Japanese Americans Remember Pearl Harbor Backlash and Support Muslims

By Megan Sweas 12-14-2015
Image via Megan Sweas / RNS

After 9/11, Kathy Masaoka heard a Muslim woman on the radio describe her hesitancy to go to the market for fear of being attacked.

“It crystalized for me at that moment, that this must be how my parents felt and how my family felt after Pearl Harbor,” she said.

Masaoka’s family is Japanese American. As a young man during World War II, her father was drafted into the Military Intelligence Service while his parents and siblings were sent to California’s Manzanar internment camp in the desert east of the Sierra Nevada. They lost their family business in Los Angeles.

Masaoka is co-chair of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress in Los Angeles, which helped win a presidential apology and $20,000 per person for more than 80,000 survivors of internment in 1988. The experience taught Japanese Americans the benefits of partnering with other communities.

“We couldn’t win redress without reaching out to others,” Masaoka said.

In the wake of the San Bernardino, Calif., and Paris terrorist attacks, leaders of the NCRR and other Japanese-American organizations reached out to Muslims groups offering their help. They are among a raft of grass-roots organizations that have shown solidarity with American Muslims.

On Dec. 10, hundreds of people marched through the Little Tokyo historic district in Los Angeles and held a candlelight vigil, condemning Islamophobia and singing, “We shall overcome.”

Their destination was the Japanese American National Museum, built on the site of the former Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, where some families sent to internment camps stored belongings.

Muslim organizations report unprecedented levels of discrimination and violence against members of their faith since the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. Haroon Manjlai of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Los Angeles said the number of hate incident reports his group receives locally has surged from around four monthly, to 37 already since the beginning of this month.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, and he said he might have supported internment during World War II. And more than half of the nation’s governors have declared their state’s borders closed to refugees from Syria.

While no major American political figure is proposing internment now, Muslim leaders are deeply concerned about the rhetoric and appreciate the support of these groups.

“I’m in love with the Japanese-American community,” Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said at the vigil.

“I remember on 9/11 … they stood as our human chain of defense to prevent another internment from happening in America.”

After the 2001 attacks, NCRR held a candlelight vigil with local Muslims. It was the first time many leaders from the two communities met.

A Buddhist temple also hosted a small iftar dinner to break the fast for Ramadan, a tradition that would continue for a number of years. Muslim American leaders attended Day of Remembrance events to commemorate the internment and took part in pilgrimages to the Manzanar camp.

It was on one of these trips that someone from CAIR suggested bringing high school students to Manzanar, Masaoka said. That idea eventually became Bridging Communities, a program allowing Muslim and Japanese American youth to discover their histories and learn about civil rights together. It is currently being recast as a college fellowship program. Bridging Communities also has run in Seattle, San Francisco, Sacramento, and other cities.

The goal is to create community leaders who will hold the government accountable, said Traci Ishigo, program coordinator at the Japanese American Citizens League, Pacific Southwest District.

Megan Ono was part of one of the program’s first cohorts. At the vigil in Little Tokyo, she performed an offering of incense, then walked over to the small gathering of Muslim Americans to stand in support at they performed their evening prayers.

“With what my grandparents went through with internment camps and redress, I felt that it’s my responsibility as a Japanese American to make sure that that never happens again, to any community,” she said.

Megan Sweas (@msweas) is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles and editor at USC's Center for Religion and Civil Culture. She is the author of Putting Education to Work: How Cristo Rey High Schools are Transforming Urban Education.

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