Sunday, June 21, 2009

Executive Order 9066

The Japanese American National Museum

Henry Sugimoto

Last Thursday, after we had stuffed ourselves silly with well and finely grilled cheese sandwiches (mine garnished with the all essential mustard, which my lovely case manager, Erin, called "Disgusting!"), a group of about ten of us met at the infamous Las Americas Hotel at one o'clock. This was our staging area from where we would push on to the Japanese American National Museum, in Little Tokyo. We would walk there as it was located just north on Alameda, on First Street. One day each month all the museums in Los Angeles open their doors to the public for free, and last Thursday was that day for the Japanese American National Museum.
I'd never been there, although I pass it several times a week on my way to the Veteran's Administration Downtown Clinic, so I was looking forward to our adventure.
We took off, me and Jose taking up the point positions to make sure the way was safe, Erin and Candice close behind, and Paul and the rest of the laggards struggling to keep up. It was a tad too sunny for Erin's and my taste, and hot, but what can one do?
"Erin," I said, "you were in charge of the weather today. What's up with this heat?"
The Japanese American National Museum opened in 1992, and is devoted to preserving the history and culture of... well, Japanese Americans. It contains artifacts, textiles, art, photographs, oral and film histories of Japanese Americans from the 1920s to the 1950s. And lots of suitcases. The museums entrance is pictured above (that's me and Erin in the foreground, arm wrestling over who's smarter. She won).
We made it there relatively safely and went inside, where we were each given little green stickers to place on our shirts to designate us as official visitors, rather than imposter visitors. Then we went about to see what the museum offered.
We first came upon an exhibition of traditional Japanese kokeshi art, or toys. Little, rounded out sculptures, that resembled eggs dressed as dolls. Very nice... and very expensive, each doll labeled as being worth anywhere from $300 to several thousand dollars.
Next we found a small theater which played a video concerning the life of the Japanese American painter, Henry Sugimoto, on a continuous loop.
Henry Sugimoto (1900-1990) immigrated from Japan to the United States in 1919, the same year my father was born. Henry's father wanted Henry to become a dentist, but Henry had spent his youth drawing and painting, and wished to become a professional artist, which he did, with his work being exhibited at the Salon d'Automne in Paris, the California Palace of Legion of Honor, and the San Francisco Museum of Art. He received numerous awards until he died at the age of 90 on May 8, 1990 at his home in New York. Now his paintings have been exhibited in many public and private galleries in the United States, Europe, and Japan.
At the end of the video (the voice of Henry in this video was portrayed by the Academy Award nominated Japanese American actor, Mako, who himself passed away just three years ago. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the 1966 film, The Sand Pebbles, with Steve McQueen and Candice Bergen, directed by Robert Wise, of The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music, and The Haunting, fame) Henry made clear to me that we had at least one thing in common. We both wish our art, his paintings, and my scribblings, to survive our deaths, and leave some kind of record of our existance.
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Henry and his family were interned in a concentration camp, along with most of those with a Japanese ancestry on the west coast.
After the video I asked Erin if she knew about the Japanese internment, testing her.
"Yes, I do," she said. "Japanese American internment refers to the forcible relocation and internment in nineteen forty two of approximately one hundred and ten thousand Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans to housing facilities called "War Relocation Camps", in the wake of Imperial Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. The internment of Japanese Americans was applied unequally throughout the United States. Japanese Americans residing on the west coast of the United States were all interned, whereas in Hawaii, where more than one hundred and fifty thousand Japanese Americans composed nearly a third of that territory's population, only twelve hundred to eighteen hundred Japanese Americans were interned. Of those interned, sixty two percent were United States citizens. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized the internment with Executive Order Nine Zero Six Six on February nineteenth, nineteen forty two, which allowed local military commanders to designate "military areas" as "exclusion zones", from which "any or all persons may be excluded." This power was used to declare that all people of Japanese ancestry were excluded from the entire Pacific coast, including all of California and most of Oregon and Washington, except for those in internment camps. In nineteen forty four, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion orders, while noting that the provisions that singled out people of Japanese ancestry were a separate issue outside the scope of the proceedings. In nineteen eighty eight, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed legislation which apologized for the internment on behalf of the US Government. The legislation stated that government actions were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." About one point six billion in reparations were later disbursed by the U.S. government to surviving internees and their heirs."
"A sad time in our nation's history," she added.
Jose and I were left dumbstruck.
"Wow," I said, "I'm impressed with your deep and vast knowledge."
"Thanks," she said happily, then walked off to see the rest of the museum.
Which consisted mostly of artifacts, films, and displays concerning the interment. They even had one of the barracks relocated and preserved.
Rodney captured a real Japanese American, and got him to talk about his families history and his association with the museum.
After about an hour and a half we were done, and ready to walk back. Most of us made it back safely. At about the half way mark we noticed that Paul had disappeared.
"Where's Paul," I asked.
No one knew.
"He was here a minute ago," Watson said.
He hasn't been heard from since.
Dear Paul, we hardly knew ye.

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