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INTERNMENTS STILL SPARK PAINFUL MEMORIES

SHARE INTERNMENTS STILL SPARK PAINFUL MEMORIES

Fifty years later, Sharon Aburano still winces at the irony of her high school teacher's lecture on the Bill of Rights. It was a fine topic, but the wrong audience.

Aburano and her teenage classmates were imprisoned at the time, among the 120,000 Japanese-Americans confined to internment camps during World War II. They had been accused of no crime, but in the nervous months following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, their heritage was enough to call their loyalty into question."Here we were behind barbed wire," Aburano recalled recently, "and the teacher was telling us about civil rights - the right to due process, the right to a fair and speedy trial."

They got none of that. Instead, Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast became victims of racism, wartime hysteria, and greed in an episode that some scholars consider the most serious violation of constitutional rights in U.S. history.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the order allowing the internment on Feb. 19, 1942. Today, as the 50th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 nears, it has become a rallying point for Japanese-American groups.

By commemorating the wartime discrimination, the groups hope to portray the internment camps as a blatant symbol of the prejudice that Asian-Americans still face in more subtle forms.

They grant that times have changed for the better since 1942. But they are concerned that racial conflicts may be rising again. Asians and Pacific Islanders are the fastest-growing group of U.S. immigrants, and Japan, while no longer the enemy, looms as America's strongest economic rival.

The fear, said U.S. Rep. Norm Mineta of California, himself a former internee at the Heart Mountain, Wyo., camp is that Asian-Americans "are becoming the targets of Japan-bashing sentiment."

The commemorations also serve another purpose: bringing together Japanese-American communities. For decades, former internees rarely spoke of their experience, trying to put the humiliating experience behind them. But their children, third-generation Japanese-Americans known as Sansei, remained curious.

"My mother was in a camp, but she didn't talk about it," said David Takami, 34. "All she'd say was it was the most humiliating experience in her life. That would end the discussion."

Takami has written a history of Seattle's Japanese immigrants. It's designed to accompany an exhibit on the internment camps at Seattle's Wing Luke Asian Museum, a grass-roots history project that started with a handful of people and now has grown to include more than 50 volunteers.

"This is sort of replacing what my mother never told me," Takami said. "We're learning so much from the Nisei, the older people."

What they're learning is a sad story of discrimination and racial hatred directed at Japanese-Americans since the late 1800s, when the first immigrants arrived on the West Coast to work on the railroads and in salmon canneries and logging camps.

Immigrants were barred from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens; in many areas, they could not own real estate or live in certain neighborhoods. Despite this, immigrants and their children persevered, and by 1941 many were prospering.

Sharon Aburano's father was a grocer in Seattle's Japantown.

"We did very well," she said. "I remember leather sofas and marble table tops at home. But we lost it all."

In November 1941, shortly before the Pearl Harbor attack, Roosevelt had ordered a secret investigation of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. The investigator concluded that the Japanese-Americans - two-thirds of them native-born American citizens - were overwhelmingly loyal to the United States. "There is no `Japanese problem' on the Coast," he reported.

But others, fearing that West Coast Japanese-Americans could aid invading Japanese soldiers, were not swayed by a lack of evidence. To them, Japanese-Americans were suspect because of their race; the absence of documented sabotage or espionage was "evidence" that they were lying low, waiting for a coming invasion.

"A Jap's a Jap," declared Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, commander of the internment operation. "It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, theoretically. He is still a Japanese and you can't change him."

Also lobbying for evacuation were white businessmen and farmers on the West Coast who resented economic competition from Japanese-Americans.

Roosevelt's Feb. 19 order didn't mention Japanese-Americans. It merely authorized military officials to declare security zones and exclude anyone they deemed a threat. Shortly afterward, American citizens with at least one-sixteenth Japanese blood were barred from living, working or traveling on the West Coast.

Ten "relocation centers" were hurriedly built in desolate areas of California, Idaho, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas. The first to go were farmers on Bainbridge Island near Seattle. They were given one week to store or sell their belongings before being shipped off to the Manzanar camp in Southern California on March 30.

A few weeks later, Seattle's 7,000 Japanese-Americans were evacuated to a temporary camp at a fairground south of the city.

"They told us you can only take what you can carry in two hands," Aburano recalled. Her mother, strong for months, finally broke down when she was pointed toward a pile of straw, handed a canvas bag and told to stuff it to make her bed.

"That was the first time I ever saw my mother cry," Aburano said.

Five months later, the Seattle evacuees were shipped by train to the Minidoka internment camp in southern Idaho's parched sagebrush country. The camp, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, eventually held nearly 10,000 internees from Washington and Oregon.

Families lived in 16-by-20-foot rooms with one potbellied stove, a light bulb and one electric outlet. There was no running water. Internees scavenged wood from packing crates to make furniture.

Young men who proclaimed their loyalty to the United States were allowed to join the Army.

The internment camps existed for three years, until the August 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II.

Decades later, official apologies have helped heal some wounds. In 1982, a federal commission concluded the internment was not based on military necessity, and more than 25,000 claimants have received the $20,000 redress checks Congress authorized in 1988. More than 72,000 former internees still live.