Not safe at home
Excellent exhibit on U.S. incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII
Diane Suzuki was in third grade in the San Fernando Valley when a classmate threw a ball at her. Hard. “That’s what you get for bombing Pearl Harbor!” he yelled.
Suzuki didn’t know what he was talking about. It was the 1950s, and Pearl Harbor was fading from memory. “I thought he was talking about some kind of flower,” she said during a recent interview. “It sounded pretty.”
In time, she learned about Pearl Harbor and how war hysteria caused 120,000 people of Japanese descent—80,000 of them American citizens—to be deemed potential “enemy aliens” and, in 1942, forced to surrender their property and leave their homes to live in one of 10 isolated internment camps behind barbed-wire fences overseen by guards in towers with machine guns. The government called it relocation, but it was really mass incarceration based on race.
This shameful violation of Americans’ civil rights is the subject of a compelling and timely new exhibit, titled Imprisoned at Home, at the Valene L. Smith Anthropology Museum on the Chico State campus. Put together by students in professor William Nitzky’s anthropology exhibition-installation class, it is a stunning collection of photos, videos, government documents, letters, clothing, artwork, posters, even a life-size reproduction of one of the uninsulated cabins the internees lived in.
It’s one of the best exhibits of its kind I’ve seen in Chico. As Adrienne Scott, the museum’s curator, expressed it, “We wanted to knock people’s socks off.” They’ve succeeded.
For Suzuki, a longtime Chico resident and Peace and Justice Center activist, it was a milestone in her personal journey to understanding the history of her Japanese ancestors.
Most of all, she hoped the exhibit would answer a question she’d been asking for years: Why didn’t they resist?
She was especially looking forward to meeting Jim Tanimoto, a Gridley-area farmer and former internee at the Tule Lake Relocation Center who, at the age of 94, is as trim as a fit 70-year-old. He was one of dozens of Japanese-Americans who attended the exhibit’s opening reception on Tuesday, Jan. 30 (which coincided with Fred Korematsu Day, a day of recognition in California to honor civil liberties in the name of a man who went to jail rather than submit to relocation and whose dogged legal pursuit of justice ultimately prevailed).
For the past seven years, Tanimoto has been giving lectures, titled Tales from Tule Lake, based on his experiences there. He also is featured in an excellent video documentary by Jesse Dizard titled Mr. Tanimoto’s Journey that is included in this exhibit.
When war broke out, Tanimoto tried to enlist in the Army but was denied because he supposedly was an “enemy alien,” to which he angrily responded, “I’m not an ‘enemy alien.’ I was born in this country.”
Like many internees, however, he refused to sign a pair of loyalty oaths, insisting that the government had no right to question his loyalty. For that he was sent to a special “segregation center” in the vicinity of the massive (19,000 residents) Tule Lake camp just south of the Oregon-California border.
There were 36 men in Tanimoto’s block who had refused to sign the loyalty oaths; he is the only one still alive. For Suzuki, he is living testimony that some internees resisted.
When Suzuki was growing up, nobody in her family talked about the camps, she said. As Tanimoto told Suzuki when they met at the exhibit reception, “It took me 50 years to talk about this.”
In a corner of the exhibit are a couple of panels depicting current exclusionary practices such as the rescission of DACA and President Trump’s Muslim ban. The message seems to be: Don’t let what happened in 1942 happen again.