When Kanji Sahara remembers 1942, he pictures throwing paper airplanes from his makeshift classroom in the Santa Anita Park grandstand.
He was eight years old when he was uprooted from his home and interned in the racetrack with about 18,000 Americans of Japanese descent, he told CNN. About 10,000 were in barracks set up in the track’s parking lot. The other 8,000 went to live in horse stables, he said. And now, at 85, he may finally get an apology from his home state.
California is expected to pass a resolution formally apologizing for supporting “unjust exclusion, removal, and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and for its failure to support and defend the civil rights and civil liberties of Japanese Americans during this period.” It was the largest single forced relocation in US history, with more than 100,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated around the country.
Lawmakers and survivors say the apology is an important reminder for the nation not to repeat its past mistakes.
Mistakes like how Sahara made more airplanes than learned lessons at school. How far he would have to walk to get to the six bathroom and shower buildings and the six mess halls that served the 18,000 people at Santa Anita. How it smelled when the septic tank would overflow every day. How his family was taken from Los Angeles to Arcadia, California, and then put on a train to Jerome, Arkansas.
And while 78 years late, the apology still comes at a good time, Sahara said, since he sees scapegoating of immigrants in American policies both then and now.
‘Stop repeating history’
Internment of Americans of Japanese descent was enacted by an executive order President Roosevelt issued following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 7, 1941.
Sahara was taken from Arcadia, California, to Arkansas by train. He remembers the shades were drawn so he couldn’t see out, and the civilians couldn’t see the prisoners of war inside as they were transported through their towns, he said.
But everywhere he went, he was with his community.
“When we went to the camp, all the people (from my street) went together,” Sahara said. “So, the people I played with before the war were the same people I played with in Jerome, Arkansas.”
And for a child, he said, that kind of consistency is one of the most important things.
Which makes him all the more empathetic to the thousands of children separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border between July 2017 and July 2018 due to a controversial “zero tolerance” immigration policy. The US government then struggled to reunite the families.
Migrants in US custody described unsanitary conditions, lack of access to showers and children living in windowless, freezing rooms with only a mat and an aluminum blanket.
Sahara said he feels his community also connects with Muslim Americans over becoming targets of fear.
In 2017, President Trump issued an executive order banning entry for 90 days by citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. Refugees from Syria were indefinitely halted under the order.
After several challenges in court, a third version of the travel ban was upheld to restrict entry from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, along with Venezuela and North Korea.
“People of Japanese ancestry are really supportive of the Muslim people,” Sahara said. “They have candlelight vigils because I think we have to show the Muslim people that we support them.”
Tsuru for Solidarity – a Japanese American organization advocating for immigrant and refugee communities – says their work is to tell the US “stop repeating history!”
Co-chair of the organization Carl Takei’s grandmother was interned while her husband fought in Europe for the United States, which he said “speaks to the senselessness of rounding up and incarcerating an entire community.” That senselessness, he said, has shaped the way Japanese Americans look at modern immigration policies like forced removal and detention.
“As Japanese American survivors and descendants of US concentration camps, we know imprisoning parents and children causes deep harm,” Takei said. “That’s why Japanese Americans across the nation are organizing to demand that these modern day concentration camps be shut down.”
What it means to reflect on past mistakes
California Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi has proposed days of remembrance every February 19 since he took office. This year, he went beyond with a resolution for the state to offer a formal apology. And he said it has been met with support on both sides of the aisle.
The nation apologized to people of Japanese ancestry and granted $20,000 in reparations to each incarcerated person when President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988.
But as a leader in the “yellow peril” of the early and mid-20th century, California has a responsibility to be a leader in learning from its past, Muratsuchi said.
And while some might say the apology is long overdue from the state that prohibited people of Japanese ancestry from purchasing land in 1913 and approved a resolution in 1942 questioning the loyalty of anyone of Japanese origin, Muratsuchi said that the current political climate made this year an important year to reflect on past mistakes.
“I think California is leading by example while our nation’s capital is hopelessly divided along party lines,” Muratsuchi said. “We are making a bipartisan apology so we can become a better country.”
But the apology does not mean the fight is over, Takei said.
“It’s very important that this apology be paired with concrete steps to fight back against the immigration detention regime and the anti-immigrant policies that are now coming out of the federal government,” he said.
Sahara said those policies of separating families, and then the struggle to bring them back together, is unbelievable when thinking of his time incarcerated with his family.
“I think it would have been a whole different experience,” Sahara said.