First of a three-part series
Jack Hasegawa is a Japanese American who worked courageously in the 1960s for Civil Rights in the South. I learned about him in a conversation with Dr. William Howe who suggested I interview him for my oral history project about people whose work for civil rights deserves to be widely known. Dr. Howe invited me to conduct interviews at the recent conference of the National Association of Multicultural Education in Connecticut.
Speaking with people about their lives and the choices they made in behalf of justice, makes for large respect. My purpose is to provide evidence for what Eli Siegel (1902-1978), the great philosopher and poet who founded the education Aesthetic Realism, explained: that “ethics is a force” working in people throughout history and in reality itself. He defined ethics as “the art of enjoying justice,” and in these sentences he describes its power and beauty:
“When fairness is seen not just as an easily mouthed word but as the tremendous objective of all the conscious and unconscious thought of man, ethics will be seen as a sudden mountain range appearing near a dull, flat plain.”
Jack Hasegawa’s life shows how true and alive this is!
Mr. Hasegawa earned a Masters in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. He participated in demonstrations to desegregate eating places and voter registration drives in the South and was also a community organizer in the Roxbury section of Boston and later in the housing projects of Osaka, Japan. Today he is Chief of the Bureau of Educational Equity in the Connecticut State Department of Education.
Born during World War II, his story includes one of the most appalling occurrences in the history of the United States: the internment of thousands of Japanese American citizens in detention or relocation camps. In the interview, when Mr. Hasegawa mentions the “camp,” that is what he means.
Pearl Harbor and a Japanese-American Family
ALICE BERNSTEIN: I’m very happy to meet you and to thank you for being part of this project on ethics as a force in civil rights. I’d like to begin by asking you to tell us when you were born and where that was.
JACK HASEGAWA: I was born in 1944 in Colorado. My family was from central California near Fresno, but during the war we were relocated to Poston, Arizona. My father made an effort to make sure that I was not born inside the camp. He volunteered with my mom to work on a sugar beet crew in Colorado outside the camp, so I was born in Colorado. My dad was a sugar beet cutter and my mother was a camp cook.
The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, my dad left for the recruiting office to volunteer. They turned him away as an enemy alien. That evening the FBI came to our farm and arrested my grandfather and all the Japanese-speaking men in our community. We didn’t see him again for about three years.
AB: Your father was born where?
JH: My dad was born right on the farm in Sanger, California.
AB: So your dad was an American.
JH: Yes. When he was in the internment center, the army came through when they were short on manpower and drafted men from the relocation center. My dad ended up in the 442nd combat battalion and fought in Italy. When he came back, he was put back into the relocation center.
AB: What you’re talking about is one of the most shameful things in American history. Your father was in the United States Army in what I believe was a segregated Japanese American battalion with white officers.
JH: Yes. It was the most decorated battalion. When they came back, President Truman gave them a special unit citation because they had the most casualties of any single battalion in the Second World War.
AB: Then after they were honored with these medals, they were sent back to these camps?
JH: Those whose sons were still there were sent back. My family was still in custody. My dad remembers that every morning they would be marched down the road in between pickup trucks with civilians who’d been deputized carrying shotguns. Here he was, a veteran, born in the United States, who spoke Japanese relatively poorly, and yet he was treated as a prisoner.
AB: Would you like to say your parents’ names?
JH: My father is Peter Hasegawa. My son and my nephew are both named for him. My mother is Yoshino Tajiri Hasegawa.
AB: As we’re talking about this, there is a lot of emotion here, and a history of justice and injustice that is dizzying.
JH: Yes. My mother retired a few years ago after a long period as a public librarian in Fresno County. She published a two-volume oral history of the Japanese-American families in our part of California. It’s a wonderful history.
AB: How did your family take this experience?
JH: A lot of the Japanese-American families had a great deal of denial about the impact on them. When we were kids they would tell these funny stories about “when we were in camp this happened.” We had a vision of camp as like the summer camps we were being sent to—Boy Scouts camp. It was only when we were much older, coming home from college, having heard what it really was that we pressed them to tell us what had happened. Our family lost a great deal of land because, not surprisingly, when you’re in prison you cannot pay taxes. So a lot of land owned by Japanese Americans was sold at tax auctions. Some people had less land than we did—some had little stores, for example. It was devastating because when they came back they had nothing left. We at least had our farm.
AB: Did your father run the farm when—
JH: When my dad came back, he got a GI Bill and went to study electronics. He had been a radio operator in the Army. Shortly after that, we settled briefly in Greeley, Colorado where he’d done sugar beet cutting. But my grandfather got sick in California, so my dad was called back and ran that farm continuously from 1947 until he died in 1995.
AB: What kind of farm was it?
JH: Oranges—groves of oranges.
AB: Your grandfather, was he in the camp with your family or were they separated?
JH: Both of my grandfathers—my father’s father Shoichi Hasegawa and my mother’s father Jin Shichi, were separated from their families. December 7th was the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. By December 8th, the FBI was circulating in the Japanese community and taking away the Japanese-speaking elders. There were almost no immigrant Japanese males left. Both of my grandfathers ended up in a regular prison where they stayed for quite a long time before they were re-united with their families.
AB: And your grandmothers—where were they?
JH: Grandmothers became the backbone of the families. Japanese in many immigrant communities believed that the men should have contact with the outside world, and the women lived almost entirely in the Japanese society. My grandmother Tome Hasegawa didn’t speak English very well. Years later, when I finished graduate school, I went to Japan for almost ten years and part of it was alternative service to Vietnam. I was a conscientious objector. I learned Japanese as an adult and that was the first time I had a long, connected conversation with my grandmothers.
So my grandmothers—here they were, women in middle age, each with five children, and they had to deal with all that happened. The FBI sent notices and they’d have their children read to them. The notices said you should report to the county fair grounds with enough things for your family to live for an extended period—everything but food. Imagine having a week to do that!
All the things they had from Japan—scrapbooks, wedding kimonos, family heirlooms, all were taken away. My grandfather Hasegawa had lived on the farm. Any farm implement that had an edge: sharpened hoes, machetes for clearing brush, hunting things—all that might be weapons were confiscated by the FBI.
AB: I know that it took many, many years for an official apology to be made.
JH: Ronald Reagan issued the first apology. He wasn’t very enthusiastic, but Congress did act. The last camp was closed I think in 1948, and (the apology) was in the mid-1970s. There were 110,000 of us inside the camps and by the end of the war almost 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent had been in these camps. A benefit of $20,000 was provided to each survivor, but almost all of the first generation survivors were dead then.
AB: So there were no benefits to the families of the survivors?
JH: That is correct. The law was that you had to have been born under incarceration. I qualified because I was born while my parents were assigned to the sugar beet camp. But my siblings who were born later, would not qualify.
AB: As an American citizen I would like to say how much I regret what was done to Japanese Americans during the war.
JH: Well, the economic aspect was staggering. There was a famous case around 1968, Mashimoto vs. United States. Mrs. Mashimoto owned a little flower shop in Berkeley. When she was taken to camp, she lost her stock of plants and flowers and lost her lease. In 1968 she sued the government for the cost of her lost stock. The courts ruled that she was entitled to compensation at the rate of ten cents on the 1941 dollar. So by that ruling, my father figured out that for the 160 acres that were taken from us, we would have netted about $240.
AB: The deviousness in seeming to give something and then not giving anywhere near what is deserved, is a study in itself. What does it mean to give full justice to something or someone? That is a question Aesthetic Realism is mighty interested in, and which I want to take seriously. I hope through the questions I ask and the comments I make, to be just to you.
Meantime, you went on to dedicate your life in many ways to fighting injustice in behalf of all people. That’s very important. So I’d like to know what made you feel that you wanted to oppose injustice?
JH: When I was in high school, the civil rights movement was just beginning and we started hearing bits and pieces about it. I was determined to be part of that kind of struggle—the idea of nonviolent struggle, for example, of people marching in Montgomery. We didn’t have television, but we’d hear that people had been beaten and sprayed with water hoses. By the time I was in college, I was very committed to participating in that movement and spent a lot of time traveling to the South. I liked the idea that we should struggle and not just give up; that we should examine the roots of what was happening and be part of change.
Part Two is about Civil Rights protests in Nashville and Atlanta.
(Link to Part Two)
To learn about Aesthetic Realism visit the website of the not-for-profit educational foundation www.AestheticRealism.org. Alice Bernstein is a journalist and co-author of Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism (Orange Angle Press).