The nomination of former U.S. Rep. Norman Mineta to be Secretary of Commerce raises the question of how he and other Japanese Americans have fared in this country. Praise of this "model minority" will echo along with denunciations of their relocation in World War II.
In an age of multiculturalism and diminished appreciation of the obligations of citizenship, how Japanese and other Asian Americans resolve the question of their identity reflects how Americans generally answer this fundamental political question. Commentators will note the various fortunes of other so-called Asian and Pacific Island-Americans — an absurd classification invented by interest-group connivers and approved by bureaucrats to produce larger numbers.
Many Americans tend to treat this issue as frivolously as their television viewing habits. But Pearl Harbor was hardly frivolous. The dramatic question raised was whether these Asians, many of whom were denied citizenship solely because of their birth origins, were ultimately loyal to the land of their ancestors or to the United States of America. After all, given anti-Japanese legislation, riots, and other hostility shown them, why should they feel any loyalty? When doubts lingered, Congress authorized the relocation of 110,000 ethnic Japanese, two-thirds of whom were citizens, shortly after Pearl Harbor.
Even in the days before World War II, some Japanese Americans took pains to express their loyalties in ominous times. Japanese-American leader Mike Masaoka authored a Japanese-American creed, which read in part:
I am proud that I am an American of Japanese ancestry. I believe in this nation's institutions, ideals, and traditions; I glory in her heritage; I boast of her history; I trust in her future.
Recent controversy over the inclusion of this affirmation on a national monument to Japanese-American soldiers in World War II revealed the gulf between that statement's buoyant patriotism and an ugly divisiveness that a sense of shame had hitherto kept hidden. Some Japanese Americans demanded (unsuccessfully) that the language be removed because Masaoka not only didn't protest the relocation but actually urged cooperation with it. To these protestors, the true Japanese American heritage is better expressed by those who resisted relocation.
Unacknowledged in this tempest are those Japanese Americans who used their days in the relocation centers to advocate the victory of the Emperor. By night, pro-Japan thugs would beat and intimidate those who spoke out on behalf of America. The removal of the wording would have represented their ultimate victory, with those Japanese-Americans who went to war determined to prove their loyalty shown to be fools.
Everyone admits that the relocation of Japanese Americans was a drastic action, albeit taken in time of war. Now, spurred on by the 1988 redress law that gave $20,000 to each living person who was relocated, the wartime measure is widely regarded as the American equivalent of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Yet few know that Japanese Americans could leave the relocation centers if they had jobs or educational opportunities outside them. Relatives of mine moved to Chicago. Some even made the centers seasonal homes, if they had agricultural work outside in the summers. Government-offered jobs, distant from the relocation centers, went begging. It was almost as if the government was ashamed of the drastic action it had taken and immediately tried to make amends.
Given this ambiguity, we need here, as in many other episodes where political correctness has distorted our vision, a better understanding of American history — what happened, what the various motivations were, what Imperial Japan's foreign policy entailed, what might have been done differently. More important, as we celebrate Independence Day, we need to consider the question of what makes us all Americans.
The answer is to be found in the document behind Masaoka's "Japanese-American Creed" — the Declaration of Independence. What makes us one America is not a common racial or ethnic ancestry but rather what Abraham Lincoln called the "father of all moral principle" of Americans: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal." Any who believe this, Lincoln said,
have a right to claim [the Declaration] as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration â€¦ and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.
The veterans of wars, including freedmen fighting for a nation where slavery was protected or Japanese Americans fighting while kin and friends languished in relocation centers, are "blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh" with the men who wrote the Declaration. So are we all who affirm the truth of this document which makes us one people today.