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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Activating Public Memory: Amy Johnson's Post

[Panel's overall statement: As a panel, we're interested in the many ways in which history and memory have influenced the construction, dissemination, and reception of racialized national mythologies. In each case, the central question revolves around how national mythologies and narratives at the core of an American collective memory have be activated to challenge, bolster, or erase certain issues concerning race and social justice.]

“We are setting a standard for the rest of the world for the treatment of people who may have loyalties to an enemy nation. We are protecting ourselves without violating the principles of Christian decency. And we won’t change that fundamental decency no matter what our enemies do. But of course, we hope most earnestly that our example will influence the Axis power’s treatment of Americans who fall into their hands.”

On February 19, 1942, two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War to designate certain areas in the United States as military zones. On March 18, 1942, Roosevelt established the War Relocation Authority (WRA) and appointed Milton Eisenhower, brother of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and a New Deal bureaucrat in the Department of Agriculture, to oversee operations.

In 1942, the Office of War Information released "Japanese Relocation," a strategically titled short film produced on behalf of the U.S. government and and the WRA. The film explained the internment of tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and resident aliens from Japan living on the western coast of the United States. Eisenhower not only provides the rationale for the removal of Japanese American citizens but he also claims that the Japanese "cheerfully" participated in the relocation process. According to the film, the process was amicable, with "the military and civilian agencies alike determined to do the job as a democracy should: with real consideration for the people involved."

Framing the newly constructed internment camps in California, Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Arkansas as "pioneer communities," the film the features the relocated Japanese acting as they "should" -- smiling and waving to the cameras as they board trains for the camps; making the best of the newly constructed group housing and dining halls; and participating in "Americanization" classes. The Japanese are the cooperating and accommodating "model minority" more than twenty years before the term was coined.

My talk explores on the legacy of the internment experience during the last two decades, focusing specifically on the inscription of this "model minority" mentality on the physical space of the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism in World War II. In many ways, the memorial is a rearticulation of the film's main tenets. Situated on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, the memorial is a site of remembering, commemorating, and most importantly, forgetting. While the site should be recognized as a public site of redress and its significance to various Japanese American communities, I'm critical of the invisible but equally important erasures of certain histories in order to promote this story of "patriotism" and the "model minority" myth inscribed both implicitly and explicitly on this space.

Where do draft resisters and "disloyals" fit into the history of Japanese internment in the United States? What does it mean that over one thousand Japanese Americans signed a petition against the inclusion of Mike Masaoka, the leader of the Japanese American Citizens League, on the memorial wall? If this is not a war memorial but a civil rights memorial, how does our understanding reading of this site change when these "absent presences" of dissent are made visible?

Amy Johnson, Brown University

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