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As in the 1940s, We Are Asleep to Loss of Rights

February 15, 2003|Noriko Nakada | Noriko Nakada is a teacher at Emerson Middle School in Los Angeles.

When I was a child growing up in Oregon, I heard many stories of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. I eavesdropped on conversations and heard it mentioned casually as "camp" -- a time and place sitting like a bookmark in the lives of my father and his brothers and sisters.

"Was that before or after camp?" Uncle Steve would ask. "No, I couldn't have been at Berkeley; we were in camp."

I try to imagine my father's family before it left for internment. A big family with children everywhere, fluent Japanese flowing freely, the sun streaming across fields of strawberries on the family farm in Azusa. The young ones would go to Japanese school Saturdays and come home to find their older siblings dropping by for a home-cooked meal of rice and vegetables. I imagine the little ones looking up to their brothers, wondering what lay outside the borders of their rural world -- in the city, the service or on a university campus.

Then the war comes and the family scatters. Seeds, once planted firmly in soil, wash across the globe. Those already in the service advise those sure to be drafted, and my father's brothers end up serving in Europe, the Philippines and Japan. Those not drafted flee to schools on the East Coast, far from family but at least free. The rest land in camp.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 01, 2003 Home Edition California Part B Page 25 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
INS registration -- In a Feb. 15 Voices commentary, the author protested against "the registration of Middle Eastern immigrants." In fact, the recent Immigration and Naturalization Service registration program applies to male visitors from mainly Muslim countries.

Were things ever the same after camp? Did the family ever truly come together again after the war? I wonder about these questions often. I always wonder how people let this happen. I question the complacency of my ancestors. How could they let something so unjust happen to them, to their neighbors? Now, I'm afraid, I understand.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, I've gained some understanding of what it must have felt like to be a Japanese American in the days after Pearl Harbor. I watched my sole Afghan student leave our school days after the attacks without explanation. When we stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning, I would look at my remaining Middle Eastern students and hope they were being treated decently on the buses and in their other classes. When I asked them, they would only say, "Everything's fine." Whether that was really the case, I don't know. However, I read in the papers and heard on the news of terrible hate crimes occurring everywhere.

Days and months passed. We were asked to return to normalcy, and I suppose most us did.

Now, as I sit in my cozy home, our country on the edge of war, I see how my Japanese American relatives were relocated. I'm enraged by the concept of homeland security, disgusted by our weakening civil rights laws, appalled by the military campaign we are waging, yet I sleep soundly at night.

I commit to protesting the registration of Middle Eastern immigrants. I'm Japanese American. We vowed: Never again. Yet I am just too caught up in my day-to-day life to fight the crowds at the protests.

I convince myself, this weekend's rally is the big one. I'll carry an antiwar, anti-racism sign and do my part -- but no one will go downtown with me, and again I sit at home. Now I see how my father and his family felt, how the nation let it happen and how we're letting it happen again.

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