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Residents mark 75th anniversary of internment order

February 20, 2017 GMT

BAINBRIDGE ISLAND — On March 30, 1942, about four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, then-22-year-old Kay Sakai was removed from her home on Bainbridge Island and taken by ferry to Seattle under armed guard.

“Will I ever see my home again? How long are we going to be gone? Where are we going?” Sakai asked herself as she saw the island get smaller and smaller behind her, she said. “It goes through your mind. No answers.”

It was the first leg of a three-day journey to the Manzanar War Relocation Center in Owens Valley, Calif., one of the camps built to incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942. Sunday was the 75th anniversary.

The 1942 order authorized the U.S. Secretary of War to prescribe certain areas as military zones and forcibly remove and incarcerate Japanese Americans on the West Coast to internment camps.

Approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II, about 95 percent of the nation’s Japanese American population at the time. Two-thirds were American citizens by birth, according to the Densho Encyclopedia, an online encyclopedia dedicated to the history of the Japanese-American World War II experience.

Residents from Bainbridge Island were the first to be removed because of their proximity to U.S. Navy facilities. On March 24, 1942, Civilian Exclusion Order No. 1 gave the Japanese Americans living on the island less than a week to sell farms, say goodbye to neighbors and pack their belongings.

Sakai, now 97 years old, was one of the American citizens detained. At that point, she had never visited Japan, she said.

“I always felt American,” Sakai said. “I didn’t even know Japan or anything until I was a mature person and I visited Japan.”

Sakai has lived on Bainbridge Island her entire life, except for the three-and-a-half years she spent in Manzanar and the Minidoka War Relocation Center in southern Idaho. The Bainbridge Island residents first sent to Manzanar were relocated to Minidoka after 11 months. She never thought about going anywhere else when she returned, Sakai said.

“Bainbridge Island is a little different from other communities,” Sakai said. “The community is very understanding and supportive and they’re always kind. That’s Bainbridge Island. The best place ever.”

Sakai and her family left behind the strawberry farm where she grew up. Even so, Sakai said she had no ill feelings toward other Americans.

“I wasn’t bitter,” Sakai said. “I was really sad. The strawberries were in bloom one month earlier than usual and it was going to be the best crop ever, you could just tell. And to leave that in March, that was heartbreaking.”

Today, the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial stands at the site of the Eagledale Ferry Dock where Sakai and other Bainbridge Islanders started their journey to the concentration camps.

The memorial is a wall built of old-growth red cedar, basalt and granite. The wall is 276 feet long, one foot for each Japanese American who lived on the island at the time of the forced internment. Each of their names is featured on the wall.

The first section of the wall features an inscription that reads “Nidoto Nai Yoni,” meaning “Let it Not Happen Again,” similar to the vow used after the Holocaust: “Never Again.”

Memorial founder Clarence Moriwaki said the spot is meant to be a hopeful look to the future.

“This is not about shame or blame or guilt or any of those kind of feelings,” Moriwaki said. “What we wanted this to be was to look forward and to say be inspired. Don’t let it happen again.”

Tom Ikeda, executive director of Densho, an organization dedicated to preserving and sharing the story of the Japanese internment during World War II, said he sees many ominous parallels between the Japanese internment and anti-Muslim sentiment today.

Discrimination against Japanese Americans went on for decades before Pearl Harbor, he stated.

The informal “Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907” between the U.S. and Japan as well as the 1924 federal Immigration Act stopped immigration from Japan and “alien land laws” in western states attempted to limit the presence of Japanese immigrants, according to the Densho encyclopedia.

“It’s the process that started by preventing people from coming to the country,” Ikeda said. “With that kind of setting, the country was poised to take these sorts of actions.”

To Ikeda, the most inconceivable aspect of the internment is that it required all Japanese Americans on the West Coast to be forcibly removed from their homes — babies to 90-year-olds.

“That astounds me,” Ikeda said. “It was so un-American for us to do that. Treat people as individuals. Don’t just lump everyone together. That’s what I really don’t understand.”

People feared that during the war Japanese Americans would organize and wait for a signal from the Japanese Empire to launch an attack on the United States, Ikeda said.

“You hear the same thing about Muslims, that there are terrorist cells imbedded in our country,” Ikeda said.

In 1983, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, a commission appointed by Congress to study President Roosevelt’s Executive Order and its effect on Japanese Americans, found that the order was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

Criticizing President Trump’s proposed travel ban, Moriwaki pointed out that the 9/11 attackers came from countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which are countries not included in the ban.

“They’ve proven they can create terrorists, if that’s your measure,” Moriwaki said. “But that’s really a false measure. Just because you’re from a country it doesn’t mean you’re a terrorist. It’s just a false narrative and it’s so un-American. It’s not what we’re about.”

The country has made significant progress since World War II, Moriwaki said.

“But we have to keep telling our story,” Moriwaki said. “The only thing we have to do is stand up.”

In 1942 private citizens and public officials showed little resistance to Executive Order 9066, according to Ikeda. Last month thousands flocked to airports right after President Trump signed his travel ban.

“This gives me hope for today,” Ikeda said. “The hope I have is that because of this strong and vocal opposition, that this won’t happen again.”

This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. Reach reporter Enrique Pérez de la Rosa at perezenrique17@gmail.com.