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Connecting the dots between the travel ban and Japanese American incarceration

Dorothea Lange
The Mochida family in Hayward, CA.


On this edition of Your Call, we’ll talk about how the laws and policies that enabled the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II are resurfacing today.

We’ll speak with the filmmaker of “And Then They Came for Us,” in which people who were incarcerated tell their stories and speak out against the Muslim travel ban. We’ll also hear from Don Tamaki, who served on the legal team that helped overturn Fred Korematsu’s criminal convictions for refusing to be incarcerated.


Abby Ginzberg, Peabody-winning filmmaker, producer and director of “And Then They Came for Us”

Don Tamaki, attorney and a partner at the law firm of Minami Tamaki LLP, former Executive Director of the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco

Web Resources:

Futures Without Violence: Free Screenings of “And Then They Came for Us”

New York Times: How the Supreme Court Replaced One Injustice With Another



Rose Aguilar: Welcome, I'm Rose Aguilar. And this is Your Call. 

Americans responded to the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces with heightened war hysteria and overt racism, which were reflected in a policy with the passage of Executive Order 9066 in 1942. It paved the way for 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry — citizens or not — to be forced out of their homes and incarcerated for several years. 

After 9/11 the United States again saw a rise of xenophobia and stereotyping this time against Muslims. On the campaign trail, candidate Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. At the end of last year, a seminal case arising from the incarceration of Japanese Americans was referenced in the Supreme Court decision upholding a version of Trump’s travel ban. 

In the documentary, “And Then They Came for Us”, Japanese Americans who were incarcerated tell their stories and speak out against the Muslim-travel ban. Today we are joined by Abby Ginzberg. Her latest film is “And Then They Came for Us”. It explores the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. 

Abby Ginzberg is a Peabody-winning producer and director who has been making award-winning documentaries about race and social justice for the past 30 years. Welcome to the show Abby, and congratulations on this incredible documentary.

Abby Ginzberg: Thank you very much, and it's nice to be here.

RA: It's great to have you and if you are in the Bay Area you can see “And Then They Came for Us” at an exhibit at Futures Without Violence in San Francisco's Presidio. It's free and open to the public Wednesday through Sunday 10:00 to 5:00 p.m. through May 27th, and the screenings are every Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 to 11:30, noon to 1:00, and 4:00 to 5:00, and you can find more information at yourcallradio.org. 

We’re also joined by Don Tamaki, an attorney and partner at the law firm of Minami Tamaki LLP. Don is an East Bay native whose parents were incarcerated at the Topaz concentration camp which held over 8,000 internees for three and a half years in the Utah desert. Don helped found the Asian Law Alliance in San Jose and was the executive director of the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco. Hi, Don. Thank you for joining us.

Don Tamaki: Thanks for having me.


The Story Behind  “And Then They Came for Us”

RA: Abby, we have been doing a number of special shows about Japanese internment thanks to a grant we got from the California Libraries Foundation or Association, it's escaping me, but I'll find the right name. And I have to say it's been such an amazing experience to not only learn about this history, but to meet so many people who were directly affected by this like the amazing people in your film who were interned when they were children. And even in your film I just keep learning more and more about the history and we'll talk more about the photographers — Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams — who were sent to the camps to take photos. It’s such an amazing story. Why did you decide to make this documentary? And when did you first learn about Japanese internment?

AG: Well, because I'm now a senior citizen, I got interested in the whole issue of you know, Japanese internment when Don and his partners, re-opened the Korematsu case. So I was already a young lawyer back in the early ‘80s, when they were reopening that case and because we're all sort of part of a social justice-oriented generation of young attorneys back then, I was aware of that case. I was following it. I knew who Judge Patel was. So my interest in it really was essentially, I don't know, piqued by the work that they were doing on the original Korematsu case. And you know that just sort of sits in the back of your mind, you know about it etc. and I had met Fred and Karen over many years. So it's something that I knew something about, cared about, understood as an incredible, you know, unconstitutional violation of civil and human rights. 

And the way that the film came about is this: There was a book that was in the process of being published which had sort of the first really beautiful reproductions of these photographs by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Clem Albers and others. This book was on its way to publication and the people associated with the book including the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation thought that maybe this book needed a companion sort of DVD, that there would be a way to sort of draw people to the pictures in the book and so on. And they came to me and we had a discussion about it. At that point the book was in page proof, but I looked at the book and I thought, “man, these photographs are fabulous and I'm you know, relatively well-versed in Dorothea Lange's work,” but I had never seen these kinds of beautiful reproductions. And what had happened was two archivists from Chicago, Rich Cain and Michael Williams had spent the last couple of years in the National Archives, curating all these photos from the incarceration and figuring out the stories that they were going to tell in this book. And they did the really important leg work of finding the children who were in these pictures, because everybody else really at this point was dead — their parents were dead. And locating them, you know, so many of the children in the photos — if you were seven, or if you were three or five or whatever, you know, you were in your 70s, either early or late 70s by the time they got onto this project. 

So the discussion comes to me, “would I be interested in making a film about this?” And as I was thinking about it and trying to figure out what else I could kind of bring to the table to make it a unique film, Trump goes around talking about how there's going to be a total and complete ban on Muslims coming into the country. And once I could link what we had done to the Japanese to what we're about to do the Muslims, I saw the film. And that was what sort of led me to the film that I ultimately made well and so the book was the genesis of it. 

RA: And it's a beautiful film and it's also amazing to learn and doing all of these shows about Japanese internment, I keep hearing this more and more, that after 9/11 Japanese American organizations reached out to Muslim American organizations to basically say, “We're here for you. We went through this. We're going to support you.”

AG: Yes. And what was you know kind of lucky from a filmmaking point of view was that a rally was held in Japantown during the course of the time that we are making the film in which Japanese Americans and Muslim Americans  were joined in solidarity around resisting the Trump travel ban, and we got footage of that and we opened and closed the film with it. 

So there was you know, kind of a live-action event in San Francisco that was sort of in conjunction with all the activities that were taking place at the airports, and those things together kind of fill out one of the ways in which we try to make the links. The other thing you know that the film does and I think in an important interview with Zahra Billoo from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). She's the head of the Bay Area chapter of that. And she says, “Concentration camps or these camps don't happen overnight. They are the result of a long-term campaign of hate and prejudice that is fomenting a belief system that enables you to imprison your own citizens.” And I think her explanation and sort of the way that she talks about it helps sort of flush out something that was also going on during the 1940s. You know, that they were fomenting hate against Japanese. it wasn't just like one day everybody had to report to the camps there. The soil had been tilled and that's the point that we make on both of these stories, both the story of the travel ban and the Japanese incarceration and the similarities are really important to understand. 

RA: Abby Ginzberg’s film is “And Then They Came for Us”. Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II tell their stories and speak out against the Muslim travel ban, and you can watch the trailer at yourcallradio.org and find showtimes. 

Korematsu Case Even More Relevant Today

RA: Don Tamaki served on the legal team, which reopened the landmark Supreme Court Korematsu vs. the United States overturning Fred Korematsu's criminal convictions for refusing to be incarcerated. He served in 1983 to 1985. Don, I'm wondering what this experience has been like for you? Because you know, these documentaries come out, we do shows about them, a book comes out, we do shows about them. But because of the travel ban and the Trump Administration's immigration policies, we’re spending so much more time on these issues and it's really been a great experience to be able to dive into this and learn so much about it. I was really struck at one of our live events, I asked the audience, how many of you learned about this in your high school classes beyond two lines in a history book? And hardly anyone raised their hand. So what has this experience been like for you now that you know in the national conversation, the larger conversation, so many people are talking about this history?

DT: Well, it's good that people understand the history, but it is a sad fact that suddenly the Korematsu case has become more relevant today than even when we first reopened these cases in the 1980s. It should be a sad chapter in American history, a relic really, and a curiosity and an anomaly, but at this point, it's actually more relevant now than ever. And as every high school student knows we have three branches of government: the Legislative Branch, Congress, the Judiciary Courts, and the presidency. And each is supposed to be coequal. In the case of Japanese Americans being incarcerated during World War II, all three branches failed. The Constitution failed. Nobody asked questions about whether this was legal or constitutional or whether in fact there was a good reason to round these people up. And in fact, what happened was they were rounded up merely because they look like the enemy. And today we're actually sadly seeing the same thing over again. 

The parallels between the Korematsu case in which Fred challenged and lost the rounding up process that happened to him and 120,000 others, and the travel ban are really disturbing. You know, both arose out of war. Both featured the government invoking national security to shield its actions from judicial scrutiny. Both had abundant evidence of prejudice expressed by high officials against a targeted minority. Both involve hidden intelligence reports that the government refused to disclose, and both ended with the court failing to question, whether these sweeping deprivations of fundamental freedoms were really necessary for the nation’s safety or were merely the fulfillment of racist policies and bigoted campaign promises? So that's the lesson of the Korematsu case particularly when the courts abdicate their constitutional role to ask probing questions. 

And sadly, we learned 40 years after the fact of the gravity of courts’ abdication. Secret World War II intelligence reports from the FBI, the Federal Communications Commission, the Navy – all were surfaced, each of them admitting that Japanese Americans had committed no wrong and basically calling the Army's claims that this was a dangerous population “intentional falsehoods and fabrications,” and we found in reopening these cases that the government not only suppressed the evidence, but in certain cases burned them. Burned these reports. And they were never presented to the US Supreme Court. So the court having no real evidence before it, simply said, “Well if the military tells us that if this is necessary for the nation’s safety, then we believe the military.” 

And regrettably in the Trump travel ban, you know, these sweeping orders — we talk about the Muslim ban, but it's really about separating American families. There are for example, Iranian American engineers working at Google here in the United States who can't see their families. They are separated. There were refugees who were already granted Visas who had served the armed forces and the United States who are now stuck in refugee camps and can't enter the United States because of this ongoing ban. And when this came before the court in June of 2018, the court essentially said well if the president tells us that this is a national security and it makes the country safer then we're not going to ask any questions and this is within the authority of the government and we defer to him. And that is a very dangerous principal. 

RA: Don, can you elaborate on this a bit? I mean just to repeat some of the information you shared with us. Again in 1942, Fred Korematsu was charged with refusing the exclusion orders. He was arrested and taken to the horse stalls in Tanforan. And Karen Korematsu, Fred's daughter, she's been on this show. In Abby's documentary “And Then They Came for Us,” she says, “People don't realize that my dad was vilified from day one. When he was taken from federal jail to the Presidio and then Tanforan, no one wanted anything to do with him. They thought that if they associated with my father, some harm might come to them. Not even his brother supported him.” They were just afraid and you can completely understand that fear. And as you said, so he challenged the exclusion to the Supreme Court, the court upheld his incarceration, and then you all, on the legal team, learned that the government lied to the Supreme Court and altered the evidence to win the cases. Can you elaborate on that? And what should the falsification and the destruction of evidence tell us? What does it reveal?


DT: Well, I think it reveals when nobody is asking any questions and when the court is looking the other way, then the temptation to fabricate the facts, alter the evidence and shape it and in order to manipulate the outcome, to achieve a political end, having nothing to do with justice that pressure is almost irresistible. And in essence that's what happened. When Fred Korematsu challenged this massive program of rounding up Americans — and remember this population was about 120,000 but two-thirds of those people were born in this country, people like my parents, who had never been to Japan. So all they knew was being an American, growing up here. And the government defended Fred's challenge based on two grounds. One they claimed that Japanese Americans were engaging in espionage and sabotage in the form of signaling enemy ships from shore. And the other argument they said is these people are so different as a people — they speak a different language, they worship a different God, they're of a different culture – they’re unassimilated and unassimilable. In other words, they can never be American like the rest of us. And on that basis, these cases marched up through the lower courts to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

And quite by accident 40 years later Peter Irons and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga are rummaging around in the archives of the Department of Commerce, trying to locate Fred Korematsu's justice department file. And lo and behold they uncovered the boxes containing secret justice department memoranda. There were reports from the Navy, reports from J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, reports from the Federal Communications Commission – each one of them exonerating Japanese Americans. There was one report from the Federal Communications Commission's saying, “We have been monitoring the airwaves since the beginning of the war. And these claims that Japanese Americans are engaging in espionage and sabotage being made by the Army, are completely false. They're picking up radio signals emanating from Tokyo and they're calling them shorter ship transmissions.”

There are other Justice Department lawyer memoranda which said that there's no question that the Army's claims that Japanese Americans are engaging in espionage and sabotage our “intentional falsehoods and fabrications.” And so there was a battle within the Justice Department. There was some lawyers who really wanted to disclose this as an ethical obligation. They knew it was tantamount to the suppression of evidence and there are others who said, “No, we have to cover it up and uphold President Roosevelt's program.” And when these cases were argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, the solicitor general of the United States, Charles Fahy, was told by these Justice Dept. lawyers that the arguments that the Army was making were known to be false. And yet, he told the court that the orders were based on military necessity, and on that basis and the 6-3 decision, the court upheld this shameful decision as bad as the Dred Scott decision or Plessy vs. Ferguson upholding separate but equal. And that case stood for the next 40 years, until quite by accident. We were able to locate these secret documents. 

And fast forward now to June of 2018, in defending the Trump travel ban, the Justice Department said it's based on a global Homeland Security report indicating that if we ban travel from these five, six Muslim-majority countries, it will enhance the safety of the nation. And during the court challenges, for example, in the cases going up in Maryland Judge Theodore Chuang asked, “Well you say that this is based upon reason based upon a Homeland Security report, may I see it?” And the government responded, “No, it's confidential.” And then the judge asked, “Well, how do I know this isn't like the Korematsu case? Am I going to find out years later that this Homeland Security report in fact undermines and contradicts the government's position?” And the government really didn't have a good answer, and we had hoped that when the case went up to the U.S. Supreme Court,  the Supreme Court would say, well, let's see that Homeland Security report. And the fact of the matter is they never requested it. This is by a 5-4 majority. The majority never required it, and instead basically ignored the campaign record of President Trump calling for a complete and shutdown of Muslims entering the country just rife with anti-Islamic animus, and basically said, “No this has nothing to do with bigotry. What this has to do with national security and in cases of national security we're going to defer to the president.” And that is the most troubling aspect of the Korematsu case — repeated now in modern day despite all of the overt racist declarations and anti-Islamic statements that this administration has made. 

RA: So what is the current status of the Korematsu case?  

DT: Well to me, I mean the Chief Justice Roberts makes a laudatory statement that “Korematsu has no place in history. It's been repudiated. It has no place under the Constitution or under law.” But in the same breath, he pivots and basically says, “And oh, by the way, this has nothing to do with Korematsu. This has everything to do with national security.” And ironically and disturbingly he repeats the Korematsu principle that when the government invokes national security, the court is going to stand down, bow to the will of the executive, and not ask any questions. And that is a problem because we're seeing this being repeated. For example, when Japanese Americans were rounded up merely because they looked like the enemy, and in its possession, the government had from its own intelligence agencies, reports which contradicted the Army's claims, that basically admitted there was no reason to do this to these Americans. Nobody asked any questions. Nobody asked for those reports. Nobody asked for any of that. 

In June of 2018, the court had an opportunity to say, “What is the basis for this massive deprivation of fundamental freedom?” You know, the right to enter the country and for families not to be separated. And the court never asked for that Homeland Security report. They never demanded it. They simply said, “If the president tells us this is for national security, then we believe the president.” So that Korematsu principle has been essentially imported from a 1944 case into a 2018 case and brought and reaffirmed. And now we had one more thing that's going on: the president having been rejected by the Congress to appropriate funds for a wall has now declared a national emergency in order to circumvent the constitutional authority of Congress.  And the question becomes, is this national emergency have any basis in fact? Is it really a national emergency or is it simply a fulfillment of a campaign promise to a base? And I think uniformly, every intelligence agency has said, “there isn't a national emergency. This is about a bunch of migrant families with children coming across the border fleeing poverty and war and terror.” And so again, is the court going to stand down and not ask any questions? 

AG: There was so much pushback on the last two Supreme Court nominees whose views on executive power were well known ahead of time. So in a depressing way, it's no surprise that this Supreme Court, you know, it didn't have Kavanaugh on it when it decided Trump vs. Hawaii, but it had you know, it had Gorsuch and now it has Kavanaugh and now we are seeing the results of people who believe in very expansive executive authority and as Don says completely unquestioned executive authority. But that in some ways is predictable given who's being placed on the Supreme Court and it's why it's so important that you know, the average citizen understand how important these appointments are, because they affect all the decisions that come down the road as long as these guys are sitting on the court. 

RA: That is Abby Ginzberg. She's an award-winning producer and director. Her latest film is “And Then They Came for Us.”  Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II tell their stories and speak out against the Muslim travel ban. You can find showtimes and watch the trailer at yourcallradio.org. 

We're also joined by Don Tamaki an attorney and partner at the law firm, Minami Tamaki. Don is an East Bay-native whose parents were incarcerated at Topaz Concentration Camp, which held over 8,000 internees for three and a half years in the Utah desert. From 1983 to 1985 Don served on the legal team, which reopened the landmark Supreme Court Korematsu vs. the United States, overturning Fred Korematsu's criminal convictions for refusing to be incarcerated. 

This is Your Call. We are continuing our special series on Japanese American internment thanks to a grant from the California Civil Liberties Education Program. We will be back after this. 

This is Your Call. I'm Rose Aguilar. Coming up tomorrow, we will talk about a major new report from a bipartisan panel that lays out a plan to cut child poverty in the United States and half over the next decade. Strategies include increasing tax credits, expanding housing vouchers and nutrition assistance and raising the minimum wage. The proposals would cost at least $90 billion a year, but the report says child poverty currently costs about a trillion a year. So when will Congress take action on this? That's tomorrow. Friday, it's our media roundtable. And if you have a show idea or if you have some feedback for us, you can email your call at kalw.org. You can also find past shows at your call radio dot org. 

Today we are continuing our special series on Japanese internment during World War II. We're speaking with Abby Ginzberg, a Peabody-winning producer and director. Her latest film is “And Then They Came For Us”. Really an incredible, beautiful film about Japanese Americans who were incarcerated. They tell their stories, they also speak out against the Muslim travel ban. We're also joined by Don Tamaki, an attorney and partner with the law firm Minami Tamaki. He's an East Bay-native whose parents were incarcerated at the Topaz concentration camp, which held over 8,000 internees for three and a half years in the Utah desert. And if you'd like to join us – if you have a question for Abby or Don, or if you have a story to tell, if your family was incarcerated or anyone in your family was incarcerated – what echoes of the political climate then do you hear today? You can give us a call at –––– or if you or someone, you know has been affected by the Muslim travel ban, excuse me, or any of the immigration policies, what connections do you see? We'd love to hear from you also. 

More Resisters: Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui.

RA: Abby, what else really stood out for you when you are doing interviews on this film just about the legal issues, and the more you learned about, you know, Fred's case, and the legal team? You have actually a clip from Fred Korematsu. He said, “I had to do some real deep thinking in order to reopen this case. This is not only for Japanese Americans. It's for all American citizens.” 

AG: Yeah, well that was kind of Fred’s point of view throughout his life. I don't know whether Karen Korematsu, his daughter, shared with you the fact that Fred never informed her, you know, of his personal story. She learned about the Korematsu case when she was in high school, and went home and said to her father, who's this? Who is this person in Korematsu vs. the United States? So Fred had spent a lot of his life not talking about it. And even when Karen asked him about it, you know, he was sort of...it took him a long time I think to decide that he was sort of going to be willing to be you know the Korematsu of today who we all know who really stood for civil rights and civil liberties of all Americans, as he says not just Japanese Americans. So I've always had the utmost respect for Fred and for the role he was willing to play in letting you know...in enabling his case to be reopened. 

And I think we shouldn't forget the other two people who kind of were part of this whole story, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui. I feel like their names need to be remembered as well and the contributions that they made by resisting the orders were similar. So I think what I would say about this was this was it was less what I learned and more how important it was for me to share it. When I got to start making this film, there was you know, it was like there was a line in the sand that I wasn't going to agree to do this film unless I could tell the Korematsu story. So I came into this project knowing that story. I came into this project feeling this isn't some ways what I brought to the table for my earlier legal background and from knowing Don and Dale and the other people on the team. So for me, it was an opportunity to try to figure out how to craft both the story of what happened back in 1942 and to describe what happened in the early ‘80s, and you know having Judge Patel agreed to be interviewed was also very important to me. So I think there is a way in which I drag my former career as a social justice lawyer with me wherever I go. And even though this was a film that was largely told through photographs and individual stories etc. I knew that if I was making this film it had to include the Fred Korematsu story. So that's what I would say. And that it was with an eye towards making sure that if this film was going to get seen that people themselves would learn something about this case, which maybe they didn't know. They would meet Karen Korematsu who maybe they hadn't met yet, you know meet her on film. And so that was really where my motivation for including the Korematsu story came from. You know, it was less of an aha moment for me. Oh, yes. I should include this. I went into this project knowing I wanted to. And I think it kind of broadened the scope of the film by doing it. 

I didn't want to make a film that was all about sort of photographic history. It needed to have a contemporary resonance. And so I think by bringing the Korematsu case into it again as Don says, we didn't have any idea just how contemporary it was going to be in May of 2017 when I released the film. But in the last two years, it has become increasingly contemporary with each passing day. And I think that you know a combination of the Trump vs. Hawaii case and increased you know border activity by this president etcetera has really made the film kind of speak to the moment. 

RA: And since you brought up

AG: Does that answer your question?

RA: Yes. Definitely. Since you brought up Gordon Hirabayashi and is it, Minoru Yasui? 

AG: Minoru Yasui. 

RA: Thank you. Can you tell us about those men also? Because a lot more people are learning about Fred Korematsu. There's now a children's, a beautiful children's book about him, but tell us more about Gordon and Minoru? 

DT: I would love to. Minoru Yasui again an American citizen born in the Hood River area in Oregon went to law school, graduated from the University of Oregon and was a lawyer. And when the you know, the rounding up of Americans started incrementally. It started with a race-based curfew. And Japanese Americans could not leave their homes after eight o'clock at night and had to remain there until 6:00 in the morning. So Minoru said that any deprivation of freedom like that of Americans was unconstitutional and his plan was to get others, other Japanese Americans, to violate the law and he would represent them and he would win. I mean that's what he believed... thought and believed. And Japanese Americans said, “Are you crazy?” You know, they now we're being targeted on a curfew, they're going to round us up and so men couldn't get a client so to speak so he became his own client. Armed with a birth certificate and watch, he began walking the streets of Portland basically trying to get himself arrested and after walking until midnight — was not getting any success in that — he walked into a Portland Police Station showed them his birth certificate said, you know, “I'm violating the law. I’m an Japanese American, arrest me.” And they did. And for that act of defiance, he spent almost nine months in solitary confinement before being incarcerated in Wyoming. 

Gordon Hirabayashi was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle and is Quaker and you know in keeping with the curfew orders he at first initially began to obey them. But he realized — you know, he packed up his books and and run out of the library while his classmates were studying and having fun —and he realized by obeying these orders he gave them credence and so he began to openly defy them. And when the orders escalated and he was ordered to report to an assembly center they called it — it's really temporary military detention while the concentration camps were being constructed inland — he refused to obey that... When they began drafting Japanese Americans, believe it or not out of the concentration camps, he refused to obey that in keeping with his Quaker beliefs. So between federal jail and prison he spent almost two years in confinement. 

And Fred Korematsu was born and raised in Oakland. He left his family. He was in love with an Italian-American girl at the time. As an American citizen, he tried to join the armed forces. He was rejected because of his racial ancestry and he didn't regard himself as the enemy, he tore up his enemy alien registration card, which all Japanese Americans had been issued. He took on a new name, and he just wanted to live his life. 

And so all three of these gentlemen took stands of conscience in their own way. They didn't know each other and those cases ultimately wound their way up to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943 and 1944. And in a series of decisions the court upheld the government's action claiming that it was not based on racial hostility, but it was based upon national security, they called it, “military necessity” at that point. What they didn't have before it was the evidence from the government's own intelligence files where every intelligence agency having anything to do with Japanese Americans had basically said the Army's claims that Japanese Americans posed a danger and were engaging in spying were false. That information was never presented to the U.S. Supreme Court having been suppressed and in some cases destroyed. 

Loyalty Questionnaire

RA: And Abby it was also so interesting to learn that as families were being released from these concentration camps, they had to once again prove their loyalty by taking a sort of prove their loyalty test, which I had never heard of. Can you tell us more about that? 

AG: Well, that's I think you've sort of conflated two things. There was there was a loyalty questionnaire, that had these two questions. You know, this was sort of trying to decide who was going to get released and who was going to essentially get sent to Tule Lake. There were two questions: one was, would you forswear your allegiance to the emperor of Japan and as somebody in our film says, you know, he says,  “The emperor Japan— we didn't even know who the emperor of Japan was.” And will you declare your loyalty to the United States? And the issue was, if you answered yes, yes, then you were considered “loyal.” But if for any reason… And other people in the film explain why various parents may have decided to say no. George Takei's parents said no. You know, people were unsure or they were resisting or whatever. There were a whole series of reasons why people might have said no, but if you said no to either of those questions, you got shipped off and were incarcerated essentially in a stockade within a camp. So Satsuki Ina’s father who was considered a rebellious leader of the opposition to this loyalty oath, ended up being placed in this stockade in Tule Lake, then at some point he gets shipped off to a different camp and she who is at this point, maybe two years old, her brother who's maybe four years old, and her mother, spend an additional two years in Tule Lake before they get released. They get released after the war's over. I mean there's been peace has been declared and they’re still in Tule lake. 

So this loyalty questionnaire became, you know, another way of “the government sorting people out” between the people who were “loyal” and those who weren't. But there were so many different reasons why someone might have answered one of those questions “no” First of all, the questions were hard to understand, they were poorly written. It was a poorly conceived loyalty questionnaire in the first place and the fact is that it had a huge impact on people who didn't exactly know what they were saying or what they really meant by it…  I mean Satsuki's parents were in a situation where they thought they maybe would have to go back to Japan. Because they, you know, they had suffered so terribly in the camps and they were so identified as “rebellious” etc. You know, they were they were ready to renounce their citizenship and that happened to large numbers of people. That's a whole story that the film doesn't tell. But there were a large number of families in these camps who ended up sort of thinking that they had to go back to Japan. They ended up becoming what they're called renunciants, and it was only several years later when an attorney named Wayne Collins figured out that this was all done under duress, that he basically was able to reinstate their American citizenship. 

So things got way complicated for people who were already incarcerated and as I say sort of the ability to get released had to do with answering those two questions yes, and that didn't guarantee you would get released. But at least you were, you know, potentially releasable and the other thing that a yes got you was the capacity to be sent to the U.S. Army. Then they were trying to get people to you know register for the U.S. Army, and that again people didn't want to do that. They'd already been held prisoner by the U.S. government. You know, not everybody wanted to sign up and go fight in the 4-4-2 in Europe. So does that does that sort of follow? 

But what you were referring to as a loyalty oath. Once the war was over and the camps were closed down putting the loyalty oath aside, people were released. But the other problem with the release was almost everybody who is incarcerated had come from the West Coast. There were big efforts made not to have people returned to the West Coast. George Takei and Saburo Masada talk about the problems that they faced when they returned home. They were referred to as “little jap boys.” Saburo Masada’s sister wasn't allowed to graduate from high school and we don't want “Japs graduating in our class.” It wasn't like the war ended, the camps were closed, and everybody went, you know, kind of and life just resumed. It was very very challenging and many many families ended up in the midwest. Chicago ended up with 20,000 Japanese Americans that had never lived there before, people went to New York and it took people years to figure out where they were going to live. Could they come back to the West Coast? But there was, sort of I don't know, implicit resistance to having people come back to the cities and towns where they had left and been ordered, rounded up from. So people suffered a tremendous amount on the back end as well as on the front end. 

RA: Abby Ginzberg is a Peabody-winning producer and director. Her latest film is “And Then They Came For Us.” Japanese Americans who were incarcerated tell their stories and speak out against the Muslim travel ban. You can find the trailer and showtimes at yourcallradio.org. We're also joined by Don Tamaki an attorney and partner with the law firm Minami Tamaki. Don is an East Bay native whose parents were incarcerated at the Topaz concentration camp, which held over 8,000 internees for three and a half years in the Utah Desert. 

From Silence to Speaking Out 

RA: Don when you were growing up did your parents talk about their experiences?  

DT: They really did not. I think this is part of what's been called intergenerational trauma and it's pretty typical of any group that's undergone such stress. And you see it for example, among refugees who fled war and terror and now are establishing themselves in this country. They really don't talk about those problems because putting their best foot forward. They don't want to think about it. I think it's only a natural thing. So my parents did not talk about it. What really turned them around is when we uncovered these documents. 

These were official intelligence reports from the government and the U.S. Justice Department. Each of which said that Japanese Americans had done nothing wrong. There was no reason to lock them up and we should disclose the truth to the U.S. Supreme Court and not falsify evidence. And when they saw that of course they do that they were completely loyal Americans. They viewed themselves as American citizens and they were, but when they when they saw that they of course they knew that they had been screwed but they didn't know how badly they were screwed. And when they saw the U.S. government’s own official reports — some of which Justice Department lawyers are pleading with superiors, including the solicitor general of the United States Charles Fahy and the Attorney General of the United States that the government had a duty to tell the truth to the U.S. Supreme Court — my parents and many others suddenly begin talking about it in a much freer way. And it was an eye-opener for the public that this had even happened. And it was a good thing for history and a good thing for America to know about in the hopes that this kind of thing should never be repeated. 

AG: And just to add one other thing, which is that the effort for reparations, which resulted in a $20,000 payment to each living, essentially survivor of the incarceration,  also provided a platform for people to finally start to discuss their experiences. That happened after the Korematsu reopening. It happened in the late 80s, but there was a lot of community organizing around the reparations effort and a lot of people spoke about it and there was you know public hearings, and that again provided a chance for people to kind of revisit this from revisit the experience from a slightly more empowered standpoint.

RA: I'd like you both to end by talking about the connections between Japanese internment and what we're seeing today. At one of our live shows Norm Ishimoto had a hard time talking about what his family endured. And he said when he saw kids being separated from their families at the border, he thought about what his family endured.  And we've had a few people on this show call in and say there's there's no connection between Japanese internment and the separation of children from their parents at the border, children from Central America, for example. Don, what would you say to that? 

DT: Well, if people look at it, for example, that WWII involved Japanese Americans and now current day involves migrants, I guess they're going to see a difference. But if they look at beneath the surface about the failures of all three branches of government, it is the same, Okay. And what I mean to say there is if neither the Congress nor the courts has the will to hold this president accountable or hold any president accountable to the rule of law, and if the public no longer has a common understanding of what facts are due to this president's habit of lying and deceit and you know assaults on the free press, calling the press the enemy of the people. This is how, this is how dictators get started and ...that's the repeat. That's what's what's going on. 

In other words when rule of law and the Constitution is denigrated and no one stands up to this and when the president is emboldened to go around the Constitution by declaring national emergencies, when none exist – basically making it up, that's exactly what happened to Japanese Americans. There's the parallel. We know that the claim of military necessity upholding the Korematsu case and the challenges against Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui  was made up. It was fabricated. It never existed, and nobody asked any questions. And as a result, you got a huge hole in the Constitution. 

Now we have a travel ban in place separating American families and no one is asking any questions. The court is not holding the Executive Branch to account. Now, we've got a national emergency declared at the border and the question again repeats itself: Is the court going to stand down and abdicate its duty to ask probing questions? And that's an essential part of democracy… That was the genius of the Constitution. It is specifically designed to thwart the rise of kings and tyrants and when that is not observed, you lose the country, you lose democracy. And so I would beg to differ, you know, when they say there's there's no...it’s a big difference between what happened to Japanese Americans and what is happening now. The issue here is that continues to resonate based upon, you know current events and current policies. 

AG: And what I would add to that I guess is that the American people, as a whole, were totally silent during World War II, and during the time that we were incarcerating Japanese Americans. Again, you know, the knowledge-base was a little bit different. If you didn't live on the West Coast, they were things you might not have known. It wasn't being covered in the press. What was being covered in the press was you know, hate and vile against Japanese period, and so you could just sort of ignore what was going on if you even knew about it on the West Coast. Today, the good news is: We at least know what's happening on the border and there are at least some informed citizens who are very actively resisting what this administration is doing. I think the media has done a good job of covering it, we have people in Congress who are trying to speak up and out against what's happening at the border, and it behooves all of us as American citizens to stay informed to make our voices heard. Again, I think the major difference between then and now is — it's in part sparked by Japanese Americans who were speaking up on behalf of the Muslim community — I think what we're seeing is a need for our voices to get louder and louder and opposition so what happened in the 1940s doesn't keep happening again. 

But I actually still have faith in the American people and what's left of our democracy to create some resistance. And that's what I hope the message of my film is and that's what I hope the message of the show has been, which is you know to keep speaking out against these outrages. 

RA: Well, it's a great film. That’s Abby Ginzberg, a Peabody-winning producer and director, “And Then They Came for Us”. You can watch the trailer and find showtimes at yourcallradio.org. We've also been joined by Don Tamaki, an East Bay native whose parents were incarcerated at the Topaz concentration camp in the Utah Desert. From 1983 to 1985, Don served on the legal team, which reopened the landmark Supreme Court Korematsu versus the United States. 

Don and Abby, thank you so much for your work and thank you both for joining us. 

AG: It's been a pleasure. Thank you for having us. 

DT: Thank you. 

RA: Thank you so much. And thanks to Laura Wenus for producing today’s show. Thank you for joining us. I'm Rose Aguilar. It's Your Call. 


Rose Aguilar has been the host of Your Call since 2006. She became a regular media roundtable guest in 2001. In 2019, the San Francisco Press Club named Your Call the best public affairs program. In 2017, The Nation named it the most valuable local radio show.