Back on April 8th and 9th of 2005, an Assembly on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (AWRIC) was held in San Francisco. AWRIC was a grassroots public education event to present and document little known first-person accounts of U.S. government human rights violations during World War II and post-9/11.
The Assembly expanded on the work of the Congressional commission hearings of 1981 which led to the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and reparations for over 82,000 Japanese American internees. The Assembly focused on the hidden stories of the immigrants, US citizens, and Latin Americans of German, Italian and Japanese ancestry who had not yet received proper acknowledgment or redress for the violation of their rights.
Grace Shimizu & Elinor Davis were two of the organizers of this event. You can read our previous informative interview with them by going to our April 2005 Newsletter.
Give us an update on your efforts since the April 8-9, 2005 Assembly on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (AWRIC).
The AWRIC public testimonial event involved more than 64 participants, scores of staff and volunteers, and over 23 community organizations. We had tapes of the testimonies from the two-day event transcribed and then journalist Helen Zia wrote an introduction and coordinated the process of editing them for the report called Here, In America? Immigrants as the Enemy During World War II and Today. The background text introducing each section is a condensed version of the narrative that Elinor Davis wrote and edited for the traveling exhibit, The Enemy Alien Files: Hidden Stories of WWII, on the same subject matter.
The 84-page illustrated AWRIC report, which was beautifully put together by graphic designer Noreen Rei Fukumori, was published last year along with a 15-minute DVD of AWRIC highlights produced by documentary filmmaker Casey Peek. The report and DVD can be ordered from the National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS) www.njahs.org (also through AACP: see below)
In May 2006, a delegation of nine AWRIC participants and supporters went to Washington, DC, to deliver the AWRIC report and DVD to members of the US Congress, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and international human rights organizations, for their reference when considering pending and future policies, legislation or litigation.
We are continuing public distribution of the AWRIC Report and DVD, often as part of educational programming associated with the Enemy Aliens Files exhibit or community events. Venues where we distributed these materials and organized screenings of the DVD and/or panel presentations included: showing of the Enemy Alien Files exhibit at the National Park Service Manzanar Historical Site (June-August 2006), Tule Lake Pilgrimage (July 2006), Oakland Museum of California (July 2006), 43rd annual Islamic Society of North America convention in Chicago (September 2006), Perukai Reunion of former Japanese Peruvian internees in Honolulu (October 2006), and Day of Remembrance events (February 2007).
Has the collection of oral and written personal histories continued?
During the AWRIC, the personal testimonies of 50 witnesses were recorded: 26 witnesses presented in person; 20 witnesses submitted written statements which were presented by readers; 4 written statements were edited from interviews of deceased internees and presented by readers. We're always interested in hearing from former internees and their families. But our work goes beyond conducting or collecting personal histories and can also include translation, transcription, editing and archiving the interviews and supporting documents and artifacts. It's a lot of work, but we are very fortunate to have the support of the National Japanese American Historical Society. We welcome all the help volunteers can give.
We have the report booklet from the conference. Is anyone working on a more complete book of your collection?
We would love to do a longer book on this material and have applied for grants to help fund such a project. There is a journalist interested in writing a book on the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project (JPOHP) research and of course there are the books we used for the Enemy Alien Files exhibit - Enemies: World War II Alien Internment by John Christgau, Una Storia Segreta: When Italian Americans were Enemy Aliens edited by Larry DiStasi, Adios to Tears by former Japanese Peruvian internee Seiichi Higashide and several by Stephen Fox and Arnold Kramer.
We also support or have contributed to the work of AWRIC participants and other writers, researchers and filmmakers. Last year, former German Costa Rican internee Heidi Gurcke Donald published her family's story, "We Were Not the Enemy: Remembering the US' Latin-American Civilian Internment Program of WWII." Filmmakers Kiku Lani Iwata and Kimi Iwata Romming are working on a unique documentary, "Stolen Lives," focusing on the WWII experiences of the German, Italian and Japanese communities in the US and Latin America through the US enemy alien program. AWRIC participant Irum Shiekh (post-doctoral fellow at UCLA) is finishing up two books for publication, "Racial Profiling and 9/11 Detainees" and "Speaking Out: Voices of Individuals Arrested and Deported in Connection with 9/11 Attacks." In the past two years, interviews have also been conducted by Tsukimi Kai of Nikkei in Cuba and their WWII experiences.
Tell us about the current legislation in Congress - what are some of the details of the bill or bills being introduced?
A bill was introduced in the new Congress just three weeks ago - the "Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Latin Americans of Japanese Descent Act of 2007" by Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) in the Senate (S.381) and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) in the House of Representatives (HR662). It would establish a federal commission to study and make recommendations regarding the violations committed by the US government against Japanese Latin Americans during WWII. There's background information about this at www.campaignforjusticejla.org
Do you think the chances of passage have increased any with the changes in congress?
The Commission Study bill provides a way to educate members of Congress and the public about this still little-known episode in our country's history. We are hoping that this process of investigation will lead to proper acknowledgment, apology and redress for violations which are war crimes and crimes against humanity. For some, this is seen as a step backward with the hope of moving two steps forward. Since our redress legislation had been languishing in Congress since 2000, we feel that a commission study is a necessary step. It's a test of our democratic institutions and processes, a challenge for our elected officials to do the "right thing" before all our people pass away. I would like to think chances of passage have improved, but passage still requires bipartisan support.
Has President Bush given any indications of his support or opposition of the bill/bills?
Not that I'm aware of.
Not to editorialize too much, but do you think President Bush's record of current similar abuses of individual's civil rights may have any bearing on whether he will support this legislation or not? Individuals that may have caused harm will sometimes take positive aggressive actions to compensate for their misdeeds. Do you see it happening in this situation?
Leadership exerted by the President of the United States would be a significant development, not only in securing justice for those scapegoated as "the enemy" during WWII, but also in clarifying the scope and severity of the violations arising from improper government actions and policies, which included kidnapping, indefinite detention without charge or trial, forced labor, deportation, and hostage exchange.
What about the Germans and Italians that were incarcerated during WWII by the US Government- will this legislation help their cause any and if not, is there any other legislation being proposed for them?
Yes, I hope so. A bill called the Wartime Treatment Study Act, supported by an organization of former internees and their families, the German American Internee Coalition (www.gaic.info), would establish commissions to review the facts and circumstances surrounding injustices suffered by European Americans, European Latin Americans, and Jewish refugees during World War II. For several years, it has been pending in both houses of Congress.
The first federal legislation to pass which specifically acknowledged the internment of German Americans and Latin Americans was introduced by Rep. Mike Honda as House Resolution 56. It passed in March 2004. It called for a National Day of Remembrance on February 19, the date of the signing of Executive Order 9066. The National Day of Remembrance would serve to commend and acknowledge the efforts of the Japanese, German and Italian American communities to commemorate the wartime treatment of certain members of those communities during World War II. Every year since 2004, a similar House resolution regarding a National Day of Remembrance has been passed.
In 2000, the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act was signed into law. It acknowledged that injustices had been committed against Italian Americans and authorized a Department of Justice investigation and report, which has been issued. However, no apology has been granted to the former relocatees or internees and their families. Nor has there been adequate education funding to educate the public and government officials about this shameful episode in our country's history.
Has any progress been made with your cause through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)?
The IACHR determined it has jurisdiction and accepted the petition of the Shibayama brothers, three former Japanese Peruvian internees. They are seeking to hold the US government accountable for the ongoing failure to provide redress for war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated during WWII. We expect a ruling soon. If the Commission rules in our favor, it will be an important precedent under international law and a moral victory. It is not clear, however, whether the Bush administration will abide by such a ruling of international law.
What are some of the things you are currently working on to educate the public?
There will be two events in San Mateo dealing with the treatment of enemy aliens during WWII, both on Saturday, April 28, 2007. The first is Hidden Stories of World War II: A Conference on Enemy Alien Restrictions and Internment from 1 - 4 p.m. at the San Mateo Public Library. Writers and internment scholars will be joined by former WWII internees or their family members from the Japanese, German and Italian communities to tell their& stories. Many also participated in the AWRIC.
The second event, at the Little Theater of Hillsdale High School, is called Freedom Lost: Three One-Act Plays on Enemy Aliens in World War II. Each of the plays, written by Bay Area author John Christgau, focuses on one of the ethnic communities affected by WWII alien internment (German, Italian and Japanese Peruvian). Both events are free. They mark the appearance of the "Enemy Alien Files" exhibit at the San Mateo Public Library for the whole month of May. This exhibit was created by a consortium of organizations representing the communities affected by the WWII Alien Enemy Control Program and it has been traveling all over the country since September 2001.
We have also submitted proposals to the Oral History Association for panel presentations on the AWRIC and JPOHP activities. Their national conference will be held in Oakland in October 2007.
Are the Bush administration's similar civil liberty violations an ominous sign that we've failed in our efforts to prevent such occurrences from happening again?
Times of crisis, especially war (whether declared by Congress or not), test our belief in and commitment to rule of law (both domestic and international), our Constitution and our democratic principles, institutions and processes - whether we are citizens or non-citizens, elected representatives or appointed officials. We felt the weight of that challenge and responsibility in WWII and we feel it with today's "war on terrorism." Every generation must inform itself about our Constitutional rights and renew its own calls for justice, building on previous experiences. Now is the time for all individuals of conscience to come to the defense of our Constitution, our democracy and international law. And such defense requires the accountability of officials in all three branches of our government.
Proper acknowledgment, full disclosure, apology and redress for the violations suffered by enemy aliens during WWII are unfinished business over sixty years due. And today the Arab/Muslim/South Asian American communities are enduring government actions and policies similar to, and worse than, what our Issei and other enemy aliens endured. As we come to better understand the resistance to resolving issues from WWII, to scrutinize the repetition of past government misconduct and to draw lessons for current day concerns, we should reconsider the mainstream and community historical narratives of Japanese American internment and the "victory" of Japanese American redress.
With the number of Japanese, German, and Italian individuals that were interned during WWII dwindling, who will carry the torch to remind future generations that this is something that should be prevented?
NJAHS and the third, fourth and fifth generation Japanese Americans, the GAIC, the American Italian Historical Association and the JPOHP will continue to document on film and in writing the experiences of those who suffered injustices during WWII. Their families, their grandchildren have not forgotten and will tell the stories of those who are already gone. But these stories are not the "property" of these families or their communities. All of us have the basis to relate, to understand and to embrace this history as our own, because it is a part of US history. It is the responsibility of all people of conscience in the US to learn this history, to internalize it, to keep it alive…because what is at stake is our future as a country, our Constitution, our civil and human rights, our democratic institutions and processes.