Leader Blues

Monday, February 23, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Anniversary to remember

Thursday, Feb. 19, was not an official holiday nor should it be, but it is a day worth marking from time to time because it bears lessons that we keep forgetting, or rationalizing. On Feb. 19, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a great president, a good man and a wise one in nearly all respects, issued Executive Order 9066, which caused 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent to be imprisoned so that they would not be a threat to people living on the West Coast.

Two of the prisons, or “relocation centers” as they were called, were set up in the cotton fields of southeast Arkansas, at Rohwer and Jerome, and there, all those Americans who had done nothing wrong waited out the war behind barbed wire. So the name of Arkansas was yoked in history to still another shame, though in this instance the state and its people were not complicit. By most accounts Arkansas was quite hospitable, and quite a few of the residents there decided to make Arkansas their home after the war.

One was Sam Yada, who lived in Sherwood and ran a nursery business before his death a few years ago. He was well known and beloved in this community. Yada was not bitter, but he did not forget and he did not want his countrymen to forget. He raised money to erect a monument, a stone obelisk, at Rohwer to the people who endured or died at the camps. The monument’s plaque utters no reproaches to the country or the government but honors the memory of the Japanese-American soldiers who fought valiantly with the 442nd Regiment, the “Go for Broke” Regiment.

Sam Yada’s was only one of 9,000 stories of the manifest injustice of E.O. 9066 from the Arkansas Delta, for which the United States government has now formally apologized. Others have spilled out in oral histories and remembrances in the past quarter century.

Here is one you may not have heard. Yuri Kochiyama, who now lives in a nursing home in Oakland, Calif., was 20 and living in a small working-class town outside Los Angeles when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The next day the FBI came to her house to fetch her father, who had just come home from the hospital after stomach surgery. “Is there a Seguchi Nakahara living here?” an agent asked. They took him away and Yuri ran down the street to find her mother.

It took weeks before Kochiyama’s family could see him. He was held at a military hospital with soldiers wounded on Wake Island and they feared for his life because of the hostility in the hospital. The FBI sent him home at suppertime one day and he died that night.

Then Roosevelt, responding to the hysteria about all the Japanese, mostly native Hawaiians, on the West Coast, issued E.O. 9066 and Yuri and her mourning family were rounded up and put on a train for Arkansas. They arrived like cattle and were herded into pens and makeshift barracks. Two brothers fought for the United States but not heroically enough apparently that their mother and siblings should be spared the punishment that went with their ancestry.

Yuri, who met her future husband behind the wire at Rohwer, became a lifelong civil rights activist. Malcolm X, who was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in New York City 44 years ago today, died in her arms.

Sam Yada and Yuri Kochiyama did not want us to forget. But in the hysteria of crisis we do forget and the lesson has to be learned again and again, the lesson that the liberties of free people should not and need not be sacrificed in the name of patriotism or ersatz security. Safety and freedom are not countermanding principles. Every Feb. 19, we ought to take a few moments to recite the lesson.