Japanese Americans still face racial prejudice in Utah


Most wars are fought overseas, far away from the Utah desert where during World War II a Japanese American internment camp was located.

Another fight, however, is still silently taking its toll on citizens waiting for justice, no matter their race.

Koki Omura, a graduate student at the University of Utah, hopes to become a professional musician. Photo courtesy of Omura.

Koki Omura, a Japanese graduate student in music performance at the University of Utah, went without dinner one night because a waitress in Wyoming refused to take his order, let alone serve him.

Omura said he experienced some acts of prejudice and teasing about his accent while growing up in New Jersey, but the experience of being ignored completely was a first.

“Outside of school, things happen,” said Omura, who is from Tokyo. “The countryside and small villages that haven’t seen an Asian before are the worst.” An avid tuba player, Omura left his home country behind to pursue his dream of becoming a professional musician.

America has a history of discrimination against Asian-Americans that peaked following Pearl Harbor.

Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942. The decree forced 120,000 individuals of Japanese heritage from their homes along the Pacific Coast into prisoner camps in the Intermountain West between 1942 and 1945, for the fear they could be loyal to Japan. The years of the internment represent a time Japanese-American citizens want to forget.

Ann Takasaki, a resident of Spanish Fork, Utah, said her family was given two weeks’ notice after this order to get rid of all belongings that didn’t fit in two suitcases, and to leave their home in Santa Anita, Calif., with no prospect of returning.

“They boarded a train from San Francisco for the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming without any property, money or work to look forward to,” Takasaki said.

In these camps, individuals and families were kept together by strict camp rules, high fences and aggressive security officers who were not afraid to use their firearms. Living in difficult conditions, these individuals were cut off from the world as they knew it. When these prisoners were released after two or three years in the camps, they had to start over and re build their lives from nothing.

Compensation for this discrimination toward Japanese citizens was not offered until the 1980s, when each prisoner received $10,000 from the U.S. government as restitution for the imprisonment. Today, the Day of Remembrance on Feb. 19 serves as recognition of the suffering of Japanese Americans at Utah’s Topaz and other camps throughout the West.

In the attempt to return to their homes, many families took the train as far as they could afford in one day, and then stopped to work in smaller villages so they could earn enough money for their next train ticket. Takasaki’s family tried to return to California, but, as many Japanese families in the same circumstances, they ended up finding work on a produce farm in Utah.

The Nishimoto family also resettled in Utah after they were released from Heart Mountain. Joanie Nishimoto, who lives in Heber City, Utah, said the camp’s treatment of her family was severe.

“The prisoners in the barracks were fed the same thing every day: potatoes and corned beef with sweet rice, just anything but Japanese food,” Nishimoto said.

She said the current prejudice against Japanese Americans isn’t anything like what it was at that time. But it will still take significant cultural mixing to fight the prejudices, because she said Utahns have a tendency to stay with their own groups. As the only Japanese student in her high school in Jerome, Idaho, Nishimoto said, “I was pretty enough to be Homecoming Queen, but not a date.”

Despite the years that have passed since these camps existed, Utah still has a long way to go in cultural reform. Paul Fisk, 28, co-president of the Salt Lake City Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, said there are still incidents of discrimination and inappropriate stereotyping of Asian ethnic groups in our neighborhoods.

Wesley Sasaki-Uemura, an associate professor of history at the U, said Japanese Americans learned from the internment “not to suffer injustices silently and obediently.” He believes it’s important to speak out, regardless of which racial or ethnic group is being discriminated against.

“One needs to see the parallels with the treatment of other groups,” he said, “and one needs to do what one can to address inequities.”

Pacific Citizen surviving times of declining traditional media

Story and photo by Andreas Rivera

The Pacific Citizen exists both online and in a monthly print edition.

In September 1929, a small, Asian-run newspaper was first published in San Francisco and has been in print ever since.

Today, The Pacific Citizen is now available both in print and online, and in these times of declining print media, it is still finding ways to connect with its audience.

The PC was started by the Japanese American Citizens League; members have a subscription to the print version of the newspaper that is published and mailed all over the country.

Jeff Itami, a member of the Pacific Citizen’s editorial board,  said the economic problem has affected the paper like any other business. The PC has had to cut operating costs and do some fundraising. According to the PC’s Web site, only six staff members publish the paper, not including contributors.

Even though the paper is part of the JACL, the PC covers a broad variety of issues such as Asian news, profiles of famous Asian Americans and pieces about historical events. It also has no cultural affiliation, meaning its content is not exclusive to Japanese, but to all Asian Americans, said Paul Fisk, co-president of the JACL chapter in Salt Lake City. “It brings a lot of news coverage others don’t.”

Itami said the print version of the Pacific Citizen is declining in circulation. Fisk said membership is steadily declining to the JACL, which could mean declining subscriptions to the PC.

“A lot of our key members are older,” Fisk said. “They are passing away and not a lot of new members are joining.”

About 30,000 people subscribe to the print version, Fisk said, some of whom were Japanese-Americans who were held at internment camps during World War II.

Other reasons for decline in membership are the many splits the JACL experiences due to its stances on certain issues in the media.

Fisk said the JACL lost members during World War II due to its lack of vocalization and action while Japanese-Americans were being interned in camps.

Another, more recent event, occurred when 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, was discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps because of his vocal opposition and refusal to take part in the war in Iraq. The JACL supported Watada, while many members thought it was not relevant to them, creating another split in membership, Fisk said.

The number of print subscriptions the PC has does not reflect its reach, Itami said. The paper is focusing on expanding its online popularity.

Despite the decline of the print version of the paper, Itami said the PC is reaching out to a younger audience. Recently the PC reformatted to a magazine format to appeal to younger readers.

“We are connecting to a younger audience through blogging, MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube, bringing that traffic to the PC,” Itami said. “Traffic is only going up,”

According to the PC’s Web site, it receives about 450,000 hits per month.

Itami said he is not worried about the PC’s financial future. The PC’s advertising revenue (which accounts for 50 percent of the paper’s income) is increasing.

“The PC is not a luxury,” Itami said, “it’s basic information we all need.”

Japanese, American or both?


The Web site for the Utah Japanese-American Citizens League (JACL) is bad, and Salt Lake chapter’s co-president, Paul Fisk, recognizes this.

For an organization representing an entire group of Utahns, the Web site looks disorganized and messy at best. There isn’t a unified theme. The Salt Lake City chapter’s most current electronic newsletter is more than a year old. There are spelling and punctuation errors everywhere. The events calendar for 2010 is almost completely empty. Hollow text boxes dot the pages like tiny picture frames shouting to the world, “Hey! There’s nothing here!”

During a group interview with University of Utah students, Fisk, 27, explained the state of the Web site in these terms.

“One of the problems recently has been that because of declining membership rates, [the JACL] has cut back on some programs,” Fisk said. “It’s probably the same for maintaining the Web site.”

Floyd Mori, the JACL’s national executive director, said membership is on the decline for myriad reasons.

“The Nisei generation [second-generation Japanese Americans] is passing on rapidly with an average age near 90,” Mori said in an e-mail interview. “Also, young people do not see the direct issue of civil rights on an every day basis as before.”

Indeed, the FBI’s 2008 Hate Crime Statistics Table reported only 137 incidents of hate crimes against the broadly defined group of Asian/Pacific Islanders across the entire country.

“The JACL’s primary goal,” Fisk said, “is defending the civil rights of all Americans, particularly Japanese Americans.”

The most pressing civil rights issue currently on the Salt Lake chapter’s list is an offensive poster at a Winger’s Grill & Bar in Murray. The chain’s advertisement depicts a chicken with a Fu Manchu mustache and a Japanese flag headband with the caption, “We use only the finest oriental chickens in our oriental chicken salad.”

Decoration at a Winger's chain in Murray, Utah, advertising its Oriental chicken salad. The sign was subsequently removed. Photo courtesy of PAUL FISK

The JACL’s role doesn’t end at civil rights, though.

“It works to promote cultural, educational and social values of Japanese Americans, and preserve the heritage and legacy of the Japanese-American community,” Fisk explained. But as the lines separating Japanese from American begin to blur, the “Japanese-American” community will be ever more difficult to define.

Floyd Mori attributed this to the high cross-cultural marriage rate among Asian-Americans.

Noriko Okada is a Japanese citizen living in Salt Lake City who runs an English-Japanese translation service. She said it’s easier to classify herself as either American or Japanese and not necessarily Japanese-American. In an interview, Okada, 37, explained these definitions can change depending on the context of her experience.

“When I’m actually stating my opinions and doing what I want to do, I feel American, on the other hand when someone reminds me that I’m an immigrant, at that moment I become Japanese.”

Mori agreed there is no clear-cut definition of what makes a person of Japanese descent living in America a Japanese American. Nor does he know at what point that person ceases to be Japanese.

This nebulous definition of identity presents a problem. How does an organization preserve the Japanese-American experience, when there is seemingly no agreed-upon definition of Japanese American?

“The Japanese-American population’s high rate of cross-cultural marriage leads to the propensity for less association with the Japanese culture,” Mori said. “At the same time, there is a resurgence of younger people wanting to discover ‘who am I?’ The younger generations seem to be moving more towards identifying as an Asian-American rather than simply a Japanese-American.”

While the JACL does have difficulty defining the group for whom they advocate, they do see this as an opportunity for growth in a new direction on a national scale, Mori said. “The JACL must appeal to a broader base beyond the Japanese-American community.”

Looking ahead, Mori plans to change the structure of the JACL to rely more heavily on the skills of business and marketing professionals. “In the past and present, we have been governed by a board interested mostly in advocacy and community action. There will have to be a mix of community action and professional skills,” Mori said.

Mori said if the Utah chapters of the JACL want to mitigate declining numbers, they have some work to do.

“Membership takes aggressive recruitment. The local members have to be active in actually asking others to join,” Mori said. “If they ask, they will join because the JACL has a great tradition and has a lot to offer in terms of cultural activities as well as advocacy opportunities.”

Mori agreed that reassessing the Web site might be a good start.

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