Tom Ikeda’s grandparents managed hotels while his parents went to high school in 1941. A year later they were forced into an internment camp for Japanese-Americans in Idaho due to the passing of Executive Order 9066.
Executive Order 9066 was signed during World War II by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The order enabled the United States government to place Japanese-Americans (along with some German-Americans and Italian-Americans) in concentration camps throughout the United States.
Later this month, Ikeda will bring those stories and more to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for a presentation and a workshop for teachers. He expects the audience will see parallels between the historic and official discrimination against one particular ethnic group and what could happen today.
Ikeda is the executive director of Densho, a nonprofit organization from Seattle that he said came out of the Japanese-American community’s mission to address social justice issues using the stories of what happened to their family members 75 years ago. Ikeda remembers the stories his family told him of their time inside the camp, and those stories have stayed with him his whole life.
“These were our parents, our grandparents, our neighbors, who were these incredibly decent people and had these stories from before the war and during the war of how their lives were changed when the government decided to round them up and put them in American concentration camps. And so we knew these stories were important,” he said.
Densho, named for a Japanese term which means “to pass on to the next generation or to leave a legacy,” began 21 years ago, making video recordings of camp survivors telling their stories of what live in internment was like. Since then Densho has collected over 900 different video recordings of survivors; 250 of them were made by Ikeda himself.
During his time at the BCRI on April 28 and 29, Ikeda will use personal stories, photographs and political cartoons “to bring people back in terms of what really happened,” he said. “I think people will really sort of see another segment of the population as just Americans… I think it’s important for people who have kind of heard this story [to] actually hear the story from a Japanese-American whose family was impacted by this.”
While stories from the Japanese internment camps play the lead role in his presentations, Ikeda said the main theme involves fighting discrimination and reminding people that immigrants are “vital” to a country’s growth. He said he will also use stories from African-American communities and Muslim communities to discuss patterns of discrimination and the steps citizens can take to help people who are victims of acts stemming from bigotry.
Ikeda has received numerous awards for his contributions to history, including the Humanities Washington Award for outstanding achievement in the public humanities, the National JACL Japanese American of the Biennium award for Education, and an Alumni Integral Fellows Award from Microsoft, where he worked before Densho.
Given Ikeda’s background at that company, it is not surprising that he wanted to incorporate technology as much as possible into spreading the stories he collected. “[We] began placing them on the internet so students and teachers in particular could hear and see these stories of what happened to a community that was targeted because of their race during the time of fear and hate in our country,” Ikeda said.
Ikeda added that, while growing up, he was not fully aware of what both his sets of grandparents and his parents went through. “I didn’t really know that much until high school and college, and then I started asking more and more questions. But when you really look at it, it’s astounding. It really is one of the most extreme, largest cases of civil liberties violations in our country’s history,” he said.
“I know the South has the civil rights issues, but when we think about as a country putting into laws where we’re going to round up 120,000 people — and two-thirds are U.S. citizens — and [they] have no trials, no hearings, and just based on their ancestry round them up and place them in these camps when they’ve done nothing wrong… We wonder, we fear, and we want to discuss whether or not similar things can happen in our country today,” he said.
Ikeda said people should look at the similarities between the South’s civil rights movement and the years leading up to Executive Order 9066. “In the years between 1908 and 1941, especially on the West Coast, there were a lot of discriminatory practices and laws directed [at] the Japanese,” he said. “They couldn’t own land… They were denied access to swimming pools and restaurants so very similar in some ways to some of the Jim Crow era in the South. And again most people in the United States don’t really understand or know or realize this.”
On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and that’s when things got even worse for the Japanese-American community, Ikeda said; fear ran rampant and people became distrustful of their Japanese friends and neighbors. This fear, Ikeda added, ultimately led to the passing of Executive Order 9066. “I want to use this as a cautionary story or tale for people to know that, when we become frightened and when we’re afraid and let fear run our lives, this kind of thing can happen,” Ikeda said.
Current events in the United States show that people need to be reminded of these stories now more than ever, he added. “What I see as a historian is how it starts with the rhetoric and the words,” he said. “In the early 20th century, when my grandparents first came to the United States, the Japanese and Chinese were viewed as a term they used called ‘The Yellow Peril,’ and they were [seen as] dangerous and a corrupting force, and they should not be trusted to be in the country and if [they were allowed] they would destroy American values and take over the country… Then you saw immigration bans… so by the time World War II started, even though they were neighbors and friends, [Japanese-Americans] were viewed as something different, and they couldn’t be trusted.”
Ikeda said that if you fast-forward to today, there’s a clear parallel. “There’s a lot of Islamophobia in particular, around Muslims and Arab-Americans and how they’re portrayed in the media as being different and maybe their religion having them see things differently,” Ikeda said. “We have neighbors or friends who are Muslim, and we talk to them and they’re really no different in terms of their values, their beliefs, their aspirations. In terms of their service to the country, the military, especially in the healthcare field.
“That’s the story that isn’t being seen, and so it reminds me so much of what happened to the Japanese community — how the media and politicians can paint a segment as being different or dangerous, and especially how, if people become fearful, that can be used against the group… So what I want to do is tell these stories.”
Ikeda added that Americans should be wary of the people who want to do harm to the United States, but they should not persecute entire groups of people based on their own discomfort. “As an American, I think about the Constitution. We’ve learned that we need to look at things like guilt and innocence based on the individual and not based on their groups of association, of their religions, or their race, or their country of origin. When we start going to the other side and saying, ‘Well, because of their religion, they’re going to be like this,’ that’s when we run into trouble.”
Both of Ikeda’s parents are alive and well in their 90s, and he said that they are happy to share their stories to help fight discrimination. “When I talk to my parents’ generation about [the current political situation], they aren’t a generation that’s going to pound their chest saying, ‘This is wrong!’ But in their very quiet, modest way they share their stories, because they know this is important. They tell me that they don’t want this to happen to anyone else, [and] that it was unfair. It just took the community… so many decades to recover from this,” he said.
His parents are “pretty upset about what’s happening in our country today and some of the things that our president is saying,” he said, “because they just see it as going down a similar path that caused them to go into these camps. So they are speaking up as much as they can.”
Ikeda’s talk will be Friday, April 28 at 6 p.m. at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 520 16th St. N. The workshop for secondary teachers, called Examining Race & Discrimination: Learning from Oral History to Become Agents of Change on the BCRI website, will be held Saturday, April 29 from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The workshop for teachers is full. For more information or to register for the talk, visit bcri.org.