By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The year was 1992. I was a managing editor at my college newspaper. We somehow managed to lose the announcements for the 50th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, the action from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which sent more than 100,000 Japanese Americans to relocation camps during World War II.
Naturally, the paper’s editors had to take a meeting with Asian American activists on campus to explain how this happened. I was willing to admit we’d screwed up. Privately, though, I was a little impatient with all the anger.
That was merely my bit of privilege speaking. I had no family in camps and knew no one who’d been sent there. I wasn’t considering the truly important aspects of the anniversary—what the order meant, what it reflected in American politics, and what it continues to mean.
Thirty years later, the 80th anniversary of 9066 sits in sight, on Feb. 19. The crowd at Seattle’s Ethnic Cultural Theater on Feb. 12 for Jon Osaki’s new documentary, “Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066,” seemed like a cross-section of the Asian community. Older faces, younger faces. A lot of chatting and catching up. Cell phones came out as folks settled into seats. One fellow kept his texting window up through most of the afternoon.
Kendall Kosai, from OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates, stood to introduce the afternoon. He reminded the crowd of that impending 80th anniversary.
We waited, after the film got started with no sound, for technical repairs. It eventually got going again with sound, although the audio and picture remained unsynced. The story Osaki had to tell, though, transcended any such concerns.
“Alternative Facts” runs roughly one hour, enough time to delve into the intricate history around 9066. The salient points shine through all the complications though. The government lied to the public and eventually to the Supreme Court. Those lies were necessary for 9066 to exit, and to seem plausible to whites in America.
Osaki went as far back as anti-Chinese sentiment in the late 1800s, to show how Asians have always faced discrimination and hate. After Pearl Harbor, many folks stoked anti-Japanese American sentiment to suit their own purposes—notably white farmers who regarded farmers with Japanese faces as unwelcome competition. Osaki pointed out, in a question-and-answer session following the film, that while other documentaries about 9066 exist, nobody before had delved so deeply into the underlying causes, and the suppression of the truth, that no evidence existed tying Japanese Americans to spying or sabotage.
After the lights came up, longtime activist and mediator John Yasutake introduced a panel discussion featuring Osaki himself, lawyer and activist Lorraine Bannai from Seattle University School of Law, and Stanley Shikuma, longtime activist and current president of the Seattle Chapter JACL.
Yasutake posed a question to each panel member. Asked why he decided to make “Alternative Facts,” Osaki remembered a pilgrimage he made to the former Tule Lake War Relocation Center, in Northern California, where many of his family members went during World War II.
He shot video of his kids playing atop Castle Rock, which gave him the idea to research 9066 as a whole, as something new generations could grab onto. He felt that he learned more about the whole story, making the film, than he suspected the vast majority of Americans know. He also gets thank-you messages from high school and college students—some of whom confessed that prior to watching the film, they’d never even heard of the camps.
And of course, he stressed, his film was about “alternative facts” and “fake news,” decades before those terms came about. They’re simply latterday summations of practices conducted for centuries.
Asked about the legal implications of 9066, Professor Bannai referred to the Executive Order as a “blank check,” giving the military practically unchecked power to handle Japanese Americans in any manner. She emphasized that the wording of 9066 never mentions Japanese Americans specifically, but everyone knew who the Order was referring to.
She added that we need to watch the Supreme Court carefully, and its tendency to stand aside on questions of justice, if it thinks “national security” is involved in an issue. We need to keep a sharp eye on such cases, she said, and speak out if we feel the Court’s copping.
Asked about what we can do to prevent 9066 from happening anew, Shikuma said the three leading causes of such things are: Racism, wartime hysteria, and failure of political leadership.
“These are always with us, and we need to speak up,” he concluded. We need, he concluded, to be the allies, the friends, that Japanese Americans needed and didn’t get, 80 years ago this Saturday.
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.