By BRETT FUJIOKA
A furor erupted between concerned parents and members of the Muskego-Norway School Board at a meeting in Wisconsin on June 13, 2022. The issue of contention was whether to include Julie Otsuka’s historical fiction novel “When the Emperor Was Divine” about the Japanese American internment in its curriculum. Board members dismissed the book under the pretense that it’s inclusion was “unbalanced” account of history and students needed exposure to the “other side.”
By now, you can easily conclude why parents in the school district were so upset. “The other side was racism,” said a parent, Ann Zielke, during her exchange with the board’s Vice President Terri Boyer. When the parents pressed Boyer further on what she meant by “other side,” she said “American.” Parents corrected her and pointed out that most of the citizens incarcerated were American, to which Boyer revised herself and said “the United States government.”
School Board President Christopher Buckmaster suggested Iris Chang’s journalistic non-fiction book, “The Rape of Nanking,” about the massacre 40,000 to 300,000 of Chinese during the Sino-Japanese War. In a separate email, Brett Hyde, another board member, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that students read about Pearl Harbor for “some history as to why the citizens of Japanese descent were viewed as a threat and what was the reasoning to have them put into the internment camps.”
In other words, Hyde and the rest of the School Board wanted to justify the internment. The School Board didn’t have to exert much effort into asserting that they believed that Japanese Americans deserved to be illegally incarcerated.
If Buckmaster, Hyde, Boyer, and other members of the School Board want “another side” and one from “the United States government” then they can look no further than a narrative, any narrative about the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team.
I don’t think it’s a stretch of reason or logic to proclaim the 100th/442nd as the “government’s side of the story.” The assistant secretary of war was one of several of the technocratic architects of the Japanese American internment. He was also widely instrumental for the assembly, approval, and deployment of the 100th/442nd. John McCloy was a complicated figure and was staunchly against the redress and reparations from the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. But in a private memo, McCloy confessed that he didn’t deem Japanese Americans a military threat in the United States.
“These people are not ‘internees,’” he wrote in a postscript in a memorandum sent to Under Secretary of War Robert Patterson. “They are under no suspicion for the most part and were moved largely because we felt we could not control our own white citizens in California.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson offered a similar remedy when he attempted to coax Vice President Hubert Humphrey to select Senator Daniel K. Inouye, a decorated veteran of the 100th/442nd who lost his arm during combat, as his running mate. “He answers Vietnam with that empty sleeve. He answers your problems with (Republican presidential candidate Richard) Nixon with that empty sleeve,” Johnson said to Humphrey. In other words, whatever racism or prejudice directed to Inouye would’ve subsided due to his sacrifice.
Teaching about the internment isn’t enough. Well-meaning but ultimately naive liberals and progressives assume that conservatives and right-wingers have the capacity to express or feel shame or guilt over this country’s messy history in how it’s treated or interacted with non-European or Jewish people. As a result, each of these aforementioned ideologues have advocated for high school curriculums that center victimhood as a defining narrative in American history. Suffice to say, anyone or anything that shares the same head space as Horse Yoshinaga isn’t on board with this.
What will and should appeal to the Muskego-Norway School Board is the story of the 100th/442nd. Many Japanese have snidely asked me why my grandparents and uncles enlisted in the 442nd after what the United States did to their families. I never had an answer until relatively recently and this is something that even the Japanese can and should understand: Patriotism. The hidden, sublime, romantic, and ineffable genius of the United States is that its ideology transcends the mythical material limits of race and ethnicity. It’s what compelled the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment of mostly African American soldiers to fight on behalf of the Union during the American Civil War. It’s what motivated the Tuskegee Airmen, primarily African American pilots, to deploy during World War II.
While it’s true that the United States subjected the latter to horrendous experiments, the Left overly fixates on their victimhood at the often deliberate expense of distracting from their heroism. Each of these men that I’ve mentioned are the living embodiment of heroism by holding the United States accountable to live up to its ideals. The 100th/442nd are a part of that narrative and it’s something that not just Japanese Americans, but Americans should be proud of. Our story is theirs.
The Muskego-Norway School Board would humiliate itself by barring any attempt to include the 100th/442nd into its curriculum. It would make it undeniable that the board’s issue is purely steeped in racism. And besides, the 100th/442nd spent time in Camp McCoy in Wisconsin, so the Muskego-Norway School Board can’t claim that it’s irrelevant to their regional history.
The main question is what text should be taught in secondary education. For reasons that are too extensive and complicated to explain, I don’t think that John Okada’s novel, “No-No Boy,” about the draft resisters in internment camp is appropriate. It’s possibly the closest novel about the 100th/442nd in APIA literature. A novel of the same caliber of “Farewell to Manzanar” and “When the Emperor Was Divine” is still waiting to be written. One possibility, and I’m being biased here because he’s a distant relative, is “Stanley Hayami: Nisei Son.”
In order for this to move forward, organizations like the Japanese American Citizen League and the Go For Broke National Education Center – if they haven’t already – will need to assert themselves in this controversy. It’s the Muskego-Norway’s School Board’s turn to have their patriotism tested.
Brett Fujioka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.