It was 75 years ago that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that forced Americans of Japanese descent into detention camps. They were falsely believed to be threats to American security in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Nearly 120,000 people ended up in those camps.
In 1980, a Congressional commission found that the internment was unjust and driven by racism. But the scars remain for survivors of the camps and their descendants.
To mark the 75th anniversary of Roosevelt’s executive order, the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles has a new exhibit called “Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066.” The show includes original documents, photographs and letters from this dark chapter of American history, along with new artworks inspired by the incident.
The Frame's host John Horn recently toured the exhibit with curator Clement Hanami. Here are excerpts from their conversation:
HORN: What were you looking for in terms of putting together the show?
HANAMI: We knew that this was going to be a big one because the 75th is a very special anniversary. Knowing that this was coming up, we put a very strong effort into how to present this. And it just happens to line up with an interesting administration in the White House.
HORN: As you are looking for pieces to the exhibition, what are the kinds of things that were most important to present to audiences and visitors — people who may be familiar with the internment and people who may not know that period of U.S. history all that well?
HANAMI: We really wanted to make sure that we emphasized the stories of the Niseis and a lot of the remaining survivors of this experience. It’s important that their story be told one last time before a lot of them pass away – [told] in a meaningful and powerful way.
HORN: Explain who "Niseis" are in terms of the generation in which they were born in the United States.
HANAMI: Japanese-American immigration was from 1885 to 1924. All those people from Japan were called "Issei," or first-generation Japanese-Americans. Their children were "Nisei" or second-generation. It just sort of happens that when they come of age in their teens and twenties is when the war hits — at that moment in their life when they are just starting to bloom and dream and wanting to become full-blooded Americans. The war comes and they’re immediately seen as "non-enemy aliens."
(VIDEO: Actresses rehearse scenes from “Question 27, Question 28,” by playwright Chay Yew. The play is about the experience of Japanese-American women in WWII-era detention camps. The Artists at Play company recently staged a reading of the play to mark the 75th anniversary of the executive order that forced more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans into camps. More excerpts can be heard by listening via the play button on the blue bar at the top of this story.)
HORN: And part of the internment of Japanese-Americans that is notable is that there are a lot of people with whom we are at war — including Germans, including people in Italy. But German-Americans were not locked up. Italian-Americans were not locked up. Why Japanese-Americans?
HANAMI: One of the documents that we have on display here from the National Archives is Presidential Proclamation 2537, which did exactly what you said. It mandated the registration of all enemy aliens, which were Germans, Italians and Japanese. So that happened, but it’s unusual that only Japanese-Americans were incarcerated en masse. So they were singled out.
The first thing you are going to see when you come into the galleries is Pearl Harbor. The date which will live in infamy is where we start. And this document, the Presidential Proclamation, is about a month after that. It’s pretty close to where it should be as far as timeline is concerned. And the Executive Order we have here is also in February.
HORN: People who know the San Gabriel Valley’s history know that the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia was used to intern Japanese-Americans. Is there anything in the gallery that looks at Santa Anita’s history?
HANAMI: We do have some forms that people had to fill out when they were incarcerated at Santa Anita. They were basically instructions telling people that the camp you were going to be transferred to is now ready, so show up at the departure gate at this time. We do have a lot of first-hand documents from the entire experience.
HORN: I’m looking at a letter, it’s dated August 31st, 1942. It’s called “Administrative Notice #27, Wartime Civil Control Administration, Santa Anita Assembly Center.” There’s notes about incoming baggage, instructions to evacuees about the cleanliness of the train, how to maintain it. “Fruit placed on the train at the center is for emergencies and should be conserved until needed.” It just goes on and on about how you are supposed to behave, what kinds of things you can bring with you. And what is left out of this letter is what everybody had to leave behind, which is essentially all of their possessions, all of their businesses, everything that they owned. They had to take literally what they could carry on their backs and in a suitcase and bring it to an internment center.
I want to look at this piece of art here — it’s three assemblies that go all the way from the floor up to the ceiling. It looks like they are made out of luggage tags?
HANAMI: This is an art piece that was created by Wendy Maruyama. She is from San Diego. And they are actually re-creations of tags. When Japanese-Americans went to camp, every individual was given a tag so they could properly log their presence. Every family had the same number with a different letter at the end. And what the artist did, with volunteers, was [she] re-created every name that was in the camp. This one is from Gila River, we have one from Manzanar and one from Heart Mountain. It really is to commemorate the indignity and humility that people had to endure in this whole process of being taken from their homes and incarcerated into this one camp.
I think it’s really important that for us that while we are telling the story of Japanese-Americans, we want to illustrate the fact that we are telling an American story. And that all Americans should really be thinking about these issues. Because even as we see in today’s world, they are very relevant and could occur to anyone, anytime.
Like our street that our museum stands in front of was actually the location where thousands of Japanese-Americans waited to be taken away by buses to Santa Anita Racetrack.
HORN: A lot of people have read the book “Farewell to Manzanar.” Is there a part of this exhibit that is dedicated to Manzanar?
HANAMI: Manzanar is a really interesting experience because as we can see here before the camps were actually created, there was a time when the [government] was hoping that the Japanese-Americans would just voluntarily evacuate en masse. So there was a very small window. In this newspaper clipping we see 83 workers would leave for Manzanar – volunteers. And they were going to help establish the hospital, the post office, the schools. And at the time they actually called it the Owens Valley Reception Center. Because they wanted it to be welcoming. And they wanted to people to feel like, Oh, we are going to a place where they are going to welcome us! And it later became Manzanar,
But it’s very interesting, the history. They thought Manzanar was going to be this clearing-house for all these Japanese Americans to other farmlands. But because now we know that the DWP owned a lot of the land there, they didn’t want this to happen because that would have impacted their water coming to Los Angeles. So, they fought it. And then the government just started to make these other camps further away in Arkansas and Wyoming.
“Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066” is at the Japanese American National Museum through Aug. 13.