Denver artist Sarah Fukami grew up hearing her grandfather’s and great-aunt’s stories of their life in “the camp.”
When she was very little, she thought they were talking about tents, hiking and s’mores. As she grew older, she came to understand that her relatives were among some 120,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese living in the United States who were forced from their homes on the U.S. West Coast and elsewhere and held without charge or due process in barracks-like camps.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1944 ruled that detaining Japanese-Americans, which followed Pearl Harbor, was a military necessity – but government lawyers kept from the court intelligence findings that only a small percentage of Japanese-Americans were considered security risks and the greatest threats among them were already contained. People of German and Italian ancestry in the United States were not rounded up in such large numbers. The actions against those with Japanese roots followed a long and racist history of anti-Asian agitation and legislation in the United States.
Writing for the majority in the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding President Trump’s travel ban, Chief Justice Roberts went out of his way to declare that “the forcible relocation of U. S. citizens to concentration camps, solely and explicitly on the basis of race, is objectively unlawful and outside the scope of Presidential authority.” Roberts added that the 1944 Supreme Court decision “was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and—to be clear—‘has no place in law under the Constitution.’”
A bookshelf in the home of Fukami’s grandfather was stuffed with novels, histories, even comics about the internment. She has a vivid physical memory of looking through that literature.
Her great-aunt “would with down with me and just talk, tell me stories,” Fukami said.
She knows many other camp survivors refused to talk about their experiences, out of shame or for fear of stoking resentment in their children and grandchildren. Fukami said her family shared their stories as a lesson that “sometimes bad things will happen to you, but you can persevere.
“It was important to their identity as people, their history, their family.”
Years after leaving the camp, Fukami’s grandfather fought in the Korean War for the United States, a country that had once treated him as an enemy. He later became an engineer.
“The Japanese way is to continue with pride and to persevere and believe and honor that justice will win out,” Fukami said.
That prompted me to share a family story with Fukami. My great-grandfather was lynched. He owned a store, and it angered whites in his small Georgia town that a black man was independent and in business.
Yet his son, my grandfather, fought for America in World War I. According to family lore, my grandfather was in no hurry to return to Jim Crow America. He lingered so long that he was fluent in French when he got back to his family.
Fukami and I agreed that it takes a special kind of patriotism to put your life on the line for a country that, based on your race or ethnicity, has questioned whether you can truly be an American. To fight for the ideals of a country that has failed to afford you the most basic rights of citizenship -- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“That’s American,” Fukami said. “Seeing the situation for what it is and wanting to make it better.”