Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2019.02.20

The state that accepted Japanese-Americans

the japan times on February 13, 2019


I am writing this column in Denver, Colorado. For those non-American readers who may need clarification, this beautiful city is located at the base of the Rocky Mountains in America's Wild West. Denver is nicknamed the "Mile-High City" because its elevation is one mile (1.6 km) above sea level, although I never felt that the air was thin.

The capital of Colorado is also well-known for its sunny weather. Denver claims that it has 300 days of sunshine per year. This time, unfortunately, I brought heavy snow with me.

I was invited by the Japan America Society of Colorado to speak with an old friend from Washington about issues related to Japan-U.S. security arrangements. He and I -- a sort of team of manzai comedians -- had spoken together in similar occasions at Indianapolis and Seattle last year. Denver was the third such event.

The relationship between Japan and Colorado has been fantastic, and not just because the state gets many Japanese tourists and is the home of hundreds of Japanese businesspeople. Friends in Denver told me that the relationship started in the 1940s after Japan went to war against the United States.

Ralph Lawrence Carr was the governor of Colorado from 1939 to 1943. He defeated an incumbent Democratic governor and was elected to a two-year term in 1938. Carr, a conservative Republican, was re-elected in 1940 and two years later he was unanimously nominated by the state Republican convention for the U.S. Senate.

His political life dramatically changed in 1942. Executive Order 9066 ordered the resettlement of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast into internment camps in nearby states. Unlike other Western governors, Carr opposed interning them and agreed that Colorado should accept its share of the evacuees and treat them respectfully.

In his book, William Wei, an Asian-American scholar, quoted Carr as saying, "They are as loyal to American institutions as you and I. Many of them have been born here -- are American citizens, with no connection or feeling of loyalty toward the customs and philosophies of Italy, Germany and Japan.

"I am talking to ... all American people whether their status be white, brown or black and regardless of the birthplaces of their grandfathers when I say that if a majority may deprive a minority of its freedom, contrary to the terms of the Constitution today, then you as a minority may be subjected to the same ill-will of the majority tomorrow."

When I was posted in Washington in the early 1990s, I was very much interested in the history of Americans of Japanese ancestry. Therefore, when I first learned this, I could not believe that this was what the conservative Republican governor of Colorado said in 1942. At that time, I tried as much as I could to reach out to Japanese-Americans and especially to those who really suffered from their internment. I thought I have learned a lot about the plight of the Americans of Japanese ancestry but, honestly, I forgot about the brave governor of Colorado until I visited Denver this time. What a shame.

At the center of Denver, a Japanese Shingon Buddhist temple is still maintained where the preaching is made both in Japanese and in English. Every year the Japanese-American and Japanese expat communities get together to organize "Red and White" (meaning female versus male) Singing Contest, which marks the 44th this year.

A green-eyed blond girl sings enka, traditional Japanese pop music in Japanese together with her nisei (second-generation) grandmother and Japanese business people from Tokyo and Osaka. No other cities in the United States have more cordial and friendly relations with Japan than Denver.

While I was listening to these fascinating stories by the Japanese consul-general in Denver, I remembered my conversation with Norman Mineta, a former U.S. secretary of transportation, in 1993. I met him in a small Japanese-American gathering in Washington and he kindly told me of his experience during the internment.

It was right after the World Trade Center in New York City was bombed. He said, "FBI officials came and explained to me that they would start screening Arab or Muslim Americans for the purpose of protecting them. Then I said, no way, that's exactly the same reason FBI used for interning the Japanese-Americans in the 1940s."

Back to Denver, there are at least two more great Americans of Japanese ancestry that I must recognize: Minoru Yasui and Bill Hosokawa. Yasui, a lawyer originally from Oregon, fought laws that targeted Japanese-Americans during the war and was convicted in 1942, but his criminal conviction was finally overturned in 1986.

Hosokawa was a Japanese-American journalist and a columnist and editor at The Denver Post for 38 years. Hosokawa helped Yasui's efforts to fight discrimination and worked hard for the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which stated that government actions were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."

Make no mistakes, as I said during my presentation in the University of Colorado, I do not commend Carr, Mineta and others because they did something good to Japan. On the contrary, I praise them simply because they are great Americans who always try to be loyal to the constitution of the United States.

As Mineta pointed out, anti-Islam or anti-Arab sentiments as well as anti-Semitism are on the rise again in the U.S. It is time for us to revisit the history and refocus on the values of the state of Colorado because Denver is not just a city for sightseeing on sunny days.