A traveling Rutgers University exhibit traces the history of incarceration in America, and it includes the internment of 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent at camps set up across the country. Most of them were born in the United States.
“Internment is actually a very technical term that describes the detention of enemy aliens during wartime, and so as we’ve been discussing, that really doesn’t apply to the majority of individuals who were incarcerated because these are American citizens,” said Andrew Urban, assistant professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University.
As Nazi German and fascist Italian forces were shredding Europe, their ally, Japan, attacked Pearl Harbor.
President Roosevelt’s administration and military commanders feared they had a national security problem. They targeted and moved thousands of German and Italian nationals from the West Coast, but stopped short of moving more or interning all of them as “hysteria on the West Coast was beginning to affect German and Italian morale in New York and Boston.”
It was a different path for the Japanese in the U.S, including now-94-year-old Frank Ono of Bridgeton. Ono was born in California and his family owned boats and had a fishing business, but it all sank in government suspicion and seizure after Pearl Harbor.
“The crew’s were all taken in with a bayonet point. They all got taken into to San Diego jail,” said Ono.
Ono was 18. His government would shatter his innocence by using his draft notice to reclassify him.
When asked what he thought of someone calling him an alien or enemy, Ono commented, “You know, you’re hurt.”
One historian wrote “momentum belonged to the extremists” in the government. Ten weeks after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that would send Japanese citizens and immigrants to camps until the end of the war. Ono’s father was sent off to work, but he and his mother and four siblings went to Manzanar Internment Camp in California.
At all the camps, the government would challenge internees with written questionnaires as to whether they were loyal to the U.S. or Japan.
“That was a ridiculous way to go. I used to despise the way they worded all that in there,” said Ono.
The film, “Resistance at Tule Lake,” documents the protests and what else happened to the 12,000 internees labeled “disloyal” for telling the government it was wrong for turning its back on American citizens. Others who passed the test could take advantage of a recruitment ad and help the federal government replace the southern New Jersey Seabrook Farms labor that had gone off to war.
Ono’s mother and siblings were released to come in 1943, but he stayed at Manzanar until Victory over Japan Day in August 1945.
“You tell me. They think I was a radical or something,” Ono said in reference to why he wasn’t granted a release.
At Seabrook, Ono’s family joined thousands of others of Japanese ancestry in farming, food processing, and the business’ pioneering freezing of vegetables in one of the biggest farms in America and a major supplier to the military.
Ono said his father “worked in the plant, he was loading certain things.” His mother “took care of the kids.”
Historians say the South Jersey relocation accommodated families because it had day care, families could stay together, cook and share meals. But, they say Seabrook also had its share of propaganda showing smiling Japanese posing in front of brick buildings when, in fact, they lived in wooden barracks and were not free to leave.
Seabrook also included mothers whose sons joined the military, the 442nd Infantry Regiment, and died fighting for the freedoms denied their mothers.
Nevertheless, Ono compared living at Seabrook to what he calls Manzanar “concentration camp.”
“Well, you didn’t have the fence. You didn’t have the machine gun pointed at you. Okay? You could go out and buy whatever you want. Over there, you had to go line up and go in the mess hall, eat. And you had a barbed wire. You couldn’t go out no place,” he said.
“These are pins that were made in camp,” said Beverly Carr of the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, as she showed examples of what life was like at Seabrook.
Carr runs the 24-year-old center, which is full of memorabilia and photos, and the history of the 29 nationalities who worked at Seabrook over several decades, none more prominently, and perhaps painfully, as the Japanese.
“All countries make mistakes. We try to tell the story as its told us by the people who lived it — the people here in Seabrook. And these are people who don’t hold grudges,” said Carr.
Twenty-five hundred Japanese internees went to Seabrook during World War II to work the farming operation, but what would have happened to them if they had not gone there?
“I think they would have stayed in camps until the end. A majority of them did,” said Kayo Denda, the interim media librarian at Rutgers University’s Douglass Library.
At the Rutgers “States of Incarceration” exhibit on display until Friday, organizers say New Jersey is an increasingly diverse state, and so is the university, where more than a quarter of the student body is of Asian ancestry.
“But when you go out and travel around the state and you look for historic sites or landmarks or monuments, you don’t find, for the most part, places that are representative of this state’s diverse history. The joke among public historians is that you can find hundreds of homes where George Washington slept for a night, right?” said Urban.
The exhibit raises the specter of whether such history could repeat itself in America.
“One of the aims of an exhibit like this one is to provide the Rutgers community with an opportunity to interrogate past practices,” said Denda.
“If you look at the practices of indefinite detention that various Muslim immigrants faced after 9/11, if you look at the history of the use of Guantánamo Bay and various black sites, the various principles that are being cited to justify these practices are very much in line with the same principles that were cited during Japanese American incarceration,” said Urban.
The next stop for the exhibit is Antioch College in Ohio.