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An Exhibit on Japanese Internment Shows How Far We Haven’t Come

Racial policy, hate crimes, immigration, civil rights and national security are all themes that continue to reverberate today.

Nora Mabie

A truck leaves San Pedro, Calif., for a detention center. (Clem Albers)

The Alpha­wood Gallery in Chica­go has part­nered with the Japan­ese Amer­i­can Ser­vice Com­mit­tee (JASC) to pro­duce the exhi­bi­tion, Then They Came for Me: Incar­cer­a­tion of Japan­ese Amer­i­cans dur­ing WWII and the Demise of Civ­il Lib­er­ties. The exhi­bi­tion includes pho­tographs of the intern­ment camps tak­en by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams and oth­ers, video inter­views with sur­vivors and their fam­i­lies, and objects such as ID cards, suit­cas­es and camp newsletters.

In These Times spoke with Ryan Masaa­ki Yoko­ta, lega­cy cen­ter man­ag­er for JASC and a mem­ber of the exhibit’s cura­to­r­i­al board. Yokota’s great-grand­fa­ther was among the 120,000 U.S. cit­i­zens and legal res­i­dents held in the camps.

Tell us about your con­nec­tion to the exhibit.

My great-grand­fa­ther came to Amer­i­ca in 1899. One month after Pearl Har­bor, he was picked up by the FBI. As I learned more about my family’s his­to­ry, it became a respon­si­bil­i­ty of mine to pro­tect the sto­ry of Japan­ese incarceration.

How is the Japan­ese-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty responding?

We have heard from peo­ple who iden­ti­fy them­selves or rel­a­tives in pho­tographs or film reels. It was very mov­ing for one spe­cif­ic view­er, who saw an inter­view with his par­ents. This film brings these peo­ple back to life.

What do you want vis­i­tors to take away?

We want to help peo­ple who may not have a famil­ial con­nec­tion real­ize that those incar­cer­at­ed were just like their own grand­par­ents, par­ents or chil­dren. We also want peo­ple to real­ize that, in the end, the Con­sti­tu­tion and our politi­cians are only as strong as we make them. The exhib­it is meant to be a call to arms — to encour­age peo­ple to be more involved in their polit­i­cal process­es and safe­guard the rights of the most vulnerable.

Racial pol­i­cy, hate crimes, immi­gra­tion, civ­il rights and nation­al secu­ri­ty are all themes that con­tin­ue to rever­ber­ate today. Now, we have dis­cus­sions about a bor­der wall, a Mus­lim ban and a Mus­lim reg­istry. We owe it to those who were incar­cer­at­ed to make sure that this nev­er hap­pens to any­one again. 

Then They Came For Me, Alpha­wood Gallery, Chica­go, through Novem­ber 19.

Nora Mabie is a fall 2017 Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times edi­to­r­i­al intern.
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