The 2019 Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium Meeting

Members of the Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium get ready for Congressional visits. (L to R: Prentiss Uchida, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation; Darrell Kunitomi, HMWF; Katharine Hirata, Japanese American Citizens League Fellow; Mia Russell, Executive Director of Friends of Minidoka; Larry Oda, Chair of the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation; Brian Liesinger, Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium Coordinator; Ann Burroughs, President and CEO of JANM; and Sam Mihara, HMWF). Photo by David Inoue.

I wanted to share with you my reflections on the recent Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium meeting in Washington, DC, at the end of February, while they are still fresh in my mind.

The Consortium is made up of organizations that have been recipients of funding from the Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant program of the National Park Service. Our purpose is to preserve and protect the history, the sites and artifacts related to the Japanese American confinement experience. We are also committed to elevating the social justice lessons of the incarceration and to highlighting ways that civil and human rights abuses put at risk the rights of all Americans. We are led by an Advisory Council that is made up of JANM, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, JACL, Friends of Minidoka and the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation.

After four years in the making, the Consortium has finally come of age. We have a clear sense of purpose and direction, and, importantly, how to leverage our platform to build coalitions and reach a wider audience. I am immensely proud that JANM, with guidance from our Board Chair Norm Mineta, Trustee Harvey Yamagata, and Governor Doug Nelson, has played a pivotal role in helping to shape the Consortium.

Over two days, representatives of 16 organizations met with 22 legislators and their staff to educate them about the JACS program, to encourage their support for the re-appropriation of funding in this year’s budget, and to ensure that they remember the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans when they consider policy or legislation that may cause harm or marginalize any group. We heard bipartisan support for the JACS program and what it has achieved.

A small group of us met with staffers for key legislators who serve on the Appropriations Committee to advocate for current funding but more importantly, to lay the groundwork for a permanently funded program. We met with the staff from the offices of Representatives Mark Takano, Betty McCollum, and Ed Case, and Senators Diane Feinstein, Brian Schatz, and Mazie Hirono.

Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium members representing 20 organizations gather around House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after meeting in her office in the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Brian Liesinger. 

The culmination and high point of the visits was a meeting with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who gave her full commitment to ensuring that the program be funded. It was particularly meaningful for all of us to have Chairman Norm Mineta join us for this meeting.  Speaker Pelosi was a co-sponsor of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, and she and Norm have fought in many of the same trenches over the years. It was enormously encouraging to know that we have strong support in such high places!

Norm also spoke movingly at a congressional briefing that was sponsored by Representatives Judy Chu and Mark Takano and co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, Japanese American Citizens League, and the Consortium. The briefing drew parallels between the trauma of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans and the present detention of immigrant families and children at the border, and the separation of children from their parents. 

When I took over as Chair of the Consortium, I and others have started working to ensure that funding is made permanent. These legislative visits were in many respects a ‘dry run.’ We gleaned useful information on what we need to do to prepare, who the key influencers will be, and most importantly, that there is strong support for this. We have limited time to accomplish this task: there is approximately $7 million left in the original JACS fund, which represents only two – three more years of funding.  We know that the overall impact has been substantial and JANM has benefited greatly over the years.

Ann Burroughs; David Inoue, Executive Director of the Japanese American Citizens League; Senator Diane Feinstein of California; and Prentiss Uchida. Photo by Darrell Kunitomi. 

Coming closely on the heels of our Capitol Hill visits, we heard not surprisingly, that the President’s budget has again zeroed out the JACS program. In the coming weeks, the Consortium will be mounting another advocacy campaign, spearheaded by JACL, to mobilize our networks and the relationships with our elected officials to ensure that the funding is restored. Many of you helped us last year, so please stand by – we will need support from every one of you again.

The meetings occurred at a tumultuous time, which emphasizes how important the legacy and lessons of the Japanese American experience remain today. At the end of our time together in DC, Stan Shikuma, who is a member of the Tule Lake Committee, stated that he had not seen this kind of collaboration or mobilization in the Japanese American community since the redress movement.  To me, that highlights how important it is to use the lessons of history to strengthen these bonds for the betterment of our field and the country as a whole.