The relocation and detention of 120,000 Japanese American citizens and Japanese immigrants, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, is now often acknowledged as a grave miscarriage of justice.
Jewish Museum Milwaukee shines a light on racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and the failure of political leadership in a new exhibit on the incarceration of Japanese Americans and the demise of civil liberties during World War II.
“Then They Came for Me” (Feb. 18 – May 29) examines the history of emigration from Japan, the responses of the American people and government, and how the incarcerated Japanese Americans fared after the war as they struggled to reestablish their shattered lives.
“There are a lot of parallels to experiences within Jewish history and historical events when you talk about mass incarceration of people simply for their heritage or race,” said Molly Dubin, Jewish Museum curator. “This dark period in American history was largely driven by racism and fear.”
The original version of the exhibit was launched in Chicago in 2017 by the Alphawood Foundation with the participation and support of the Japanese American Services Committee of Chicago.
Jewish Museum Milwaukee partnered with the Wisconsin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League to include localized content. Members contributed oral histories, artifacts and photos to the exhibit.
League President Ron Kuramoto of Milwaukee said his parents and other family members were interred in incarceration camps in California and Arizona. The Japanese American Citizens League, formed in 1929, was “very active in the redress and reparations movement of the 1980s, which brought a lot of the things in this exhibit to public attention,” Kuramoto said. The Citizens League is also advocating for the state legislature to mandate the inclusion of the Japanese- American internment in the curriculum of Wisconsin schools, he said.
Of the exhibit, Kuramoto said, “We’ve had a wonderful relationship for the longest time with the Jewish Museum Milwaukee and the Jewish Federation. We are proud and honored to collaborate on this exhibit.”
February 19, 2022, marks the 80th anniversary of the Roosevelt administration’s Executive Order 9066. This order authorized the evacuation of all persons deemed to be a threat to national security from the West Coast to relocation centers inland. In the next six months, 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry, regardless of their citizenship, were moved to assembly centers. They were then evacuated to and confined in isolated, fenced and guarded relocation centers, known as internment camps.
“They had their homes and businesses taken away, their farmland, and they were completely cut off from these communities that they had established,” Dubin said. “You take it through to the present day, tying it to some of these refugee families being separated and torn apart at borders, people being judged and ostracized because of their background, their heritage and then this horrible resurgence of anti-Asian racism.”
Kevin Miyazaki, a Milwaukee-based artist, photographer and graphic designer, will be sharing his work and his family’s story on Feb. 17 in a virtual opening event. Other black and white photographs at the heart of the exhibit were taken by the likes of Clem Albers and Ansel Adams, who were hired by the War Relocation Authority to document the camps. All the photographers were forbidden to take pictures of the camps’ barbed wire fences, watchtowers and armed guards, although some managed to find ways to take some anyway. There are photos in the National Archives that remained largely unseen until 2006.
A gift from the Yabuki Family Foundation allows for free admission for the public during the Jewish Museum Milwaukee exhibit’s run.
“The museum is honored and humbled by the Yabuki Family Foundation gift which will allow all to learn about and contemplate this important and tragic period in U.S. history,” said Patti Sherman-Cisler, executive director of Jewish Museum Milwaukee.
A series of programs will run in conjunction with the exhibit, some of which will be virtual. Check the schedule at JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org/events or call 414-390-5730.