In response to reader feedback to “Beyond The Barbed Wire: Alternative Spring Break travelers help reclaim Manzanar, a WWII internment camp in California where 10,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned” that ran Wednesday, March 25, I’d like to explain my decision to use the phrase: “They had slanted eyes and ate rice with most meals.”
Readers said they were offended. Good. So was I.
In hindsight, that’s exactly why I used it.
It is important for readers to understand exactly how ridiculous the reason Japanese-Americans were imprisoned was. I wanted them to feel the same indignant anger I felt when I began learning details of internment.
When writing the story I didn’t stop and say “how can I offend readers?” However, after becoming aware of such criticisms I realized that I did indeed write those inflammatory words to bring to light differences in ways of thinking between then and now — how something that was totally acceptable 65 years ago is not acceptable now.
In a time where racial caricatures and discrimination were the norm, such words would be used to describe the Japanese (and all other Asians. After all, we all look alike — right?).
Americans could not, or would not, make distinctions between Japanese and Japanese-Americans. They said “a Jap’s a Jap” and that was it. If they had small eyes and ate with sticks, they might as well have been Japanese.
I wrote that portion to make readers understand that, by stereotyping and using ethnicity-based language, it became easy to justify robbing an entire population of their rights.
Does nobody see why that might be important in this day and age?
Inside the museum at the Manzanar Interpretive Center, there is a display with photographs of both the smoking ruins at Pearl Harbor and the burning World Trade Center towers. Beside it was the Benjamin Franklin quote, “Those who would give up essential liberty to obtain temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
The first exhibit you see when you enter the museum from the gift shop is a large photograph of a woman pointing at a sign that reads “Japs Keep Moving: This is a White Man’s Neighborhood.”
One day a visitor walked past me, called his wife in and said, “Check this out. I saw a sign just like this in San Antonio, only it said ‘Mexicans get out!'”
Ring a bell?
The Japanese-Americans were registered and given family numbers prior to being sent to camps.
There were laws, such as the Immigration Act of 1924, restricting and setting quotas for the immigration of Asians to America. Heck, if it wasn’t for the Pacific Ocean between us I’m sure someone would have suggested constructing a really big fence along the West Coast.
What do both situations have in common?
They led to the xenophobic and ultimately unconstitutional incarceration of the Japanese-Americans. And if we’re not careful and alert for any sign of injustice, we could set ourselves up to fall into the same trap.
Of course you were offended. You should be offended. If you weren’t offended, then there would be nobody left to object if the government were to begin rounding up Muslim-Americans and sending them away.
This is the very reason Muslim-Americans have begun joining Japanese-Americans on the annual pilgrimage to Manzanar post-9/11.
I am fifth generation Japanese-American and still get asked if I speak English. My grandma and her family were interned at Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas. I had an uncle fight with the all-Japanese 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II.
I understand how it feels to be stereotyped and discriminated against because of how I look. But I also understand that it takes being offended and indignant for change to happen. It’s an important lesson the CSU volunteers learned on their trip as well, as many of them had little idea what happened in Manzanar.
I hope you can understand that your being offended by my use of these words is not only expected, it’s vital to understanding the story. Take what you will from the article, but I hope you can appreciate the meaning more now that you’ve taken the time to read this.
Remember, this isn’t just a Japanese-American issue, a Muslim-American issue or a Caucasian-American issue.
It’s an every-American issue.
Staff photographer Brandon Iwamoto is a junior journalism and technical communications major. His column appears Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.