 1790, restricted citizenship to "free white" persons. After the Civil War, blacks became eligible, but not other nonwhites.)
"Shikataganai" was also Frank Emi's sentiment when he was interned with his wife and baby daughter, although Frank, being American-born, was a citizen. Mr. Emi's place of exile was Heart Mountain in Wyoming, and if he hadn't come across a Japanese-American lawyer who gave evening lectures on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, he might have spent his camp years without protest.
These lectures convinced Emi that internment violated his rights as an American citizen. When camp authorities passed around questionnaires asking whether inmates would be willing to bear arms for the US, most Japanese-Americans answered in the affirmative. An all-volunteer force, the 442nd regimental combat team, was formed and became one of the most decorated units in World War II, suffering huge casualties in Europe.
But Emi and a small core of Japanese-Americans refused, so long as their families were held in camp. When the draft was reinstated for Japanese-Americans (at first they were classified as enemy aliens, despite their citizenship), Emi and his friends were tried for incitement to evade military service. Convicted, they were sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary.
"Our morale was very high," Emi recalled recently, "because we went there for a principle."
When the war ended, Emi was still in prison. But soon thereafter his conviction was overturned by a federal Court of Appeals. "They gave us $25 and a cheap new suit, and we came back to Los Angeles by train." Frank worked for many years in the US Postal Service, and after retirement keeps fit by teaching judo, in which he holds a master's certificate.
Some of Frank's fellow-inmates went to war and came back decorated heroes. Frank's struggle was different from theirs, but it began with awareness of the same principles for which they fought.
Americans have boldly stated ideals, like miners who have staked a claim without being certain of the riches that lie underground. The gap between ideals and reality makes the country vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. When the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were framed, Africans were slaves; women had few civil rights; nonwhites could not become citizens.
Yet step by step, across the years, men and women fought, sometimes with sweat and tears, sometimes with blood, to realize the ideals enshrined in their country's founding documents.
The struggle Frank Emi and some of his friends began in Heart Mountain was part of that process. After the war, Japanese-Americans engaged in a long campaign for redress and reparation, which finally bore fruit two years ago when survivors were awarded $20,000 each and an apology.
A haunting question remains: Could Manzanar, Heart Mountain, and the other camps reappear in a comparable outbreak of hysteria? Never, say some; perhaps, say others. Both sides agree on one thing: America's ideals are both a shining hope and a relentless taskmaster. Each hard-won step on the path to freedom and equality opens the horizon to new needs.