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Not My Precedent: Learning from America’s mistakes

The 1942 executive order for the internment of Japanese Americans. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The 1942 executive order for the internment of Japanese Americans. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

It was standing room only in Danforth Lecture Hall as local Japanese American creators took the stage, speaking to the parallels and differences between the recent travel ban placed on seven majority Muslim nations and the executive order that lead to the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans in 1942.

Hosted by 100 Days of Action and Slide Space 123, “Not My Precedent: A Reading and Conversation,” came in response to Trump’s campaigners who claimed that the Japanese internment would act as precedent to the potential exclusion and registry of Muslims in America.

“It’s an honor and a heartbreak to be here tonight,” said Vivian Chin, the moderator for the event, and associate professor of ethnic studies and co-department head for Mills College.

Karen Tei Yamashita, author and professor of literature and creative writing at University of California, Santa Cruz, started the reading with her essay in which she reflects on a trip she took across the country with her niece and sister. On this trip, they visited several internment campsites. She noted the profound relationship between people and their material possessions from the perspective of the Japanese Americans, who had been separated from theirs.

Through the objects the Japanese Americans were able to save, Yamashita described how “their stories continue to reverberate and haunt the present.”

“These sites and their caretakers stand as places of evidence, accountability, resistance and hope,” Yamashita said.

Betty Nobue Kano, artist and co-founder for The Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA), later spoke on the internment camp artist Hisako Hibi, who, through her paintings, helped illustrate what life was like in the camps. Kano also spoke of her own work that she produced in response to the challenging times of the 1970s activism era.

“I think challenges provoke art to become more activist. There’s more concern about relevance, and some artists can be driven by insight and energy, even fury,” Kano said.

Kano emphasized the importance of finding community in spaces like AAWAA, especially for groups who are more marginalized.

“There is a struggle even to be seen or recognized,” Kano said.

Kano concluded her presentation by reflecting on her own feelings towards this time in America.

“I don’t feel depressed; I feel that this is a time to talk. It’s very important to try to engage what you want to see ahead,” Kano said.

Philip Kan Gotanda, Guggenheim fellow and playwright, began his reading by passing out physical copies of Executive Order 9906, issued to Japanese Americans in 1942, to illustrate the need to remember the reality of the internment camps.

Gotanda continued by reading from his plays, one of which, “Sisters Matsumoto,” illustrated the effects of the internment camps through the story of the lives of three sisters in their return from the camps.

In an interview after the panel, Gotanda took notice of the intensity in which the nation is resisting the potential ban of Muslim individuals.

“The key is to continue to keep that voice of outrage and resistance loud and growing and tactically evolving on all levels of action,” Gotanda said.

Following the panel, Chin shed light on the key differences between the time of the internment of the Japanese American people to now, saying that there were indeed resistors but back then they were “further endangered, silenced and erased” than those of today.

“The nation requires anthems, flags. The poet offers discord, rags,” Chin said, citing a line from Salman Rushdie. Chin suggests that Rushdie’s quote stands as a reminder that in times like these, “the poet and author can offer resistance to the state power.”