No More Manzanar

By Taro O'Sullivan, Keynote Speaker

It is easy to say no more Manzanar, but how can we be sure? This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Executive Order 9066, and with regret, I must report to those we honor here today, that not enough has changed in that time to insure that there will be no more Manzanar.

We live in a world today, where racism still crushes the hopes of our young people. Greed and material wealth are considered value systems for too many. We live in a society where resources for humanity have been allocated to meet every need, except to reduce human suffering. Sadly, our nation is in the middle of a war. And we still live in a country where we are not American enough for too many.

We should have known better by 1942. We had the 14th amendment guaranteeing due process and we had a fundamental belief that the individual civil rights of our citizens were worth fighting for, even dying for, and yet, we abandoned all of those values with the stroke of a pen. As a nation, we failed. So I don’t trust you and I don’t trust me. I don’t trust any individual to do the right thing just because they said they would. I don’t want to give any president the power to sign an executive order without first consulting congress or the people of this nation.

Several years ago when my daughter Mariko was 6, and my son Kenji was 5, I took them to see a group called "Living Voices." They are a group of young people who performs a multimedia presentation of the internment experience. It was truly moving event. The mostly white audience sat in silence, many in tears. My daughter looked up at me, with a look I will never forget and asked if I too was going to be taken away. As we prepared for this trip, we talked about what would happen if we were living in 1942, and if we would be imprisoned. My children know the answer to that question.

And how easily we forget the past, or alter historical events to suit our needs. We get confused; did Washington really cut down a cherry tree? No, but we teach the lesson about telling the truth with a lie…did Franklin really fly a kite into a thunderstorm? Of course not and scientists who tried to duplicate this experiment died when the lighting hit the kite! Groups like the American Society for Historical Accuracy would have you believe that internment was like going to summer camp.

I know there are people who don’t understand the full impact of what took place. It is our task then, to educate those people. How do we do this? We talk to the people who lived through it. We ask questions and we listen. We become the guardians of their memories of internment.

While you are here, close your eyes. Let yourself drift back 60 years. Imagine the buildings full of people. I can see then in my mind’s eye. There are children playing…the teenager falling in love…a couple walking hand in hand…Babies were born here. Elders died. Life went on in spite of what brought all these Japanese Americans here…to Manzanar. These were people who worked hard to achieve their dreams…there were farmers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, mothers, fathers and other immigrants who had to overcome prejudice, racism and struggled as immigrants do, only to have their lives ripped apart.

For my generation, our duty is clear. We have to continue the fight that was started by Mitsuye Endo, Fred Korematsu, Minoru Yasui, and Gordon Hirabayashi. Those were the pioneers of the Japanese American struggle. They challenged the courts for their unlawful detention and imprisonment. They lost at first…but they didn’t give up. They fought for decades until finally even the government and the courts were compelled to overturn their convictions. But the authority of the president to rob 120,000 people of their liberties is still intact. That is what we have to change. If our president decided today, that we weren’t to be trusted, he could sign an executive order that would send us to jail. In fact, that condition already exists for many Arab, Muslim and Asian immigrants that are in custody without any constitutional protection.

Why should we take up this struggle? Why not just worry about our own life? That’s a reasonable question. Engaging in this kind of struggle is often difficult. My kids can tell you how many hate mails I receive for the things I write…and the long list of distinguished people who hate my guts for speaking out. But if Sue Embry and people like George Takei didn’t spend their lives fighting for us, we would not have the life that we’ve come to know and take for granted. We were able to go to college, get a beautiful home and a wonderful life because of their hard work and personal sacrifices.

After the internment, they did not give up; instead they continued their work to preserve their history. They re-entered a racist society who stripped away their liberties and robbed them of their life, but not their dignity. They rebuilt their community and cleared a place for us to belong. As a result of their "gamman," our word for perseverance, we were spared the scars of internment. In fact, we are now considered among the most successful minorities in this country.

But make no mistake, model minority or not, we are still not accepted as an American. Just think about how many time people ask you where you are from?

When people meet me for the first time, they generally ask, "Where are you from?" San Francisco I tell them. "And before that?" they ask, Washington DC I reply. "Is that where you’re from?" they ask, "of course not," I say, I moved there from California"… "I’m from Japan," I finally tell them and they say "but you speak English so good." "After all that, no sir, I speak English well."

The Latino community goes through this also. Arab Americans know this all too well. If you don’t look just so, you aren’t American enough for some. If every Smith was interrogated with a casual "is that the British Smythe line or the German Schmidt derivative?" then they would understand.

Executive Order 9066 did not specify Americans by national origin. But only Japanese Americans were interned and German and Italian Americans on the East Coast were spared. Our race was the only factor in the decision.

We must take the leadership role to make a difference and to insure that the lesson was indeed learned. That, is how we honor those survivors of internment. So please, join me in this struggle. Let us change the law so that no one can commit this kind of crime against another human being. Join me, so that we can finally close this chapter of American history with a lasting legacy. Let us one-day say, as Americans, yes, the United States government imprisoned Japanese Americans out of fear, ignorance...and intense racism Let us admit that it was morally and legally wrong. But let us then close by saying proudly, that we have righted that wrong once and for all.

This speech was presented at the Manzanar Pilgrimage in 2002.