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  • Yara Zgheib

On a Switch - Part I

For the next three weeks, tea with Aristotle and me will be a bit different. This essay and the two to follow will address the same theme:


In dark times such as these,

times in which fear, hate, and injustice rule,

when words like terrorism, populism, inequality, bigotry, racism, gun violence, rape, humanitarian crises, and climate change are just words,

when violations of fundamental human rights are met with shrugs,

or worse: silence,

times in which too much around me seems broken and too few seem to care,

I must, and I do. And whether or not that makes a difference,

‘we have to model the principles that we believe in.’

- Samantha Power

Inspired by a lecture she gave entitled ‘Lessons for Dark Times,’ this series will consist of three stories of three other dark historical moments. Except the lens will focus on a few, ordinary citizens who ‘led principled, effective resistance’ against the dark, and flipped a switch.

Part I - Shikata ga nai.

The Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II

Property of the University of Oregon Special Collections & University Archives

On the 7th of December 1941, Japan declared war on the United States by attacking a military base in Pearl Harbour. Less than two months later, on the 19th of February 1942, US President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066:

‘Whereas the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage, […]

I hereby authorize [the prescription of military areas] from which any or all persons may be excluded,’

‘Any or all persons’ was a vague term that referred to a specific group: people of Japanese ancestry living in America. ‘Excluded’ meant removed by force from their homes and businesses and lives, and transported to internment camps for the remainder of the war.

Over the next two years, more than 120,000 such ‘persons’ were ‘evacuated’ in accordance with that executive order. Those living on the Pacific Coast were barely given six days before they were moved to ten Relocation Authority Detention Centers. There, they would face poor living conditions and oppressive treatment. Most would also lose their property, savings, and hope in America.

Ironically, one month before Pearl Harbour, a military investigation into the ‘Japanese American threat’ had just ended, and concluded:

The Japanese ‘problem’ was nonexistent; fewer than 3% were found to possibly be inclined toward sabotage or espionage. Instead, there was ‘a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group.’

The American public disagreed:

‘A Jap’s a Jap. They are a dangerous element, whether loyal or not.’

- John DeWitt, US Army General in command of the coast

Roosevelt’s order was just the political manifestation of a sentiment. One that extended to schools, workplaces, mainstream media, communities. This hostility against ‘the others’ was unfounded and unfair. But it was tolerated before Pearl Harbour. After, it became hysteria.

Some Americans – few, very few – did not feel that way, however. Such as, for example, a small group with a disproportionately large name:

The National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC) was a civic organization with no more than a dozen staff members and a herculean mission:

To help Japanese American students incarcerated in camps continue their education in institutions that would accept them.

The NJASRC went to work in May of 1942, contacting the US government – civilian and military branches-, college administrators, churches, foundations, charities, the students and their parents themselves, ‘to raise money, find openings in welcoming locales, and fashion a process for and then facilitate resettlement, all in a hostile wartime context.’

Twelve individuals, at most, wrote letters, made phone calls, requested transcripts and lists of names; paid visits to Washington, university deans, and internment camps around the country. They telegrammed, faxed, coaxed, bullied, and campaigned, and in the four years they did, more than 4,000 students were resettled at more than 600 institutions.

505 in Colorado, 197 in Nebraska, 83 in Wyoming, 73 in Texas, 42 in Kansas, 30 in Montana, 29 in South Dakota, 22 in Oklahoma, and 10 in North Dakota’…

The list goes on, to more than 4,000. A dozen ordinary citizens.

Life was not much easier for the students in these new locales than the camps; they still faced deep racial discrimination, alienation at the best of times. But for the rest of the war, they could study and fulfill another, greater mission:

‘… Proving to people to whom they are strangers that the first word in 'Japanese American' is merely an adjective describing the color of our skin—not the color of our beliefs.’

Shikata ga nai is a Japanese expression that means: ‘It cannot be helped.’ Western culture misunderstands and criticizes it as defeatism. It is not.

Shikata ga nai is an acceptance of what is beyond one’s power, because with it comes the liberating freedom to focus on what is. No citizen could have overturned Executive Order 9066, or blasted the hundreds of thousands of interned Japanese out of their prisons. Shikata ga nai: the NJASRC could not have changed the mind of an entire country overnight. But it could change that of a headmaster, an admissions officer, a donor, enough policy makers in Washington to sign a few permission slips for students.

As a result, the world was not changed. The injustice was not reversed and could never thereafter be undone. But letters like this were written:

‘I just can’t find sufficient words to describe my gratitude for all that your office has done for me and other Niseis [second generation Japanese Americans]. In our darkest hour you brought forth your loving hands and gave us new hopes and inspiration. Surely Democracy cannot and will not die as long as such groups like yours and colleges that uphold the true ideals of Democracy exist.'

- Anonymous Japanese American student, upon receiving clearance to continue university study in 1942

#reflection #history #politics