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Japanese Americans call for restraint

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After the attack on America, 7-year-old Jimi and his siblings didn't go back to their Salt Lake City schools for days. The family feared their black hair, distinct eyes and skin color would make them targets for misdirected retaliation. Their fears held true.

Gangs of boys attacked Jimi's teenage brothers when they returned to school. Family members were met with taunting, racial slurs and shouts of "Go back home!" Jimi's father was accosted and falsely accused.

That was December 1941.

Now 67 years old, Jimi Mitsunaka says last week's terrorist attacks and subsequent retaliation against some Muslim and Arab Americans have brought back painful memories.

"As soon as I saw the destruction on TV and heard the media making references to Muslim, Middle Eastern suspects, I thought . . . 'It's going to happen all over again to those people now,' " said Mitsunaka, still a resident of Salt Lake City.

Mitsunaka is not alone in his feelings, says 62-year-old Floyd Mori, national president of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), a group of some 30,000 Japanese Americans spread across the United States. "I think any Japanese person who was in the U.S. during Pearl Harbor immediately became concerned for the innocent people who would be blamed," said Mori, who lives in Sandy.

"The day after Pearl Harbor, we became the enemy because of our Japanese faces, even though we were American," said Michi Mano of Murray, who in 1941 was a 26-year-old mother of two living in Los Angeles.

"We were so scared," Mano recalled. "We burned photographs and everything we had that might link us with Japan. We lost nearly all our business at our produce store." When the federal government required all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to relocate inland in 1942, the Manos had to sell their possessions for pennies on the dollar before they moved in with friends in Roy, Utah.

The Manos were fortunate. Because they had voluntarily relocated, they were not forced to enter a Japanese internment camp like Topaz, located in the desert 20 miles west of Delta.

For Mano, the events of last week have made the memories seem like they're happening again. "I've felt afraid every time I go out," Mano said. "I have to keep reminding myself that I am not being targeted as the enemy this time."

In an effort to deter further discrimination, the JACL released a statement last week urging people not to unleash their anger on the innocent "simply because of their ethnic origin. . . . Let us not make the same mistakes as a nation that were made in the hysteria of WWII."

Mori wrote the statement last Tuesday afternoon, just a day after returning from Japan, where he had joined with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Japanese-American Peace Treaty, signed Sept. 8, 1951.

Other Asian-Americans, some of whom were also persecuted during WWII simply because they looked Japanese, have also condemned the backlash. Monday the Asian American Advisory Council of Utah, whose council members represent 10 Asian nations, unanimously denounced any retaliation against Muslim or Arab Americans.

Mori and others say they cringe each time last Tuesday's attacks are compared to Pearl Harbor. "It's wrong to compare a hateful act of terrorism to a strategic military attack. Pearl Harbor was a different story."

"But maybe the comparisons are good," Mori's nephew Daren, 18, said. "Maybe the references to Pearl Harbor will remind our generation what happened to the Japanese Americans so we can learn from the past and be better."

At an outdoor candlelight vigil last Friday at the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, passing motorists gave friendly honks and waves. About 40 non-Muslim neighbors joined these Muslims in a special prayer for peace, healing, and justice.

In spite of local and national reports of backlashes, Utah Muslims say the retaliations have been the exception rather than the rule. Their co-workers and neighbors have inquired after their well-being, even inviting them to stay in their homes for safety if needed. Dozens of supportive calls have come into the mosque. A single rose was left on the mosque's front door step.

"For every bad comment or threat, there have been 50 expressions of kindness and concern," said Ghulam Patel, 51.

When told how these local Muslims had been treated, Mori's face showed visible relief. "Maybe America has learned something. Maybe our suffering was not in vain."