In 2017, King-TV Seattle anchor Lori Matsukawa produced an award-winning documentary about the 1942 internment of Japanese Americans in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. She called it Prisoners in Their Own Land, chronicling the plight of more than 100,000 people on America’s West Coast — 62 percent of them American citizens — summarily stripped of their lives and property and forced into what amounted to unconstitutional, government-mandated, desolate concentration camps for years.
They were considered military threats, designated as “alien enemies.” But, in fact, a special commission later concluded the true motivations to incarcerate were racial prejudice, war hysteria, and failure of government leadership. No one was ever convicted of espionage. That racial prejudice seemingly worsened after the war, when Japanese Americans were deprived of housing and jobs, harassed, and physically attacked. Yes, monetary and emotional redress came from the Reagan administration in 1988, but for many, it was and remains too little, too late.
At the end of the documentary, Dale Watanabe, who organized a 75th anniversary pilgrimage of internment survivors in the summer of 2016 for families and friends to once again view the remains of a camp in Minidoka, ID, said, “The experience of these camps may be in the past, but I’m afraid I see it happening again right now. Groups are being targeted because of who they are. Racial profiling is ugly.”
Four years later, his words — prophetic then — are now magnified. But it’s not so much history repeating itself. That racial hatred has been ever present. It’s just that it can be seen now, all too clearly, because of heightened visibility and the rise of racial violence and incivility in America. The increasing violence has manifested itself as repeated “China virus” and “Kung flu” COVID-19 slurs by the former president, the mass murder of Asians at three Atlanta businesses, vicious street attacks captured on cell phone and security video, vandalism of homes and businesses, and major microaggressions.
In Seattle, where Asians represent more than 15 percent of the population, these issues have hit home — hard.
Matsukawa, now retired, emphasized that nothing has really changed in racial prejudice against Asian Americans. Born in Hawaii to two teachers, educated at Stanford, and tirelessly dedicated to the progress of Asian Americans during 36 years in Seattle television, she has garnered many community and journalistic honors.
“We are ‘forever foreigners,’” she said, even though the first Chinese immigrants came to Seattle in the 1860s, only about a decade after the founding of the city, and the first Japanese immigrants arrived in the 1880s.
Matsukawa also cited the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which barred Chinese laborers from coming to America. That law followed the 1875 Page Act, which effectively banned Chinese women from migrating to the United States. In Seattle, there were anti-Chinese riots in 1886 and the forced removal of much of the Chinese population by boat.
Matsukawa laments that the current situation has been exacerbated because, “It has become OK to be uncivil. What was previously not visible is now visible,” she said. “People didn’t know it was a problem. Now, we are more visible targets. There is a lot more attention.”
Something else is visible, too: the numbers.
Hate crimes against Asian Americans have dramatically increased.
An analysis of police data by California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism showed a 150 percent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes last year across 16 major cities.
"What can I do, right now, to be a better ally to people facing xenophobic harassment and violence?"
— MIT ICEO (@MITDiversity) April 15, 2021
Matsukawa called attention to the story of a Japanese language high school teacher attacked in late February in Seattle’s International District, the city’s name for the area that has historically been home to Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese immigrants. The woman was knocked unconscious and suffered a broken nose and chipped front teeth. Although prosecutors charged the assailant with assault, they would not characterize it as a hate crime.
As an example of the seemingly ever-present street aggressions, Matsukawa confirmed a recent incident where a group of white men drove up alongside an Asian professional photographer in another neighborhood and hurled racial slurs, including making faces at him mimicking “slanty eyes.”
But community pushback has been growing as well, she says, because people know they have been quiet about this issue too long.
Matsukawa recently attended “bystander training” offered by an organization called Hollaback. According to its website, the group provides a series of one-hour, interactive trainings about the ”types of disrespect that Asians and Asian Americans are facing right now — from microaggressions to violence.” It offers strategies for safe intervention and provides practice with the promise that attendees will feel confident intervening the next time they “see anti-Asian American harassment online or in person.”
Matsukawa also consistently lends her voice to community outreach. More than a year ago, she recorded a “No Place for Hate” public service announcement with the then city police chief.
For his part, Watanabe, director of the International Student Center at Seattle University, vividly recalls what he said to those gathered at the summer 2016 memorial event in Idaho. It is an annual event, conducted virtually during the pandemic in 2020, with plans still uncertain for this summer.
He sees the issue in the same way as Matsukawa, reiterating: “We are forever foreigners.”
Like her, Watanabe is also taking the bystander training from Hollaback, and he agrees that Trump-era incivility fueled anti-Asian aggression. “It’s gotten more attention because of where it was coming from. It gave people another enemy. It gave them permission to act,” he said.
Watanabe was born in Seattle. While Matsukawa’s parents were not interned, Watanabe’s father was imprisoned as an enemy alien for three years during World War II. Today, as the executive director of the annual pilgrimage, he worries about the survivors of the internment camps who go solemnly to Idaho to memorialize.
“When I speak to them this year, I want to tell the survivors that we love them. They may think it is better today, but it’s not, especially for the elderly. I even want to wrap a blanket around myself to feel secure,” he said. “To the others attending, I would tell them this is not a time to be silent. It is a time to speak out.”
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).