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 October 19, 2017

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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