by: Kenji Kuramitsu
Japanese immigrants are living in global diaspora – from the Andes to Los Angeles, from Sao Paulo to Seoul, Nikkei nomads (referring to people of Japanese origin) have settled into a vast constellation of countries in the 150 or so years since Japanese isolationism was officially quashed.
One of the many beautiful countries into which Japanese expatriates have assimilated – while boasting a great diversity of thought and unique culinary delicacies – is also internationally known for its barbaric penal systems and the sky-high rates at which it imprisons more people than any other society in history. A gargantuan network of steel and concrete penitentiaries dot this nation’s landscape, representing the continuation of an embarrassing legacy, which shamelessly profits off of human suffering.
Critics trace the roots of this current infrastructure to what activist Jim Wallis has called “America's original sin.” That is, this nation was founded by – in the simplest terms – ideological white supremacists, men who believed that white meant right and that blacks were, at best, three-fifths human. Sadly, this age-old philosophy continues to haunt our republic today.
For the budding historian, it’s not hard to detect painful similarities between our ancestors’ generations and our own. North American racism – which is historically embodied as a racial hierarchy with whites at the top and blacks on bottom – did not miraculously vanish with the formal abolition of slavery or the notable achievements of the civil rights movement. While we've been given a rain check on politicians openly wearing white hoods and burning crosses, our society keeps in place a system where black males are shot and killed by police officers, security guards, and vigilantes an average of one every twenty-eight hours.
Lynching blacks for bloodsport may no longer be in style, but racial disparities continue to plague the death penalty system to such an extent that dozens of states (including my own) have abolished it or placed indefinite moratoriums on its practice. While black Americans can finally buy homes in previously off-limit neighborhoods, cast ballots, and be buried in the same cemeteries as white folks, recent national unrest has revealed the distance we still have to traverse; to those who insist that Judge Lynch no longer holds sway, the fact that Mike Brown’s body can lie in the street for hours before it’s taken away, the fact that Eric Garner’s illegal killing can be caught entirely on video, declared a homicide, and that his assailant can still walk away, badge intact, says much.
Though the cherished southern practice of chattel slavery was formally put to an end in 1865, this quarter millennia period of American history was swiftly followed by nearly a century of unyielding state-sponsored terrorism popularly carried out under Jim and Jane Crow laws. As author Ta-Nehisi Coates so carefully documents in his superb work The Case for Reparations, this tradition collapsed only to morph into a set of blatantly racist housing policies and loan prohibitions which continued this tradition of violence through the gradual snowballing of intense policing of low income black communities under the dual mantles of federal “wars” on drugs and crime. These civil wars pumped adrenaline and nonviolent offenders into our modest prisons until the system bottlenecked and exploded into the multibillion dollar industry we see today.
Like many black Americans, Japanese Americans also know firsthand the horrors of mass incarceration. While significant discrepancies have marked our respective experiences, the analogy isn’t entirely inappropriate: we have both seen how mass incarceration has torn apart our neighborhoods, how its violent assault upon our quarters has left on our communities’ consciences an indelible stain. We have mutually experienced racial profiling and bigoted enforcement of laws, had our people targeted and locked away in devastating conditions by a system designed to traumatize and reduce us.
When Japanese-American families were policed into state-sanctioned ghettos back in 1942, the government had to scramble to build cabins and mess halls, to hire guards and staff for the new facilities. Today, prison administrators have had a lot more practice, and a growing swath of independent contractors and private firms has recognized just how lucrative the prison industrial complex is. Consequently, our policymakers remain more than happy to keep the mass incarceration business booming.
In the almost 70 years since the last North American concentration camp was closed, thousands of analogous prison fiefdoms have cropped up across the United States, opening their gates to millions of prospective guests. The methods used to wrangle in the new target population have changed: mandatory minimums, “stop and frisk” procedures, draconian drug sentencing, and racially-warped policing tactics have replaced the more brazen approach of marching to citizens’ doors with rifles and ushering them en masse to open-air internment camps. But the results are the same: broken families, systematic communal disenfranchisement, and a lack of opportunity and protections for those who survive the incarceration.
Forty years ago, the federal commission formed to examine the wartime internment of Japanese Americans publicly concluded that the West-coast incarceration held no retroactively justifiable basis. Rather, they wrote, “Race prejudice…hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” were the leading factors behind this carefully executed attack.
The commission’s words stand as true today as they did two generations ago. In recognizing this, the socially conscious citizen should work to collaboratively and creatively end the lasting impacts of America's racial undertaking by boldly advocating for the reduction and dissolution of this cruel and predatory system. As supporters of the Japanese-American redress movement demanded in the 70s, critically minded individuals today can push for the creation of a federal commission to objectively report how historic institutionalized racial prejudice continues to directly impact the landscape of our country today.
This journey will not be a lighthearted exercise in political correctness, but an onerous struggle for justice. For if, as many of us suspect, mass incarceration is just a different flavor of an age-old poison, then this nation's "good old days" are not so easily escaped. If history is a tree, and if someone unaware of the past is a leaf that doesn't know it's a part of something bigger, then our country owes it to itself to reckon with the fact that there is blood on the leaves. When it comes to tracing the forbidden histories of the fruit gathered from the tree of the great American project, we're likely to discover that there's blood all the way down to the roots.