What you didn’t learn in school: My visit to the Japanese American National Museum

My introduction to the study of history was a little bit schizophrenic.

For five years of elementary school, I was led to believe the Christopher Columbus was a stand-up guy who came to help the Indians find God, that everyone came to America on a ship from Europe to till the unclaimed land was just waiting for them and that America is the best country on earth.

Then I turned 14 and our summer reading assignment was “Lies my Teacher Told Me.” Suddenly, my teachers were saying this Columbus guy was actually a greedy jerk and a bit of a nutcase who came and stole the Native Americans’ land, not to mention enslave them and beat them up.

Fortunately, I had an incredible professor in my first semester of college who led me to love history’s complexities and to delve into them first-hand, not relying on other academics’ telling of the past, but to drive down to the primary sources.

My favorite primary sources are people. This past week, I was very fortunate to hear history first-hand from Roy Kakuda, our incredibly capable docent at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, near downtown LA.

I don’t say this lightly: the museum will change your view of American and Californian history. Roy was full of thought-provoking details – just a few of them:

  • Preparations to send Japanese-Americans to relocation camps were underway before the Pearl Harbor attack. (Reference: “Manzanar” by John Armor and Peter Wright)
  • The U.S. government orchestrated the deportation of over 2,000 people of Japanese descent from various countries in Latin America who were used to trade for American prisoners of war. As a result, 1,700 Japanese Peruvians were sent to Japan, a country many of them had never visited.
  • The 442nd Infantry, an almost entirely Japanese-American unit that fought in WWII, was one of the most highly decorated units in the history of the armed forces, with 21 Medals of Honor and more than 9,000 Purple Hearts. They also sustained a casualty rate of 280% – that is NOT a typo. Japanese-American soldiers were some of the first to come across the Jewish concentration camps at Dachau.
  • The U.S. government not only rounded up Japanese-American families; they tracked down orphans and children in the foster care system that were of Japanese descent and sent them to the relocation camps.
  • “When the U.S. Congress voted to pay reparations to those who were sent to the camps, Ronald Reagan, then the President, refused to sign the document. You will see that the original carries the signature of his successor, George Bush.” CORRECTION: I didn’t get this one entirely correct- see the comment below for clarification!

Of course, the detail he shared that our group will never forget is that he was one of the people who was forced to go to the relocation camps. He told us about his father’s success in America and showed us a photo of their beautiful new car. Then he showed us photos of his mother in a tailoring class in the camp, told us about the wood houses in which they lived. His family dug out an area under theirs and, as a little boy, he would nap there to escape the desert temperatures of over 100 degrees. He showed us his reparations check for $20,000.

At the end of his tour, he repeated his question from the beginning of the tour: Do you think this could happen to you?

As a little girl, I was taught that in America, everything is possible. After meeting Roy Kakuda, hearing of both his family’s incredible success and everything they went through in WWII, I believe that even more deeply. Incredible success is possible here – so is incredible injustice.

The Japanese American National Museum is definitely worth a visit – leave yourself plenty of time. There is a ton to see!



Filed under California history, Los Angeles

4 responses to “What you didn’t learn in school: My visit to the Japanese American National Museum

  1. Koji Steven Sakai

    Great article! One little correction. Reagan did sign the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (although somewhat grudgingly). The reason Bush’s signature was on the apology was because it took a couple of year before Congress was able to pass an appropriations bill to pay the former internees 20k.

  2. love the JANM. you might also enjoy a visit out to Manzanar -good for a day trip and make sure you stop at the Alabama Hills. great photo ops there.

  3. Richard Watanabe

    Just to slightly expand on Koji’s comment. Reagen was intending to veto the Civil Liberties Act for a variety of reasons, but was finally persuaded not to. An interesting series of events that include Sgt. Kazuo Masuda (WWII recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross), Masuda’s family, a young Captain Ronald Reagen, New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, and a Japanese American named Grant Ujifusa resulted in Reagen changing his mind and signing the bill. I’ll let you do the research to find out the details, but these events tie the signing back to events starting from 1945. Who am I? I’m just another one of the docents at the Japanese American National Museum. Roy is a great docent and you were fortunate to get a tour from him!

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