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Deja Vu

After Pearl Harbor, About 8,000 Japanese Immigrants Were Arrested and Detained in the U.S. as Enemy Aliens--Among Them Yoshitaka Watanabe. Sixty Years Later, Amid a Similar Climate of Suspicion, His Family Finally Knows Why.

June 08, 2003|Teresa Watanabe | Teresa Watanabe is a Times staff writer.

This is how serendipitous and odd and mysterious life can be.

A Seattle woman is searching for a carpenter to do some work in her home, which is being remodeled. She considers one man who, like her, is Japanese American. She's the chatty type and, as they talk, it turns out he has an interesting hobby--a private passion, actually--researching Japanese immigrants who were detained during World War II. Not the well-documented stories of families sent to internment camps, but the largely untold tales of people who were essentially convicted, in closed hearings without legal representation, of being a threat to national security.

The woman mentions that her grandfather had suffered such a fate, and the carpenter grows excited, promising to do some research. But she decides not to hire him--his quote is too high--and she never expects to hear from him again. He's a carpenter, after all--an amateur historian whose zeal surely can't reflect any real sleuthing ability. The woman forgets their conversation.

Three months later, late in 2002, the carpenter calls. "I found it!" he says. "I found the records of your grandfather!" Soon, he delivers 132 pages of documents. It is her grandfather's Department of Justice file, which the carpenter has obtained through the Freedom of Information and Privacy acts.

And this is how the woman, my sister, learns what happened to our grandfather, our jichan, Yoshitaka Watanabe.

Jichan. I haven't much thought of him for years, decades even. He had been a fruit and vegetable dealer at Pike Place Market along Seattle's waterfront when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. While growing up, I had heard he was arrested by the FBI, separated from his invalid wife and five children and detained for nearly two years.

My family never knew why. We never knew what his experience was like. We never asked him about it, and he never volunteered any information. He died with his secrets, nearly 40 years ago, when I was 6, too young to know enough to ask questions.

Now a thick file detailing his case has unexpectedly landed in our laps, 60 years later, at another time of tension and fear in America. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center--a strike that was often compared to Pearl Harbor--President Bush declared a war on terrorism. It spawned a Department of Homeland Security and laws such as the Patriot Act, which vastly expanded the surveillance powers of federal law-enforcement agencies.

After Pearl Harbor, nearly 8,000 Japanese immigrants were arrested and interned as potentially dangerous enemy aliens, says University of Cincinnati professor emeritus Roger Daniels; not one was found guilty of espionage or sabotage. Since Sept. 11, about 4,000 men, mostly Arabs and Muslims, have been arrested and detained, according to Georgetown University law professor David Cole; among them, he says, only a minuscule number have been charged with crimes related to terrorism.

These developments have provoked unease among many Japanese Americans, 120,000 of whom--including my grandmother and her children--were removed from their West Coast homes and locked up in desolate camps after Pearl Harbor. Many speak of a sense of deja vu. Japanese Americans are making documentaries, staging performances and holding forums and vigils--from Seattle to Los Angeles--to underline their concerns that innocent people are again being trampled upon in the name of national security.

There are "disturbing parallels with post 9/11 experiences in Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities all over the U.S.," says John Christgau, who wrote a 1985 book, "Enemies," on the alien internment program and who helped compile a current exhibition at UCLA's Powell Library on the 31,000 Japanese, Italian and German immigrants and their families who were interned during World War II.

The unexpected appearance of my grandfather's file, an invitation to reopen the past and compare it to the present, seems discomfortingly coincidental. In these pages we would at last learn the reasons for Jichan's arrest and detention. Here are the records of the Alien Enemy Hearing Board that interrogated my grandfather and concluded that he was potentially dangerous, and the deliberations of another hearing board 19 months later that decided he was not.

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