POSTSCRIPT:Â A personal perspective on our shared history
I don’t recall when I first learned that the United States put American citizens of Japanese ancestry in internment camps during World War II. I know it wasn’t in grade school and I suspect it wasn’t taught in my high school American history class.
Whether I learned of it in college or by reading on my own, I gained a profound education in 1971. That’s when I met Joe Yoshimura, a co-worker at Allen House – the shelter for children at which I worked in Cincinnati for two years. He became a friend.
Born in the United States, Joe grew up in Chicago, the son of American citizens whose lives were turned upside down simply because they were ethnically Japanese. Successful business owners in California in the 1940s, they became victims of Executive Order 9066.
Ever heard of it?
Most have not.
Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Navy Air Service on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on the premise that it would prevent espionage in America.
It created military zones in states with or near large populations of Japanese-Americans. It forcibly removed about 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry from their homes; the large majority were American citizens. Most were held in prison-like camps for about three years.
Joe talked freely about the emotional impact the internment had on his family. Even though he was born several years later, Joe was understandably bitter. His openness about his family’s history put a face to an aspect of American history I knew little about.
It was transformational.
Why am I sharing this story? Because I suspect that many people either don’t know or don’t care that this happened.
Because there’s debate over what should be included – and what should be excluded – in the history curriculum in our schools.
Because unless we acknowledge these darker aspects of our history, we can’t fully embrace the promise of the Declaration of Independence that we celebrate this month.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The sobering truth is that those words, written 245 years ago as part of that founding document, ring hollow when you consider people like the Yoshimura family.
And American Indians for whom this land was home long before European settlers arrived and were then systematically displaced.
And people from Africa who arrived here in chains and cages as part of the slave trade and slave culture that was legal and embraced in the United States until 1865.
Who we are – and how we became a nation – is intertwined with the concept of Manifest Destiny. The belief that the United States is destined by God to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the continent shaped our origin. And it continues to shape how we respond to those who are different.
We see that dynamic in play today in ways that are both subtle and overt.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has been pushing for curriculum that would teach South Dakota’s students “why the U.S. is the most special nation in the history of the world.”
But if we accept the premise central to that ideal — “most special nation” — we must put that description in full context.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
These words, written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 and enshrined on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, have been promoted as a beacon representing the opportunity in this nation. Indeed; we have welcomed millions of people from across the world, people who have contributed to and become an essential part of the American fabric for nearly 150 years.
We rightly embrace that truth. But we also need to embrace the truth that America’s greatness has come at a price influenced by the complexities of race, ethnicity, gender and class.
We can’t undo what was done.
But neither can we afford to ignore that part of our history.
Ironically, the conversation about what to include in the history curriculum of our youth comes at a time when “cancel culture” is a hot-button phrase. In reality, our institutional instruction of history over the years has too often “canceled” some of those “less-than-special” elements of our nation’s history.
The Yoshimura family — James, Sachie and their son, John — was ordered to report to Manzanar, one of 10 war relocation centers built in remote deserts, plains, and swamps in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.
The 500-acre Manzanar compound in the Mojave desert was surrounded by barbed wire, eight guard towers and patrolled by military police.
By September 1942 more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were crowded into 504 barracks there. There was little privacy. The barracks were divided into four rooms with shared communal men’s and women’s toilets and showers, a laundry room and a mess hall. Eight individuals were housed in a 20-by-25-foot room, with an oil stove, single hanging light bulb, cots, blankets, and mattresses filled with straw were the only furnishings.
When they were released, each was given $25 and a one-way bus ticket to try to start over. Not one of the 120,000 men, women, and children detained was convicted of espionage or sabotage.
Despite that, Joe’s parents never wavered from their loyalty to this country, Joe told me.
“They felt they were doing their patriotic duty to the United States.”
The Yoshimura family lost nearly everything, including their home and business.
They did not lose their dignity, their determination or their resolve to remain good Americans – and for their children to become part of the American dream. They chose to move to Chicago after being advised not to return to the West Coast where racial tensions remained high.
Joe and I reconnected in 2017, after more than 40 years without contact, at a memorial service for a dear shared friend and Allen House colleague. Joe continues to live in Cincinnati. He earned a B.A. in political science and an M.A. in history. He taught in the Cincinnati Public School District for more than 35 years. In 2009, he received the prestigious University of Cincinnati-USA Educator of the Year Award. He officiated varsity basketball for 27 years and became the first Asian to officiate a state final in Ohio. Today he’s a member of the Northwestern Public School Board, serving a district in the northwestern part of Cincinnati.
And Joe’s not alone in his family’s remarkable accomplishments.
“My parents struggled and succeeded to afford to give every one of their 11 children an excellent educational opportunity,” Joe told me recently. “Eight went to college (four earning master’s degrees), one went to the London Ballet, and two went in the armed forces; both served in Viet Nam.”
His oldest brother is buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full honors after reaching the rank of colonel and serving at the Pentagon.
Two of his siblings went to Yale. One is a Peabody Award winner for writing at both NBC and HBO. Another has won five Emmys for his work as a set designer for “Saturday Night Live.”
Joe Yoshimura is one of the most colorful and energetic people I’ve ever met. He is a success story in every sense of the word. But to fully appreciate Joe – who he is and all he has achieved – it’s important to fully understand where he has come from.
Without acknowledging this tragic – but, more importantly, extraordinarily resilient – story of Joe’s family, we are shortchanged.
As remarkable as his story is and what he became, this isn’t really about Joe Yoshimura … or his siblings … or his parents.
It’s about the importance of context as we explore who we are as individuals and as a nation. That helps us understand how remarkable our history is. It’s a history filled with success and achievement and advancement and joyous accomplishments. But it’s also filled with pain and struggle and sobering and shameful elements.
Our study of history needs both to complete the story of who we are.
We need to know about the Yoshimura family and those like them.
And the displaced American Indians.
And the African American slaves.
Their stories remind us of how we became the nation we are today.
And just how far we still have to go.
Tim L. Waltner is the retired publisher of the Freeman Courier and works part-time at Heritage Hall Museum & Archives. He says one of the benefits of being a journalist and now working at HHM&A is the opportunity to learn new things and gain new perspectives.