President Franklin Roosevelt declared Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese pilots bombed Pearl Harbor a day that will “live in infamy.” Feb. 19, 1942, marks another infamous moment. On that date Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 (supported unanimously by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court) exiling 120,000 Americans of Japanese heritage to internment camps. On the 75th anniversary of the Japanese internment order, museums are offering exhibitions all too relevant to the rash of xenophobia today.
The last time we “put America first” was shameful.
The Noguchi Museum in Queens hosts “Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston Relocation Center” until Jan. 7, 2018. In LA, the Japanese American National Museum’s “Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066” displays documents and videos through Aug. 13. An online version of the Skirball Cultural Center’s “Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams,” which closed a year ago in LA, contains dramatic images of the last time we put America first.
Exposing these relics of past bias demonstrates, according to Ann Burroughs, interim president of the Japanese American National Museum, “how the lessons of that shameful chapter of history are powerfully meaningful in our world today and how without vigilance that grave injustice could happen again.”
The Noguchi Museum’s show resonates compellingly in our current political climate. Isamu Noguchi (1904-88) was a modernist sculptor and designer, one of the first truly global artists. The son of a Brooklyn mother and estranged Japanese father, he was born in LA and grew up and studied in Japan, Indiana, NYC and Paris. Always feeling like a misfit, Noguchi straddled the Old and New Worlds, trying to build a bridge between tradition and progress, East and West, art and design.
Noguchi was an idealist and activist. His war-time experience had a lasting effect on his art. Words he wrote in an unpublished essay for Readers Digest ring like a clarion call for today:
To be hybrid anticipates the future. This is America, the nation of all nationalities. The racial and cultural intermixture is the antithesis of all the tenet of the Axis Powers. For us to fall into the Fascist line of race bigotry is to defeat our unique personality and strength.
When he heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Noguchi wrote, “With a flash I realized I was no longer the sculptor alone. I was not just American but Nisei. A Japanese American.” (“Nisei” refers to second-generation Japanese Americans.) Although a resident of New York and excluded from the mandatory evacuation order applied to those of Japanese descent on the West coast, Noguchi voluntarily entered the Poston internment camp in the Mojave desert on May 8, 1942. “I wished to serve,” he said, “the cause of democracy.” The gesture was a protest against discrimination as well as an attempt to transform the sterile camps into fertile ground for residents’ education and integration into postwar society.
Noguchi universalized his experience into abstract forms.
Almost like Baron Haussmann envisioning the glories of an aestheticized Paris, Noguchi approached the project like social sculpture. A blueprint on display at the museum shows his dream to irrigate and landscape the scorching sand, build a playground, garden, chapel, swimming pool, even a mini-golf course. “My intention,” he recalled in a 1973 interview, “was to try to find something good that might be done.”
“At a pivotal moment, faced with the threat of evil abroad and within, rather than hide his head in the sand, Noguchi chose to engage, to try to make a difference,” Dakin Hart, the exhibition’s curator, said at a press preview.
Let’s take a step back to review the path that brought the US to this radical departure from the Constitution’s guarantee of equal rights for all. At the time, many Japanese Americans, although citizens and property owners, had not fully assimilated, fearing discrimination. (In San Francisco they were even assigned to segregated schools.) Pearl Harbor ratcheted up the prejudice to an obscene degree. Propaganda posters, films and songs aimed at dehumanizing all Japanese people, depicting them as bestial murderers, were ubiquitous in 1942.
Such posters manipulated public opinion, shaping a perception of danger from ethnic Japanese suspected of being spies and saboteurs. In caricatures, they were portrayed as yellow-skinned “Nips” with exaggerated buckteeth, slanted eyes and claws, often clutching a dagger while threatening innocent Caucasian Americans. Faux “Jap Hunting” licenses circulated as novelty items.
Even Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) absorbed and fostered the paranoia. As a political cartoonist for a New York newspaper in 1941-43, his stereotypical Japanese figures instilled fear in readers. “But right now,” he wrote at the time, “when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seems like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: ‘Brothers!’… If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs.” As Noguchi wrote in a 1942 letter, “Maybe they think that race hatred is good for the war spirit.”
After two months, Noguchi realized government officials had no intention of sending supplies to improve the camp or teach crafts to residents, and he decided to leave. It took another five months (and required Caucasian references to verify his patriotism) for him to be released. For the next three years he was under suspicion and harassed by the FBI.
This background informs the works Noguchi created shortly after returning to New York. Switching from his former figurative style of sculpting busts of boldface names like Ginger Rogers and George Gershwin, he processed the trauma through abstract forms rife with tension and a tenuous feeling of contingency.
In The World is a Foxhole (1942-43), a ball dangles from an off-kilter rod, suggesting the artist’s disequilibrium and precarious standing in a world filled with racial hatred. By universalizing his experience into abstract forms, Noguchi expressed his despair at the absurdity of the times. A bronze sculpture, This Tortured Earth (1942-43), is pitted and scarred, distorted by folds and upheavals, a torn landscape suggesting the tragedy of war.
The title of Yellow Landscape (1943) is pointedly satirical. The linkage of elements like a ball, metal fishing weight and wood dowel — thin as a chopstick — are held together by a slender string. Implicit is a sense of being left hanging, suspended with no firm footing.
The Skirball Cultural Center’s exhibition of photographs taken by Ansel Adams (1902-84) at the internment camp in Manzanar, CA, were collected in a 1944 book, Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans. It was Adams’s intention to portray the internees as dignified patriots, protesting the injustice of their uprooting and making a case for tolerance. He was not allowed to photograph the barbed wire enclosure or guard towers. Instead he focused on portraits of hardworking individuals in potato fields or kids pursuing all-American activities like baseball. Although illustrating the human dimension was his aim, this consummate landscape photographer could not resist showing distant mountains with crystal clarity. The book did not meet with public approval. Copies were burned and Adams was called a “Jap lover.”
The social-activist photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) also visited Manzanar. She had advised Adams to keep his imagery “stripped to the bone of its meaning.” Her photographs do exactly that. In one striking tableau, she framed a tattered American flag between rows of barracks as an oncoming dust storm threatened to engulf the camp. The image evokes one detainee’s lament, “We slept in the dust, we breathed the dust, we ate the dust.” Lange’s photos were so effective at arousing sympathy, they were seized and suppressed.
The exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum contains original archival documents testifying to “a historic miscarriage of justice … and its continuing relevance today,” as the press materials say. A particularly germane document is Presidential Proclamation 2537, which required individuals from enemy countries of Germany, Italy and Japan to register with the Department of Justice. This registry was a precursor to the forced removal of Japanese Americans from the West coast.
The concept of a registry for an ethnic group was echoed during the Trump campaign by the candidate himself, who proposed that all Muslim Americans register. During the November 2015 primary, Trump asserted that he would “certainly implement” a database of Muslim residents in the US.
Kris Kobach, Secretary of State in Kansas and a key advisor on immigration to the Trump transition team, considered drafting a policy requiring a national registry for immigrants from countries where terrorism is active. When challenged by Megyn Kelly on Fox News, Carl Higbie, a former spokesman for the pro-Trump Great America PAC, termed the Japanese internment program a “precedent” with the rationale: “We did it during World War II with the Japanese,” adding, “We need to protect America first.”
In December 2015, Trump responded to a question about his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the US after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, CA, saying, “What I’m doing now is no different than F.D.R.”
Trump’s rhetoric on “radical Islamic terrorism” in his recent Feb. 28 address to Congress links individuals who practice the religion of Islam with the word “terrorism.” Such verbal messaging sows fear and suspicion of an entire religious group, much as slurs about the “Yellow Peril” drummed up panic during World War II.
It’s also the centenary of another misguided policy: the 1917 Immigration Restriction Act. Together with the 1924 National Origins Act, these directives prevented nearly all Asians from entering the US legally and prohibited those already here from obtaining citizenship. Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order (temporarily suspended) banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries seemed to spring from similar blanket prejudice.
Another cautionary parallel between then and now is found in two memos issued on Feb. 21 to the Department of Homeland Security. The memos direct mass expulsion of undocumented immigrants (“expedited removal”) and recommend expansion of detention centers for them near the Southern border.
During his campaign, Trump called for rounding up and deporting eleven million undocumented immigrants — the majority of whom come from Latin America. In his speech to the joint Houses of Congress, his maudlin and exploitative shout-outs to guests whose family members were killed by immigrants recall the stereotyping of Japanese as assassins. In this case, it’s immigrants from Central America who allegedly pose a threat to the nation. Once more, nativist nationalism rears its ugly head.
Historians now characterize the internment order as an ignoble descent into xenophobia. It’s worth noting that Dr. Seuss atoned for his part in inflaming Americans’ race hatred. After a trip to Japan, he issued an apology in the form of his 1954 book Horton Hears a Who! In it, Horton the elephant saves tiny people who live on a speck of dust, saying, “A person is a person no matter how small.” At the end, Horton has even convinced a skeptical kangaroo to honor this minuscule minority. The kangaroo proclaims, “Me too! From sun in the summer. From rain when it’s fall-ish, I’m going to protect them. No matter how small-ish!”