When one hears the words Day of Remembrance, all kinds of thoughts might filter through your head. What about the internment of Japanese Americans in 1944? Does that ring a bell? Feb 19th, this past Thursday, was the anniversary of the signing of Executive order 9102. This is the executive order signed by President Roosevelt that forced over 127,000 thousand United States citizens to sell their houses and positions and leave their jobs, schools, and friends to be forcibly detained in internment camps all over the United States. If this particular bit of information is news to you, then you may be wondering why they were detained and considered such a threat.
After Pearl Harbor, the United States government was in a panic trying to figure out how they had been caught off guard and how they could prevent another attack on American soil. This particular group of citizens, men, women, and children, were detained because of their Japanese ancestry. The government was afraid that, even though, these people were American citizens and most had never stepped foot on Japanese soil that they were susceptible to Japanese corrosion and would turn and fight for our enemies. According to Henry Steele Commager in Harper’s Magazine, 1947,
“It is sobering to recall that though the Japanese relocation program, carried through at such incalculable cost in misery and tragedy, was justified on the ground that the Japanese were potentially disloyal, the record does not disclose a single case of Japanese disloyalty or sabotage during the whole war…“
For adults, it is a bit easier for us to process the tragedies and atrocities that pepper our American History. For children, however, this knowledge can be a bit harder to grasp. Some people believe that because it is difficult for children to understand we should shelter them by keeping our children in the dark about painful events in history. In recent years, however, there have been a number of books written to help educate our children about shameful times in our history in a way that they can understand.
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and her husband James D. Houston decided to write a book called Farewell to Manzanar. This story is a true account of the Japanese American Experience during and after the World War II Internment. Houston recalls life at Manzanar through the eyes of her seven-year-old self. She tells of her fear, confusion, and bewilderment as well as the dignity and great resourcefulness of people in oppressive and demeaning circumstances.
The book starts with a historical timeline that allows the reader to understand the timeframe and political and cultural feelings during the timeframe of the book. Wakatsuki begins her story on the day she found out about Pearl Harbor. She tells how her father, a lively and rambunctious man, had a prosperous fishing business and a huge loving tight knit family. Wakatsuki tells how after Pearl Harbor things began to move quickly. Soon after her father was taken in for questioning. The family was then ordered to move to the Manzanar Internment Camp. While in the camp, Wakatsuki sees her family change right before her eyes. They no longer eat and socialize together the family unit then begins to break down. Personal privacy, a treasured cultural norm, becomes a luxury no one can afford. She tells how, after a year, her father, a shell of the man he once was, comes to live with them at the camp. In the final few chapters, Wakatsuki tells about her family’s time after the camp trying to find some meaning in her time there. This book is a beautiful read and a powerful testimony to a tragic event in American history.
Wakatsuki reveals events and people that shaped her time and experience at Manzanar. These events are peppered with her understandings and thoughts about them now that she is an adult and has had some separation from this dark period of her life. Wakatsuki writes in such a way that one can see the situation through the innocence of a child while also understanding the adult complexities that accompany life as a Japanese American in the Manzanar Internment Camp and America during WWII.
It is often easy for us to believe that the past is over and done with and that the world has learned its lesson. Why then is it important for Christians to know and continually learn about history? Kevin Stilley, the pastor of Stadium Drive Baptist Church, says that Christians should study history because “the past shapes the present and future and by studying history, we are better able to comprehend what it means to be human and as Christians it helps us to be better equipped to help change and craft a better present and future for ourselves and our children.”
Using a book like Farewell to Manzanar allows children and adults alike a glimpse into one of the darkest days in American history through the heart, mind, and eyes of a seven-year-old girl. Even though, the author was seven when these events occurred because it was written by an adult and deals with some mature themes, I believe this book is most appropriate for children over the age of 10. This book is rich with complex characters and situations full of varying shades of gray. This book will allow the readers to begin a dialogue on the important and difficult topics of injustice, incarceration, and confessing corporate and national responsibility.
O Holy One, in remembrance of the lives that were forever changed through internment, liberation, and contrition, let us pray that the decisions and executive orders made so long ago do not repeat themselves again. Let us learn from history and discover the ways you have revealed to us bring peace to all those in need. AMEN.
Sarah Louise Cobb is a second-year student at Wesley Theological Seminary. Originally from the Memphis area, Sarah is seeking ordination as a Deacon in The United Methodist Church. As part of her field education, she is interning at MFSA.
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