Letter to the Editor: We can’t ignore the atrocities of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII

Guest Contributor February 16, 2017 0

Families of Japanese ancestry arrive at Turlock Assembly Center in Turlock, California. • Photo by Dorothea Lange, Courtesy of NARA

Dear Editor,

My name is Kristina West and I’m from Pasco, Washington. I currently reside in Tokyo, Japan. On January 29, The Tri-City Herald published a racist and inaccurate op-ed from a political science professor at Columbia Basin College, a community college in Pasco. The professor, Gary Bullert, said that the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II wasn’t racist. He wrote to the paper in response to an article about an event honoring Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during WWII. The event, planned by a local club, The Columbia Basin Badger Club, was canceled due to inclement weather but has been rescheduled for April 28. I was horrified to see this was chosen to be published one day after President Donald Trump signed into effect his Muslim ban. I emailed the newspaper and the college’s president, who assured me Dr. Bullert’s views did not reflect the school’s but said he could not take action against him.

I have been honored to work with a small team which has been working to bring national attention to this. George Takei tweeted about the article, and a member of our team, Joseph Shoji Lachman, published an article on February 10 in the Huffington Post, titled, “Don’t let this public school teacher lie about the incarceration of Japanese Americans to his students.” In this article, Mr. Lachman provides proof that the newspaper has been unprofessional and also provides evidence that Dr. Bullert is teaching his racist opinions in his classroom.

Sadly, The Tri-City Herald has been neither respectful nor apologetic when responding to complaints. The publisher of the newspaper, Gregg McConnell, said to me in an email on February 10, “There will be no apology forthcoming for allowing the op-ed to run.” The college has also stopped answering our calls and emails.

Being from the Tri-Cities, I’m not surprised. The Tri-Cities has a history of anti-Japanese American sentiment. Richland, one of the three cities, is home to the Hanford Site, which during WWII, as a part of the Manhattan Project, created The B-Reactor, the world’s first full-scale plutonium production reactor. The reactor produced plutonium for the atomic bomb, Fat Man, which was dropped on Nagasaki.

My hometown takes pride in this. Richland High School, to this day, has a bomb as their mascot and a mushroom cloud as their logo. A few blocks away from the school is The Bombers Drive Thru, where you will find a mushroom burger named, “Meltdown” among other offensive names. Richland also has a pub named The Atomic Ale Brewpub & Eatery. They serve food like the “Atomic Grinder” (a sandwich) and the “B-Reactor Brownie.” In 1988, RHS students voted to keep the bomb/cloud as their official mascot, in front of Tom Brokaw and Japanese delegates.

While there has been protest to the school’s mascot and logo, the dissenters’ voices have been silenced by the majority of people who say or think: “Those bombs actually saved Japanese culture.” —Burt Pierard, Richland High Alumnus Class of 1959. From an interview in Aljazeera America, (July 21, 2015, Sottile). “In a small town in Washington state, pride and shame over atomic legacy.”

As a child, I was interested in WWII and in a book, I learned of the horrors of the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans. Why weren’t we taught the full truth about this black mark on our history? Why do we condemn Germany for their concentration camps but had our own? How could a high school celebrate a bomb that killed thousands? How could we ignore the atrocities we committed against American citizens and Japanese immigrants just because they looked like the enemy?

While attending Eastern Washington University, I worked with Japanese exchange students. Sometimes, while out with the students, people would say, “Speak English” or “Go back to your country.” I heard racial slurs and saw people pull their eyelids back while mimicking an “Asian” accent. There is not a large Japanese American community in the Tri-Cities. As of the 2010 census, the percentage of Asians living in the 3 cities is 2.65%. Japanese Americans already have a small voice, yet The Tri-City Herald decided to let a white man say whether or not the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans was racist.

The Tri-Cities doesn’t need any more distortions and historical revisions. I am ashamed that my hometown’s paper and community college give voice to someone who feeds into anti-Japanese American sentiment. I hope, with more attention to this issue, my hometown can learn the truth, and realize that giving a platform to a racist, is also being racist. As the anniversary of Executive Order 9066 approaches and hate crimes against Muslims rise, we must make sure something like this does not happen again.

My roommate, friend, and team member, Clio Tanaka, whose family was incarcerated, including a grandmother who lives in Spokane, says the following about the incarceration: “It left an invisible scar that spans generations and reparations can’t heal. I would never wish any American to suffer the same injustices.”

We must make sure we are teaching truth and solidarity. Our colleges and newspapers must be held to a higher standard.

Sincerely,

Kristina West 

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