75 Years Later, Art Exhibit Considers Lessons From Japanese-American Internment

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The Tule Lake concentration camp in California, 1945. (Courtesy Japanese American National Museum, gift of Jack and Peggy Iwata)

Executive Order 9066 was enacted 75 years ago this week by President Franklin Roosevelt, with the stated goal of protecting the United States from “spies.” It gave the secretary of war the power to forcibly remove some 120,000 people — most of them Japanese American — from their homes and incarcerate them in camps.

The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles recently debuted a new exhibit focusing on the internment of Japanese Americans, titled “Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066.” Clement Hanami is art director and curator at the museum, and joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to talk about the exhibit and the lessons it can teach.

Interview Highlights

On whether the story of Japanese-American internment is a personal one

“My father was a volunteer evacuee from the very beginning, and he was a third-generation Japanese American who was born in Idaho. So he was one of the fortunate ones in the sense that he had a family he could move to in [Twin Falls, Idaho]. But for other people, they weren’t as fortunate. The government did allow for the storage of some things, but it wasn’t capable of storing all the belongings of 120,000 people.”

On the exhibition

“Well, the exhibition itself has two artists included. One is when the Wendy Maruyama, and the other is Mike Saijo. Mike Saijo is an artist who uses books, and he uses those as a backdrop for much of his work. The painting that he has of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye has a background of the New Testament. So, during World War II, Japanese Americans were issued, you know, boots, guns, fatigues. But if you were a Christian you were also given a New Testament, a Bible to carry with you. So Mike Saijo has taken that book, and then he is taking the pages and glued them onto a background — almost every page — and then on top of that is a picture of the Sen. Daniel Inouye, who lost his arm fighting in Germany. It is just an illustration of, for us at least, this idea of what it means to be Japanese American. You grow up learning about, everything from you know history, religion, civics, and you’re taught to be an American, until one day somebody says, ‘Wait a minute, you’re not.’ And, ‘If you’re gonna fight for America you’re going to fight in a segregated unit, the 442nd in Europe, but you will be treated as a different group of soldiers.'”


On how current executive orders relate to Executive Order 9066

“I think it’s always been something that the museum has really… wants to ensure does not happen again. We have hosted many Day of Remembrances here, which is basically a commemoration of the signing of [Executive Order 9066]. And we often collaborate with all different races. Most recently we’ve been doing quite a few with the Muslim community because of its relativeness to this whole story. So if you come to the exhibit the first date in our timeline is Dec. 7, 1941, which is the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The last date in the many dates that we have is Sept. 11, 2001, and it is to make reference and connections to, after 9/11, we saw a huge rise in Islamophobia and characterization of Muslims as ‘the evil people.’ And so we wanted to make sure that what happened to Japanese Americans doesn’t happen to other groups.”

On other items showcased in the exhibit

“So some of the more important things that we do have is a lot of documents, simple, mundane documents that people would have gotten. They’re very straightforward. They basically tell you, you know, these are… ‘You can only carry two bags. This is the room that you’re going to stay in,’ just these very simple instructions. But when you read them you actually realize these are the instructions that people had to follow — which they were following as good Americans. Probably the most important document we have here is the original Executive Order 9066 that is signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It’s a very moving document for a lot of the survivors of the camps to actually see, because that was the signature that transformed their lives.”

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