〈160 Years of the US-Japan Relationship〉
What Really Makes America Great: From a Personal Perspective
160 Years of the US-Japan Relationship: Early Encounters, Wartime and the Present
Last year, Japan and the United States of America marked the 160th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1860. At this historical milestone, KaFSA is pleased to introduce four articles focusing on Early Encounters, Wartime and the Present, hoping for an ever deepening and enduring friendly relations between our countries for the future.(KaFSA, March 31, 2021)
In recent years there has been much talk in the world, including here in Japan, about the relative decline of the United States as a global player. I think that people who depict the present situation in such terms lose sight of the big picture. It also must be noted that some of the predictions of doom and gloom for the US are merely wishful thinking on the part of those with an anti-American bias, an illiberal political stance, or a combination of both. To be sure, in recent decades we have been seeing dramatic shifts in the global landscape. Some emerging powers already are or on the way to becoming a major presence in the global context. One power, China, aspires to achieve economic, military, and technological parity with the US and hopefully replace it as world leader in some of these areas.
In my view it is highly unlikely that China will succeed. Why? Firstly, although China may eventually overtake the US in total economic output, it will have less success in other areas. In terms of soft power its net impact on the world is now negative, with its brutal repression of human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. In contrast, the United States continues to be the most dynamic and influential country in most areas of human endeavor and as such is the most sought-after destination for people from around the world, as a place to study, to work, or to raise their children. This is not just because of the innovative and academic excellence and the abundant business opportunities that it offers. There are other important things that make America exceptional, including its democratic system. To be sure democracy is at times a messy business. It can give rise to conflict, confusion, and paralysis as the experiences of many countries with this form of government, including Japan, will attest. What recent developments in Washington and elsewhere in the US have demonstrated is that American democracy is not an exception. But we must not forget that America has shown time and again that it is a nation that can correct its course and make things right. This is what makes the country so dynamic and resilient.
Let me tell you a little bit about myself to give you a better idea of where I am coming from. I served in the Japanese Foreign Service from 1971 to 2010. I was trained as a Latin American and Caribbean affairs specialist and studied Spanish in Spain during the last years of General Franco’s rule, as a language trainee. I spent a good part of my career thereafter stationed in countries of the region (two 2-year tours in Mexico and a 4-year assignment in Brazil) and in Tokyo I was engaged several times in work related to the region. In addition, I spent five years in the United States on diplomatic assignments, three and a half years at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, DC as politico-military officer (1983~1986) and 19 months in Miami as Consul General (1998~2000).
I also have close personal ties with the US. When people in the US ask me what part of Japan I am from, I say “Tokyo” because that is where I was born and have spent well over half of my life, but when I am asked where my family is from, I am tempted to say “California.” I am going to tell you why.
My Grandparents’ Immigration to the United States and Internment in Utah during World War. II
I want to share with you a brief history of my family in the United States, including my grandmother’s firsthand account of her time at the Topaz internment camp in Utah during the Second World War.
My father was a Japanese national born in Japan, who emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1912 at the age of three. His brother and three sisters were all born in California and grew up there as American citizens. My father returned to Japan in 1934 because he had no other choice. Having gone from elementary school to college in the United States, he spoke English as his first language, but was legally precluded from acquiring US citizenship, and access to good employment opportunities because of the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 and Ozawa Supreme Court case in 1922. His American-born brother also chose to make Japan his home, renouncing his US citizenship.
My grandparents remained in the US with their three daughters, my aunts. My grandfather ran a Japanese language newspaper serving the immigrant community. The family lived in San Francisco when war broke out between Japan and the US with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066, which authorized the exclusion and relocation of all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. In April, the FBI came for my grandfather and his family at their home and escorted them to the assembly center at the Tanforan racetrack in San Bruno, where people of Japanese ancestry from the Bay Area were gathered. Half of those 7200 people were squeezed into horse stalls that had been used by the race horses just months earlier. They were processed in preparation for internment in camps still under construction in remote locations around the country. The justification given by the authorities for their incarceration was “military necessity,” but it was for no other reason than their ethnicity. My three aunts were all American citizens who were born and raised in the US and by no means constituted a security threat. My grandparents retained their Japanese citizenship, because they were legally ineligible for naturalization. Later in the year all five members of the family were transferred to the Topaz Relocation Center in central Utah. A total of 11,000 people were confined in Topaz from the Bay Area. All ethnic Japanese living along the West Coast totaling 120,000, two-thirds of them American citizens, were relocated to and interned in 10 concentration camps around the country.
My grandfather died in July of 1943 during internment at Topaz. My grandmother and three aunts were released from the camp separately between 1943 and 1944. Life was particularly difficult for my grandmother who spoke little English. (Few Japanese immigrants of her generation spoke good English.) I remember her telling me that for a while she had to make a living as a domestic helper. The family had lost their house in San Francisco and all their belongings. A similar fate awaited most other detainees after their release from the camps.
The aforementioned Executive Order No. 9066 was not just unfair but extremely un-American. After a long post-war process, it was officially recognized as such. The Congressional Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was established in 1980, and issued a report in 1982, which found that the injustice was caused by “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” President Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided for the payment of compensation to the former internees. In December 1991, my three aunts each received a check for $20,000 together with a letter from President George H.W. Bush. The first paragraph of the letter reads as follows:
“A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories; neither can they fully convey our Nation’s resolve to rectify injustice and uphold the rights of individuals. We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II.”
In November 2016, at long last I got the opportunity to visit and see for myself the site of the Topaz Relocation Center. All that was left of the camp was some of the barbed wire that surrounded the camp and pieces of the concrete foundations of the mess halls and latrines. The rest was the barren land that was there before the camp was constructed. I also visited the Topaz Museum in the nearby city of Delta. The Museum had been opened earlier in the year with their mission statement: “To preserve the Topaz site and its World War II history; to interpret the impact of Topaz on the internees ……in order to prevent a recurrence of a similar denial of American civil liberties.” It contains various documents on the history of the Topaz camp, displays of handicraft and paintings by the internees and an actual part of one of the wooden barracks. The Museum, run by the Topaz Museum Board with Ms. Jane Beckwith, who as president, possesses or has access to a wealth of information regarding the internment. Ms. Beckwith kindly provided me with information related to the internment of my grandparents and aunts, including my grandfather’s death certificate. I greatly admire the outstanding work being done by the Topaz Museum and similar efforts being made at the sites of other wartime internment camps. These projects speak volumes about the strong sense of fairness and commitment to democracy and human rights of the American people.
Growing up in Washington, D.C.in the 1950’s
Let me tell you about my experiences in Washington, DC in the 1950’s and early 60’s. My father, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official, was assigned to the Japanese Embassy in the United States in October of 1954. Our family moved from Tokyo to Washington, where we lived for the first time in a house with central heating and every household appliance imaginable in those days, such as an electric refrigerator and a washing machine. My father also bought a TV set and a car. I had my first hot dog and Coca Cola at a soda fountain in the neighborhood. In Japan and most other countries these amenities were available to only a small handful of people, if at all. America’s affluence was mind boggling to us. In my six and a half years there, I also discovered that it was not just material wealth that set the US apart from the rest of the world.
In those days, the US was at the height of its influence and prestige as the undisputed leader of the free world. (It still is.) At the same time bitter memories of World War II persisted. It was only nine years after the end of the War and there were many people, including our neighbors, my school mates and teachers, who had lost their loved ones in the War.
As soon as we got settled in, my parents put me in a public school near our house in Northwest Washington as a second grader. I did not speak a word of English. There were very few foreign children in the school and special classes for non-speakers of English (ESOL) did not exist. My teacher treated me just like any other pupil. The first thing that she taught me was the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag, which I learned by heart in little time. In less than three years, I was speaking English most of the time, including at home.
Japan and the US had been at war not long before my time in Washington but unpleasant experiences at school were few and far between. I had good friends among my classmates and my teachers sometimes went out of their way to be nice to me. There was just one day every year that I wanted to stay away from school. It was December 7, when the television screens were flooded with images from World War II and Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and everybody talked about it all day at school.
One day something happened at school that I will never forget. I got into a quarrel with my classmate Jimmy. In the heated verbal exchange, he used ugly language that was considered taboo even in those pre-politically correct days. Then suddenly, Bob who was listening nearby stepped in and scolded Jimmy harshly for his verbal abuse. The three of us were only about ten years old at that time. What was remarkable about this was that Bob was not taught by anybody to do what he did. It was his instinctive and very American sense of fairness that made him stand by my side. Many Japanese have told me about similar situations in America experienced by themselves or by their children. There are cases of bullying of outsiders everywhere in the world and more often than not, people join the side of the bully. But if something like this happens to you in America, very often somebody will be there for you and do what Bob did for me. People like Bob are not a rare breed in America. The sense of fairness shared broadly by the American people makes America what it is.
America’s Role in the World
Many democracies in the world were concerned and dismayed by the transition of the new United States’ government earlier this year. There were also comments way off base on the US political process made by people who do not fully understand what democracy is all about. Leaders of non-democratic countries must be reminded that they are in no position to lecture countries that elect their leaders democratically and uphold human rights. If they think that what transpired in the US in recent months demonstrates the superiority of their own political systems, they are dead wrong.
In my view, the US is more than a democracy in the usual sense. My own experiences and those of my family have made it abundantly clear to me that America is exceptional. Although serious mistakes are sometimes made in America, as in any country, there are always people out there who have the courage to come forward to speak out about such failures. In other countries, the process of self-correction is usually a longer and less clear-cut process even if there is a democratic system in place and freedom of speech is guaranteed. States with autocratic political systems where freedom of expression is restricted are even less capable of fixing their own problems. They often unwittingly dig themselves into a hole that they cannot get out of, even if their errors threaten their own long-term survival. I am convinced that more than ever, the US needs to exercise strong leadership in the world.
Ken Shimanouchi was a diplomat in Japan’s Foreign Service serving as Consul-General in Miami (1998-2000), Director-General of Latin American and Caribbean Affairs Bureau (2002-2004), and Ambassador to Spain (2004-2006) and to Brazil (2006-2010).