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On December 7, 1941, 16 year-old Aki Kurose shared in the horror of millions of Americans when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. What she did not know, was how that shared experience would soon leave her family and over 120,000 Japanese Americans alienated from their country, both socially and physically.

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Ugly history

As of 1941, Japanese American communities had been growing in the US for over 50 years. About one-third of them were immigrants, many of whom settled on the West Coast and had lived there for decades. The rest were born as American citizens, like Aki.

Born Akiko Kato in Seattle, Aki grew up in a diverse neighborhood where she never thought of herself as anything but American– until the day after the attack, when a teacher told her: “You people bombed Pearl Harbor.”” Amid racism, paranoia, and fears of sabotage, people labelled Japanese Americans as potential traitors. FBI agents began to search homes, confiscate belongings and detain community leaders without trial. Aki’s family was not immediately subjected to these extreme measures, but on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066.

The order authorized the removal of any suspected enemies– including anyone of even partial Japanese heritage– from designated ‘military areas.’ At first, Japanese Americans were pushed to leave restricted areas and migrate inland. But as the government froze their bank accounts and imposed local restrictions such as curfews, many were unable to leave– Aki’s family among them. In March, a proclamation forbid Japanese Americans from changing their residency, trapping them in military zones.

In May, the army moved Aki and her family, along with over 7,000 Japanese Americans living in Seattle to “Camp Harmony” in Puyallup, Washington. This was one of several makeshift detention centers at former fairgrounds and racetracks, where entire families were packed into poorly converted stables and barracks. Over the ensuing months, the army moved Japanese Americans into long-term camps in desolate areas of the West and South, moving Aki and her family to Minidoka in southern Idaho.

Guarded by armed soldiers, many of these camps were still being constructed when incarcerees moved in. These hastily built prisons were overcrowded and unsanitary. People frequently fell ill and were unable to receive proper medical care.

The War Relocation Authority relied on incarcerees to keep the camps running. Many worked in camp facilities or taught in poorly equipped classrooms, while others raised crops and animals. Some Japanese Americans rebelled, organizing labor strikes and even rioting.

But many more, like Aki’s parents, endured. They constantly sought to recreate some semblance of life outside the camps, but the reality of their situation was unavoidable. Like many younger incarcerees, Aki was determined to leave her camp.

She finished her final year of high school at Minidoka, and with the aid of an anti-racist Quaker organization, she was able to enroll at Friends University in Kansas. For Aki’s family however, things wouldn’t begin to change until late 1944. A landmark Supreme Court case ruled that continued detention of American citizens without charges was unconstitutional. In the fall of 1945, the war ended and the camps closed down.

Remaining incarcerees were given a mere $25 and a train ticket to their pre-war address, but many no longer had a home or job to return to. Aki’s family had been able to keep their apartment, and Aki eventually returned to Seattle after college. However, post-war prejudice made finding work difficult.

Incarcarees faced discrimination and resentment from workers and tenants who replaced them. Fortunately, Japanese Americans weren’t alone in the fight against racial discrimination. Aki found work with one of Seattle’s first interracial labor unions and joined the Congress of Racial Equality.

She became a teacher, and over the next several decades, her advocacy for multicultural, socially conscious education would impact thousands of students. However, many ex-incarcerees, particularly members of older generations, were unable to rebuild their lives after the war. Children of incarcerees began a movement calling for the United States to atone for this historic injustice. In 1988, the US government officially apologized for the wartime incarceration– admitting it was the catastrophic result of racism, hysteria, and failed political leadership.

Three years after this apology, Aki Kurose was awarded the Human Rights Award from the Seattle Chapter of the United Nations, celebrating her vision of peace and respect for people of all backgrounds.

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