By: Junpei Yamaguchi
CN: Internment, War, Covid
Setting: An eighth grade U.S. History classroom in 2005.
Cast: 14 year old Junpei, relegated to the very back of the classroom due to regularly falling asleep in class and the teacher getting tired of it and banishing me out of the way entirely.
Mr. Federighi stands at the front of the classroom and tells us about the brave 442nd regiment of World War II. Thousands of brave nissei men off to fight the nazis while many of them left their families not in their homes, but in concentration camps sealed with barbed wire… Put there in the name of freedom.
Their land and property was seized, and sold by the US Government for profit that the victims wouldn’t see a penny of. People who looked like me, or even *whiter* than me… Just one grandparent was enough to justify imprisonment… People who looked like me were shipped across the country to some of the most miserable places on the continent.
Hot dusty summers, hardly arable land that these enterprising farmers managed to grow in *anyways*, machine guns pointed at them, mold in the rice… There was no going to the grocery store. If you weren’t in a camp where anybody had thought to bring seeds, or where the soil was simply too barren, it was moldy gruel, and gruel alone. Even those who had grown food, it was sparse at best. It supplemented, it did not alone feed.
And in 2005, Mr. Federighi, veteran of the Vietnam war, and perpetual hard-ass, becomes nearly emotional speaking of the brave 442nd. Men who died for a country that treated their families as enemies of the state. He doesn’t teach us about the intensity of the camps, it’s a comparative footnote in his lesson. Yes, there were camps, yes, Tanforan mall was once Tanforan racetrack, and in between that time, it was the local camp to gather Bay Area Japanese and then ship them to the desert. Tanforan mall, which to this day has murals and statuary representing its history as a racetrack, and not a whisper of its history as a concentration camp. He mentions these things, the lesson isn’t incomplete, but mostly he wants us to understand:
The 442nd were brave, despite their mistreatment.
And these people today have the audacity to suggest that shelter-in-place is at all relatable to the American concentration camps for Japanese-American citizens.
You do not have dusty, thin walls and floorboards so far apart that toddlers and small children would twist their ankles in them. You do not have only moldy gruel to eat. You do not have a barbed wire fence between you and the outside world. And when you leave your home, there is no machine gun pointed at you.
You have grocery stores. You have Amazon. You have phone calls. You have your homes.
You are not being told to stay in your homes because you aren’t trusted, or because you are seen as an enemy, a traitor, a spy. You are being told to stay in your home to protect not only your neighbors, but yourself.
Because the enemy this time isn’t a human being, it isn’t an imperialist Asian nation across the Pacific, or a genocidal man with an ugly mustache across the Atlantic.
This time, the enemy doesn’t even fit the definition of alive.
The 442nd, Mr. Federighi explained, were brave and honorable because they did what was right (fight the nazis) despite what was terrifying (the US treatment of Japanese Americans).
So let us be the 442nd. Stay home, not because we are behind barbed wire, not because we are being forced to, but because no matter how much we want to leave our homes and the prison that this virus has put us as a society into?
We must defeat this killer virus, just as the 442nd had to defeat the 3rd Reich.