Japanese Americans still face racial prejudice in Utah

by EMILY RODRIGUEZ-VARGAS

Most wars are fought overseas, far away from the Utah desert where during World War II a Japanese American internment camp was located.

Another fight, however, is still silently taking its toll on citizens waiting for justice, no matter their race.

Koki Omura, a graduate student at the University of Utah, hopes to become a professional musician. Photo courtesy of Omura.

Koki Omura, a Japanese graduate student in music performance at the University of Utah, went without dinner one night because a waitress in Wyoming refused to take his order, let alone serve him.

Omura said he experienced some acts of prejudice and teasing about his accent while growing up in New Jersey, but the experience of being ignored completely was a first.

“Outside of school, things happen,” said Omura, who is from Tokyo. “The countryside and small villages that haven’t seen an Asian before are the worst.” An avid tuba player, Omura left his home country behind to pursue his dream of becoming a professional musician.

America has a history of discrimination against Asian-Americans that peaked following Pearl Harbor.

Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942. The decree forced 120,000 individuals of Japanese heritage from their homes along the Pacific Coast into prisoner camps in the Intermountain West between 1942 and 1945, for the fear they could be loyal to Japan. The years of the internment represent a time Japanese-American citizens want to forget.

Ann Takasaki, a resident of Spanish Fork, Utah, said her family was given two weeks’ notice after this order to get rid of all belongings that didn’t fit in two suitcases, and to leave their home in Santa Anita, Calif., with no prospect of returning.

“They boarded a train from San Francisco for the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming without any property, money or work to look forward to,” Takasaki said.

In these camps, individuals and families were kept together by strict camp rules, high fences and aggressive security officers who were not afraid to use their firearms. Living in difficult conditions, these individuals were cut off from the world as they knew it. When these prisoners were released after two or three years in the camps, they had to start over and re build their lives from nothing.

Compensation for this discrimination toward Japanese citizens was not offered until the 1980s, when each prisoner received $10,000 from the U.S. government as restitution for the imprisonment. Today, the Day of Remembrance on Feb. 19 serves as recognition of the suffering of Japanese Americans at Utah’s Topaz and other camps throughout the West.

In the attempt to return to their homes, many families took the train as far as they could afford in one day, and then stopped to work in smaller villages so they could earn enough money for their next train ticket. Takasaki’s family tried to return to California, but, as many Japanese families in the same circumstances, they ended up finding work on a produce farm in Utah.

The Nishimoto family also resettled in Utah after they were released from Heart Mountain. Joanie Nishimoto, who lives in Heber City, Utah, said the camp’s treatment of her family was severe.

“The prisoners in the barracks were fed the same thing every day: potatoes and corned beef with sweet rice, just anything but Japanese food,” Nishimoto said.

She said the current prejudice against Japanese Americans isn’t anything like what it was at that time. But it will still take significant cultural mixing to fight the prejudices, because she said Utahns have a tendency to stay with their own groups. As the only Japanese student in her high school in Jerome, Idaho, Nishimoto said, “I was pretty enough to be Homecoming Queen, but not a date.”

Despite the years that have passed since these camps existed, Utah still has a long way to go in cultural reform. Paul Fisk, 28, co-president of the Salt Lake City Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, said there are still incidents of discrimination and inappropriate stereotyping of Asian ethnic groups in our neighborhoods.

Wesley Sasaki-Uemura, an associate professor of history at the U, said Japanese Americans learned from the internment “not to suffer injustices silently and obediently.” He believes it’s important to speak out, regardless of which racial or ethnic group is being discriminated against.

“One needs to see the parallels with the treatment of other groups,” he said, “and one needs to do what one can to address inequities.”