Chicago’s New Project Aims to Raise Awareness of Japanese American Immigration
Story in Illinois
• A project kicked off on April 4 in Chicago to provide more opportunities
for Illinois students to learn about the Japanese Americans’ history as
immigrants and wartime incarceration.
• “Our Story: The Japanese American Incarceration” is a project organized
by the Japanese American Citizens League Chicago Chapter (“JACL Chicago”)
and aimed to educate young people and the general public in Illinois about
the Japanese American incarceration prompted by the 1942 Executive Order
9066. The plight of the Japanese American families and the impact of the
incarceration on the individuals, communities and the country have not
been shared by a wide audience, and this project will train and provide
speakers to schools and other public venues across Illinois to shed light
on the buried portion of the American history.
• Lisa Doi, President of JACL Chicago and a member of the Our Story Committee,
said that the people who could tell their first-hand experiences were
in their 80s and 90s today, and the community was losing many of them
at the kick-off reception/fundraiser. “So it’s time for the third- and
fourth-generation Japanese Americans, as well as the ‘new Nisei,’ to take
up the story and bring it forward into the 21st century,” she said.
• The Japanese American incarceration is not a required
subject in Illinois public schools, and the “important details and lessons
of Our Story rarely reach the classrooms, according to the JACL Chicago’s
• They never learn the historical fact that, because of Executive Order
9066, 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes
and incarcerated in concentration camps across the country without trial
or charges, the Committee states.
• JACL Chicago believes it has an obligation to tell the Japanese Americans’
story because the actions by the U.S. government in 1942 “now serve as
important lessons today where the human and civil rights of individuals
can be similarly threatened.”
• The Our Story project will identify and train knowledgeable
speakers to present Our Story at schools, libraries and public forums
in Illinois. They will provide “insight into the causes of the incarceration
and its impact on communities and the Constitution as well as on individuals.”
• The project will also develop promotional materials to encourage teachers
and schools to invite the presenters into their classrooms. The Our Story
Committee of JACL Chicago, which includes former teachers among its members,
will lead the project coordination activities. (The Committee members
are Pat Yuzawa-Rubin (Chair), Lisa Doi, Mary Doi, Elaine Kaneshiro, Eric
Langowski, Anne Shimojima, Mari Yamagiwa, and Bill Yoshino.)
• Bill Yoshino, retired JACL Midwest Regional Director,
has been instrumental to the launch of the new project.
• At the kick-off reception, Yoshino said that similar programs are already
in place in the states of California, Minnesota, Arkansas and Washington,
where classroom learning about the wartime incarceration is required at
public schools. Illinois hasn’t reached that stage.
• “Our Story” covers from the very beginning of Japanese immigration in
the 1890s to the redress of the incarceration by the U.S. government in
the 1980s. It’s such an amazing story, a story of Japanese immigrants
and their struggles, their endurance and perseverance, and that’s why
it has to be told, Yoshino said.
• The first-generation Japanese immigrants crossed the
Pacific and first settled in Hawaii, where they worked as contract laborers
in pineapple fields and sugar cane plantations. Some of them moved farther
east to the mainland, to work in California, Oregon and Washington. There,
they faced intolerance and bigotry.
• They were not allowed to marry a white citizen or attend a white school.
Despite their hard work, they couldn’t become a land owner. The Immigration
Act of 1924 in effect barred further immigration by the Japanese to the
U.S. Back then, they could not even become naturalized U.S. citizens.
• Despite all that, the first-generation Japanese immigrants (“Issei”)
on the West Coast continued to work and eventually established themselves
in the farming industry. That caused economic jealousy among the U.S.
citizens in the community – local anti-immigrant organizations by the
white citizens, such as the Native Sons of the Golden West in California,
openly fought to oppose Japanese immigration.
• A sudden spurt of anti-Japanese sentiment following the Pearl Harbor
attack in December 1941 led to Executive Order 9066 signed by President
Franklin Roosevelt. As the U.S. declared to join World War II, the anti-Japanese
sentiment escalated to forcible removal of Japanese Americans from West
Coast and their incarceration in 10 concentration camps in remote locations.
• Upon the end of the war and subsequent release from the camps, some
of the incarcerated Japanese Americans returned to their former homes,
but many established new communities in places like Chicago and other
cities in the Midwest and East Coast.
• Forty years passed, and the Japanese American community made an action
to seek a remedy for the wrong done by the U.S. government during the
war. Their “Redress Movement” bore fruits in 1988 when President Ronald
Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act into law. By this, the U.S. government
officially apologized for the Japanese Americans internment and granted
a redress of $20,000 to every surviving individual who experienced incarceration.
• Yoshino had a chance to hear Maynard Wishner, President
of the American Jewish Committee and a Holocaust survivor, talk at an
event. According to Yoshino, Wishner said that America “is the place where
it is safe to be what you are.”
• Yoshino is often reminded of these words. He said what Wishner meant
is that America is a sanctuary for immigrants and that’s what this country
represents in the best of times.
• “The problem is that America is not always at its best,” Yoshino said.
“I think it’s demonstrated when we see a certain group of people are targeted
as a national security risk.”
• “When a group of Americans are targeted in the fear invoked by the government,
they become vulnerable. The Japanese American experience is the same thing,
and that’s why Our Story is so important,” Yoshino concluded. “That’s
a lesson we must bring to the public.”
• Established in 1929 by Japanese Americans, the JACL
is the oldest Asian American civil rights organization in the U.S. The
web address for the Chicago Chapter is https://jaclchicago.org.