Fullerton Arboretum Exhibit on Japanese-American Internment Speaks to Our Trumpian Times

Nori Uyematsu is a Korean War veteran, and he was at the Nikkei Heritage Museum in the Fullerton Arboretum recently to see their current exhibit, “What If Heroes Were Not Welcome Home?” Put on by the Oregon Historical Society, it examines the racism experienced by Japanese-Americans World War II veterans upon their return home to Hood River, Oregon.

Uyematsu and his family were placed at the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in Wyoming while he was a teen. He described it as a virtual prison with “barb wire fences, all the way around with guard towers, army soldiers armed with machine guns.” He also made it clear that this experience (infamously approved by Franklin Delano Roosevelt—”a Democrat!—Uyematsu pointed out, while wagging his finger) “is something that shouldn’t happen to American citizens.”

But when the conversation turned to the current president’s demonization of Muslims, and his ban on refugees from Syria and other Muslim-majority countries, Uyematsu remarked that Trump’s comments were “taken out of context.”

“They’ve got to screen the immigrants coming into this country,” he said matter-of-factly. “Gotta screen ’em…A lot of people are taking this out of context saying, ‘Ah, you’re doing the same thing you did with the Japanese-Americans!’ That’s oranges and apples.”

Uyematsu didn’t seem to appreciate the irony of his comments, especially since the Japanese American Citizens League, the oldest such civil rights group in the United States, issued a press release yesterday strongly condemning Trump’s actions. Also not agreeing with Uyematsu was the exhibit, which asks the viewer questions after portraying evidence of the injustices suffered by Japanese-Americans. Documents, clippings, and pictures begged the viewer to contemplate their role in the presence of these past injustices. Things like, “What would you do?” and “Imagine…” are used as headlines followed by an anecdote about personal experiences of racism.

Towards the end of “What If Heroes Were Not Welcome Home?” is a table with red, white and blue stars cut out of construction paper under a poster that asks, “Now, what will you do?” in all caps followed by several lines in italics. Some of them ask “…when you see others treated unfairly?” and “when you hear a racist joke or a sexist putdown?” The viewer is then invited to take a dulled black Sharpie out of a plastic cup, write their response, and then stick it on the wall with putty next to the other responses.

Yeah, it’s trite. But I still took a red star, and wrote “Resist hateful rhetoric” in my liberal scrawl.

“What If Heroes Were Not Welcomed Home?” will be at the Nikkei Heritage Museum at the Fullerton Arboretum until February 12, 2017. Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, from 12PM-4PM, 1900 Associated Rd. Fullerton, CA 92831.


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