New ‘Day of Remembrance’ for Japanese American internment addresses importance of remembering history

Story and photos by CARLENE COOMBS

In Utah, Feb. 19 will now be recognized as an annual “Day of Remembrance Observing the Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II.” 

During the 2022 state legislative session, Utah State Sen. Jani Iwamoto sponsored the bill, S.B. 58, to designate the annual day of remembrance.

Iwamoto said during a Zoom interview that the bill is “very important and should be to all Americans,” especially with the rise in Asian hate and focus on civil rights over the last two years.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed the bill on Feb. 17 making the day of remembrance official.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order requiring the imprisonment of those of Japanese descent who were living on the West Coast. This order was signed on Feb. 19, 1942. 

In the ensuing six months, more than 100,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast were placed in internment camps. A majority of the people imprisoned were American citizens. 

“This is really an example of a law [that] took away people’s rights,” Iwamoto said, and is a reminder that our liberties can be taken away at any moment. 

Diane Fukami is a third-generation Japanese American whose father’s family was imprisoned in the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. More than 11,000 people were detained there between 1942 and 1945. A majority of those imprisoned at Topaz, which is about 15 miles from Delta, came from the San Francisco Bay area. At one point during its operation, the prison was the fifth largest population center in Utah.  

The Topaz War Relocation Center was located 16 miles northwest of Delta in central Utah and was surrounded by desert landscape. The camp was in operation until Oct. 31, 1945.

During a phone interview, Fukami said she was “really gratified” when she heard about the bill passing.

“I was … very appreciative of both the governor of Utah for doing this and also the people who supported that,” she said.

She said it is important for Americans to know about Japanese American internment camps because they show how fragile civil rights and liberties are. 

“If people understood that their rights, their liberties can be taken away because of wartime hysteria, hopefully they can prevent that from happening again to anybody else,” Fukami said.

Paul Reeve, a history professor at the University of Utah, said remembering this history can hopefully help us in the present when engaging in civil rights and injustice. 

“When we see people engaging in discriminatory rhetoric, harmful actions, racism, we can look at the experiences of the past and recognize what injustice looks like and be willing to stand in places of empathy, and stand up against racial injustice in the present,” Reeve said. 

At the time, Japanese Americans didn’t fit the definition of what it means to be American, Reeve said, so they were seen as more foreign and less loyal to the United States. 

“I think Japanese internment is another tragic example of how we Americans sometimes can look in on minority groups and make them suspects. Create an identity for them, which suggests they don’t fit the majority identity and therefore, we are justified in passing discriminatory policies against them,” Reeve said. 

In 1943, Topaz was the fifth largest population center in Utah with 8,316 internees.

Reeve also said it’s human nature to dehumanize the “enemy” during wartime, something Japanese Americans fell victim to. 

“It’s a manifestation of our desire for national security but a willingness to sacrifice personal liberty, the personal liberty of people of Japanese descent as a result,” Reeve said. 

Fukami, whose grandfather was incarcerated, said she believes American schools don’t do enough to teach about the Japanese American World War II experience.

She said because students have to study George Washington, the Constitution and the Civil War, they should also learn about other groups and what happened to them.  

“Every school kid has to learn about American history,” Fukami said. “And I think that a small component of it should include what happened with Japanese Americans.” 

Reeve said he believes there is a “concerted effort” among Utah history teachers to teach Japanese American internment in the curriculum so students grow up learning and understanding this part of Utah history. 

“It fits the narrative of Utah history. It’s not an outlier experience,” Reeve said. Similarly, he cited the experience of early members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Latter-day Saints arrived in northern Mexico in 1847, because they were fleeing the United States and then branded as un-American for the rest of the 19th century.”

Fukami said as a Japanese American and an independent producer who has done a lot of work on Japanese American internment, she feels a responsibility to educate others on this part of history.

“We think it’s our responsibility to educate people about what happened during World War II so that it doesn’t happen again to any other group of people in this country,” Fukami said. “And for us, that is one of the biggest challenges is to make sure that people know about the Japanese American concentration camps.”

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