Never Again

On my way back from a visit home to Idaho last week, I saw a billboard on the side of the freeway that caught my attention. It was a black and white picture of a little Japanese American girl sitting atop a pile of belongings, and underneath were written the words “Never Again is Now.”

The sign was referring to the illegal imprisonment of more than 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent in desolate prison camps during World War II.1 If you ask someone about the internment today, many people don’t know that it even happened. It seems incredible that while the internment has been lauded as a “story that needs to be told,” it yet remains obscure—we are still trying to tell the story of something that happened more than 70 years ago.

As I think about the picture, the faces of the internment appear in my head; but they are not the only ones that come to mind. The billboard is part of a larger movement to call attention to world atrocities in an attempt to combat injustice and prevent it from happening again. However, even in our modern day, the injustices of the past seem to echo. Japanese Internment has been cited as a possible precedent for acts of discrimination within our own country.2 And with Muslim Internment camps in Xinjiang, concentration camps in North Korea, and what the New York Times has called “American Internment Camps” at the border, history seems to be repeating itself now. When we promise “Never Again,” why does it so often seem that we are unable to call out modern examples of the same racially charged injustices occurring today?

As a half-Japanese student taking a senior seminar on the literature of the Japanese American Internment, the faces, places, and stories of this historical moment have been fresh on my mind. I look at the little girl in the picture and how much she reminds me of a picture I’ve seen of my mother as a child; then I can’t help but remember that my sister’s name is Yuki, the name of the main character in Yoshiko Uchida’s young adult novel Journey to Topaz, the story that we have been reading of the internment told through the eyes of a childAnd that there was a camp in Idaho—a four-hour drive from my home. And one two hours from Provo. And that I too have struggled with navigating Japanese American identity like Uchida notes in Journey Home, that I have felt the same conflicted and poignant debt towards my issei (first generation Japanese) mother that Toyo Suyemoto notes in her memoir, I Call to Remembrance, and that had my family been here one generation earlier, we probably would have been put into the camps, too.

My grandmother was born during the war, during the internment in 1944 in fact, but across the Pacific—when bombs were a constant threat to the densely packed coastal city of Makurazaki. Her mother died soon after she was born. And as the city was no place for a single father to raise a large family and a brand-new baby, my great-grandfather made the sad decision to give my Baba (grandma) away to be raised by a family in the country. When her older sister, then a high school student, returned home to find Baba missing, she confronted my great-grandfather, exclaiming, “How could you give Hisako away? She is family!” She then walked miles out into the country on foot to retrieve Baba and spent the next years of her life raising her, walking from door to door daily to beg for milk to feed her.

A generation later, my mother crossed the Pacific in 1987 as an exchange student, excited for a new adventure embracing the American Dream. It is so strange for me to think that had she migrated to the West Coast one generation earlier, she would have been put in an internment camp. In many ways, I feel that she was saved by time—a stroke of luck that has had lasting effects.

I have the blood of both America and Japan. This has occasionally been a source of confusion and conflict for me; for in this context, I am the oppressed and the oppressor, further complicated as I consider that the Japanese too held prison camps in the Philippines and Indonesia. It seems that at any given moment, anyone might be both oppressed and oppressor. In this, we are all the same.

If we look back, we all have the blood of oppressors and the oppressed, of conquerors and the conquered. Our stories weave in and out of one another and into one whole. That is the power of a story. It links anyone, anything, to another. It has the power to bind—and to unify.

As human beings, we have a duty and an obligation to keep stories alive—because they are our stories. Knowing that if it could happen to someone, it could happen to anyone absolves the divide between us and others, shifting our personal responsibility. We all bear the mantle of being human, and we all have a duty to uphold the rights to which all humans are entitled.

The prophet Joseph Smith wrote,

If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a “Mormon,” I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves. It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul — civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race.3

What offends one offends all—regardless of race, religion, or any other distinction. We must not only tell these stories, but acknowledge and adopt them as our own in order to fulfill our duty to humanity.

MinéOkubo ends the preface to her sketch memoir of her internment experience, Citizen 13660 (1946), with the haunting line, “I hope that things can be learned from this tragic episode, for I believe it could happen again.”4 With current events, it sometimes seems that Okubo’s sentiment is becoming a prophecy fulfilled. But as we more fully adopt the stories of others as our own, see people not as “others” but as ourselves, and move to act accordingly, we can become those who can say, with greater conviction, “Never Again.”  

This post was written by Moe Graviet, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.

[1] Arrington, Leonard J. The Price of Prejudice: The Japanese-American Relocation Center in Utah during World War II. Utah State University, 1962.

[2] See this article by The Washington Post, this article by Newsweek, and others by searching “internment references today.” 

[3] Joseph Smith Papers, Volume E-1, pg. 1666.

[4] Okubo, Miné.Citizen 13660. University of Washington Press, 1946.

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1 Comment

  1. Van C. Gessel says:

    Beautifully written, and I totally agree with what you have said here.

    Why is it that we humans can spout rhetoric such as “Never Again!,” but as soon as we’re confronted with someone with a different face, or manner of dress, or systems of belief, that suddenly changes to “Well, Maybe Just One More Time!”

    It’s a tragic commentary on the persistence of prejudice, something we must all fight against whenever and wherever we see it.

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