Too little, too late: A Japanese American’s perspective on California’s apology for its role in the Japanese American concentration camps

Sagara’s grandfather with her older brother (left) and her (right) in late 1997. COURTESY OF KATE SAGARA

Kate Sagara is a senior psychology major.

On December 8, 1941, my grandfather, who was eight at the time, walked into his second grade classroom, and his peers immediately fell silent. Although he was normally popular and well-liked, everyone stared — some made faces, and one boy even shook his fist at him. That night, my grandfather told his parents he didn’t want to go back to school, foreshadowing what would occur three months later when he’d be forced to leave everything he knew behind and be incarcerated in a concentration camp, never to see those classmates or any of his friends again.

After the bombing at Pearl Harbor, racism against Japanese people and Japanese Americans rapidly increased in California and across the United States, leading up to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066, forcing 120,000 Japanese Americans to be incarcerated in relocation camps. Both of my paternal grandparents, who had not yet met, and their families were forced to leave everything they knew behind. My grandfather and his family were told to report to the Santa Anita Park horse racetrack, where they slept in horse stables. They packed up a few belongings and left their farm and, along with everyone else, did not know when, or if, they would return. Several weeks later, they were taken on a long train ride to a camp in Rower, Arkansas.

My grandmother, who was aged three or four, and her family were taken directly to camp in Poston, Arizona where they lived in a small barrack. My great-grandfather, George Yoshida, worked to make the barrack as comfortable as he could for his family, covering all the knotholes and building shelves to hold what little possessions they had.

While they made the best of their circumstances, my grandparents suffered in those camps for the next three years.

Now, almost 80 years later, the state of California has announced that they plan to apologize for the camps. My grandparents were both young children when they entered the camps and now, like the vast majority of others who were also imprisoned, are dead.

I am the descendant of people who were stripped of all their rights and robbed of three years of their lives, and faced lifetimes of racism. But I didn’t live it. I wasn’t there to truly understand what it was like. However, I have seen how this same ignorance about the internment camps is very much alive today. Throughout my life, I have heard teachers skip past this event, call it a “mini Holocaust,” or say that the government already apologized and it’s over.

I also went to an exhibit in 2017 at USF called “Something from Nothing” about the concentration camps in which the white tour guides told us to call them “Sensei” and referred to the camps as the “Chinese camps.” And, most recently, I came across a 2017 Foghorn opinion article by a former Foghorn editor in chief, titled “Curating a False Title,” in which they wasted a whole page arguing that people in the Holocaust suffered more than the Japanese Americans during World War II, effectively trying to quantify human pain. And, in doing so, minimized the entire experience of the Japanese Americans.

I was never in the camps, but I have spent my entire life hearing people refuse to acknowledge what the U.S. government did to Japanese Americans during World War II.

The state of California now acknowledging its role in this tragedy is important, however, it’s not enough. There are people who will never receive an apology for their suffering. There are people who are still suffering, and they are worried about far bigger issues than receiving an apology. But, this is a step. I know that if my grandparents were still here, it would mean something to them, too.

So, as we experience the 78th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, it’s important to notice the parallels between the events of then and the events in our political climate now. California’s apology is a great start, but it means nothing if they continue condoning actions similar to what they did in World War II. 

The apology, which has not yet been issued, will state that it is important to “ensure that such an assault on freedom will never again happen to any community in the United States.” But, right now, there are thousands of innocent people and families who are imprisoned in California only for wanting better lives than what they had in their home countries. There are even more who are suffering and fighting for their lives but being denied entry. 

I wish I could explain to my grandparents, and ancestors who aren’t alive today, how much I admire them for what they endured. I wish I could thank my grandfather, who I miss with all my heart, for writing down our family’s entire history in his book and dedicating it to me, my brother, and my cousins.

My grandfather wrote that if the government ever attempted anything like what they did in 1942 again, he would “fight and scratch and scream and yell.” So, maybe the best way to thank him for what he did for me is to do that for those who are now facing the same treatment.


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