On Saturday, September 24, at 2 p.m., JANM will present Memories of Five Nisei, a very special Tateuchi Public Program in which five second-generation Japanese Americans, who are all in their 80s and 90s, will share significant memories of their lives, with a focus on the World War II camp experience. For anyone interested in the subject of the mass incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII, this is an event that should not be missed.
The organizer and lead presenter for this program is Sam Mihara, a former executive at Boeing Company and a nationally recognized speaker on the topic of the WWII imprisonment of Japanese Americans. Mihara was nine years old when his family was incarcerated, first at an assembly center in Pomona and then at Heart Mountain camp. There, the family lived in one 20-square-foot room in a barrack without facilities for the war’s duration. Mihara’s most recent work is a study of the immigrant detention facilities in Texas, which bear unsettling similarities to the WWII American concentration camps.
Mihara graciously agreed to the following interview, offering insight into the upcoming event and his recent research.
JANM: What gave you the idea to organize these speakers?
Sam Mihara: It began during my tour of the country speaking to many people about my experience. The feedback from students, especially Yonsei (fourth generation) and Gosei (fifth generation), indicated they liked hearing firsthand from someone who went through the imprisonment process. Their grandparents and great-grandparents did not talk much about the camp experience. I thought, if hearing from one former prisoner was good, more should be better. So last year at my annual speech to UCLA Asian American Studies students, I brought two more Nisei, Dr. Takashi Hoshizaki and Toshi Ito, and I called the talk Memories of Three Nisei. It was a hit—according to the feedback, everyone enjoyed the presentation and many said they will never forget it. A few said it was the best lecture they ever heard at UCLA.
With that behind me, I met with Koji Sakai, JANM’s Vice President of Programs, and told him of my idea to have five Nisei present testimonials. And I described the unique memories of each of the five speakers I had in mind. Koji agreed and that is how we came to JANM.
JANM: How do you think the Nisei WWII experience is perceived by young people today?
SM: The young people in my audiences are very well educated, especially on the topic of civil rights. In 1942, the Issei and older Nisei simply went along with the government’s decision to remove us from homes and place us into desolate prison camps. If it were to happen again today, I am confident there would be many more resisters than there were in 1942—a lot more activists taking stands, as Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Minoru Yasui did.
Most importantly, young people of all races and beliefs should learn from the lessons of our WWII experience and never allow it to happen again to anyone. Everyone should be aware of the Mitsuye Endo case, brought by a woman who was fired from her clerical job with the California Department of Employment before being imprisoned at Tule Lake. Her case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled in her favor in December 1944, and resulted in the closing of the prison camps and the return of Japanese Americans to the West Coast. Mass imprisonment will probably never happen again to Japanese Americans. But other immigrants, including people of Middle Eastern, Muslim, and Latino backgrounds, should be fully aware of the lessons learned from our experience.
JANM: It sounds like your experiences at Heart Mountain have given you a lifelong interest in the phenomenon of mass imprisonment. Can you tell us more about your path of study? What have you learned, and how has it helped you to process your own experience?
SM: I really believe that mass imprisonment cannot be justified on any basis. “Mass imprisonment” means that the prisoners were selected on the basis of race or religious or other beliefs, and that many of those imprisoned did not receive due process. I really believe that everyone has a purpose in life, which is to make life better for others. So when I heard some politicians promoting the idea that our WWII imprisonment was a favorable precedent in order to justify the imprisonment of undocumented immigrant mothers and children, I knew it was a gross mistake, and I had to do something about it. Those politicians need to be better educated, along with everyone else.
JANM: Please tell us more about your most recent project, studying the new detention facilities in Texas for undocumented immigrants from Latin America.
SM: I studied the new prisons in Texas, visited them, and talked to immigration attorneys. The conditions these immigrants have to endure are inhumane; they hold thousands of families in more dense quarters and with tighter security than we had at the WWII camps. Can you visualize perimeter walls ten feet tall with surveillance cameras at the top? Or forcing 16 mothers and their children to live in a single cell? I feel these modern facilities should be closed. I include these findings in my speeches where appropriate to help educate others.