Day of Remembrance events mark 80 years since Japanese American forced removal and incarceration

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Waiting in line at the mess hall, 1942, Puyallup Assembly Center, Washington. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Exec. Order 9066, just over two months after an attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese aircraft. When the order was signed 80 years ago, it had a calamitous effect on vibrant Japanese American communities across the West Coast, leading to the forced removal and incarceration of nearly 120,000 United States citizens living in California, Oregon, and Washington. Sent to remote concentration camps for three years, many lost jobs, homes, and established businesses—1,862 lost their lives, most from disease contracted at the poorly outfitted and inadequately insulated facilities. 

Because of this, February 19 is observed annually as a Day of Remembrance, giving all Americans the opportunity to remember the racial prejudice and war hysteria that led to the order and to reflect on its tragic impact on the Japanese American community. 

The Washington State Fairgrounds, which has hosted several PNW Annual Conference Sessions, served as a processing center where Japanese Americans were gathered and processed (sometimes taking months) before being dispersed to the camps. In 2014, the Pacific Northwest Conference dedicated time during its session to remember and learn about this history and its impact.

Several opportunities, online and across the GNW, offer us the chance to reflect on this history in this 80th year. The National Park Service (NPS) partners with the Smithsonian Institution and Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation to host several National Day of Remembrance virtual events. A schedule and more information about these opportunities are available on the NPS website.

The Washington State Historical Society offers a special presentation on Tacoma’s vibrant pre-war Japan Town. The program titled “Structural Erasure: Remembering Japanese Americans in Prewar Tacoma” will be provided free on Facebook Live on Feb. 17 from 6-7 p.m PT. More information about the opportunity can be found on the Washington State Historical Society website, as can the permanent virtual exhibit REMEMBRANCE.

The Portland JACL is hosting a Day of Remembrance 2022 screening of the film Reparations on Feb. 26, followed by a panel discussion exploring the present-day struggle for reparations for Black Americans and the critical role that solidarity between communities has in addressing systemic racism. It takes place at the McMenamins Kennedy School at 1:30 p.m. PT. Tickets are free with registration.

When we pause and look back at our history, we allow it to shape what we do today. Coupled with the actions of repentance and forgiveness, this work can help us heal and grow together in shared community. When forgotten, we seemed destined to repeat our past mistakes, visiting harm upon whoever the ‘other’ is for those in power today.

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