Saturday, January 18, 2020
Mr. Onishi, a petite kindly man, was my favorite grammar school teacher. Our fourth grade class was unusual in that Mr. Onishi had this knack for gently gaining and holding attention. He held our attention as easily as other teachers held chalk. Magic, a child whisperer.
In the fall of 1968, the start of my best school year ever, I fell in love with school and a humble teacher who happened to be a second generation American. Mr. Onishi, born and raised in Western Washington, was my parents age. His World War II experience was vastly different than the majority of his student’s parents. He grew up in a concentration camp.
Mr. Onishi didn’t call it that though. He used the official commonly used “polite” term of the day. Internment camp.
Raised to be a true believer in Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism, imagine a fourth grader’s surprise at discovering that America could perpetrate such an obvious injustice on other Americans. After all, there is a constitution that clearly says such things are unconstitutional and therefore impossible. The evil Nazis did such things. Americans are good because Americans would never do such a thing.
Even after his family lost everything. Even after several years of imprisonment. Even after suffering racial hatred, Mr. Onishi was an exceptional American. An exemplary teacher. A strong male role model.
Sadly, since WW II, there have been plenty of opportunities to understand how American citizens and legal immigrants could be put into concentration camps. The Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979. The September 11 attacks in 2001. The current trend toward Isolationism in reaction to Globalism that seems to be fueling White Nationalism, an inherently racists shift toward White Supremacy. The waves of illegal immigrants surging into the USA. Immigrants arriving on foot demonized and vilified.
How and why America stripped immigrants and citizens of their property and forced them into concentration camps became clearer as large sectors of the population blamed others (ethnic groups) for unwanted economic and cultural change.
Understanding the historical perspective on Mr. Onishi’s cultural heritage as well as his internment experience honors his community’s experience. This must never happen again. Let us not forget.
The Japanese Cultural Center (JCC) in Honolulu, in cooperation with the US National Park Service, are working together to prepare the Honouliuli Internment Camp, a concentration camp imprisoning Japanese descent US citizens during WW II, for public access as the Honouliuli National Monument.
The Japanese Cultural Center (JCC) houses the Honouliuli Education Center featuring photos, artifacts, oral histories and a virtual tour of the Honouliuli site. More importantly, the JCC exhibits cover the whole Japanese experience, from the first Hawaiian immigrants through the current time.
The Japanese, as other immigrant groups, suffered systemic discrimination. How they overcame obstacles to obtaining the American dream is a heroic story, well told by the exhibits.
For more information on Japanese internment in Hawaii, see The Untold Story: Interment of Japanese Americans in Hawaii. To learn about more National Park Service Units relevant to internment, see Japanese American Confinement on the NPS website.
Hope to see you on the road ahead!