Before my interview with Washington State Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos, I admit I wasn’t completely knowledgeable about the tragic history of the Japanese incarceration camps. I knew the incarceration was a great stain upon America. As a nation, we denied 120,000 people of Japanese heritage (the majority of them were citizens) their constitutional rights of due process and equal protection. Naively, I thought everything was neatly sorted out: reparations were made, the government officially apologized and the Supreme Court must have ruled it unconstitutional to incarcerate Japanese Americans without due process. However, as I dug deeper, I found that the story is far more complicated, especially the Supreme Court component.
With the headlines of the legality of a Muslim registry and the Japanese internment camps cited as a precedent by Carl Higbie, a Trump surrogate during his presidential election campaign, I decided to reexamine Representative Santos’s interview in 2015, when she posed for her Power in Place portrait. Her maternal family (mother and grandparents) had been forcefully relocated to an incarceration camp in 1942. As a child, Representative Santos grew up with the sense that a great injustice had been committed against her community. Sorting through her interview, I started to realize that this incredible woman was a witness to the post-incarceration rebuilding and healing of her community and the legal battles to follow. As she put it: “History unfolded and I happened to be there, like the Tom Hank’s movie Forrest Gump, where he's getting to be a witness throughout history. I was a Japanese American female Forrest Gump, in this case."
As much as her parents shielded Sharon Tomiko from the family’s economic and psychological repercussions of incarceration, she grew up feeling the continued discrimination toward Seattle’s Japanese-Americans. “People in the community were very angry about being mistreated, not heard, effectively patted on the head and told to go away.” Combined with early civic engagement and a personal call to action, Sharon Tomiko was part of a larger community discussion "about how do we get a place at the table.” It first began as a fight for redress—obtaining an official governmental acknowledgment that a great injustice was perpetrated upon her fellow Japanese Americans by incarcerating them during World War II. "Seattle achieved renown for having organized the very first Day of Remembrance in the country. As a high school student, I was able to galvanize my fellow students to help organize and volunteer at the event. We were, collectively, as the organizing committee, very surprised at the overwhelming response we received from the greater Seattle area. We thought we would be lucky to have ten/twenty cars show up, but a caravan stretched several miles long from Seattle to Puyallup, which was the first assembly center where they assembled all the Japanese Americans,” for mass detention.
Later on in college, as a student of history and specifically governmental and constitutional history, Sharon Tomiko's senior project focused upon the coram nobis case of Gordan Hirabayashi.
"Since Gordon Hirabayashi is a Seattle person, his coram nobis case actually took place right downtown, in our federal courthouse. So as a college student, I was able to watch history unfold.”
Gordon Hirabayashi’s initial case was heard by the US Supreme Court in 1943. He had openly defied Roosevelt’s imposed wartime curfew upon Japanese Americans. His resistance challenged the very premise of the executive order of exclusion, as well as deportation and incarceration. At the time, the Supreme Court’s decision focused around a narrow legal interpretation of the necessity of allowing curfew policies if our national security is threatened during wartime.
In 1982, newly unearthed documents suggested that US government officials did indeed hide evidence that demonstrated there was no true military reason for Roosevelt’s exclusion order. Thereby, Japanese Americans were denied due process under US law when they were forcefully deported to camps.
Using a writ of coram nobis (a legal order allowing for a correction in judgment of court cases when new information surfaces that proves key evidence was concealed during the initial court proceedings), Hirabayashi’s case was reopened by US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. In 1984, his conviction was subsequently overturned. As a result, his case never made it back to the US Supreme Court, thus the high court never had the opportunity to rule on the constitutionality of the policy of Japanese American incarceration. Thus, technically, the wartime exclusion order still stands today.
Sharon Tomiko and her people’s fight for redress wasn’t in vain. To compensate the victims who suffered gross injustice and hardship caused by wartime incarceration, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988 when she was in graduate school. It was a formal presidential apology to every surviving US citizen or legal resident immigrant of Japanese ancestry incarcerated during World War II. The Act also provided a provision for a public education fund to prevent a future recurrence of forced incarceration and the loss of one’s inalienable rights. Two governmental agencies were established to implement reparations payments to eligible individuals.
Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos never forgot the lessons of her community’s trials and tribulations. To this day, she remains a vocal advocate for her legislative district’s diverse population. In particular, she holds special regard for the elderly—“the immigrant Japanese pioneers who, with nothing more than just hopes, came to the United States, like so many other immigrants and found that there was opportunity here. But because of rampant racism and discrimination, the dreams for opportunities were really not theirs to be able to reach and achieve. These elderly pioneers managed to still work very hard on behalf of their children’s opportunity. Their resilience, the lessons that they imparted to their children, and ultimately to their grandchildren, is why I've been able to succeed, and become a voice for those who are under-represented. Most importantly, I try to serve as a reminder to my colleagues about the deep meaning of the Constitution and our obligation, not just by words, but by real actions to continue to hold its relevance for future generations.”
Thank you, Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos, for imparting your family’s historic and personal narrative to Power in Place. Your story isn’t a relic of the past. It is as relevant as it was in 1942 and 1988. I’m reminded to stay vigilant and never assume that civil liberties are unassailable or guaranteed by our courts and government. The suppressed history of transgression against freedom must always be unearthed and understood as a warning for future generations who believe in true democracy.
For further study & understanding the history of the Japanese American community and their World War II experiences, Rep. Santos highly recommends Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project www.densho.org
By: Aishwarya Cozby , Mayor Barb Miranda’s PiP’s Youth Nominee
"I want to nominate you." These are powerful words; words that hold a humongous responsibility. Whether it’s for a student government or a city council position, you are asked to be a part of something important in your life and the lives of the people around you. It’s a big decision to make: to accept the responsibility they are asking and make them proud. So, when Mayor Barb Miranda pulled me outside at Sunnyside (where I work part-time) and spoke those five words to me, a million things raced through my mind. But the thought that will continue to stay with me is She thought of me. She asked me. It will be a moment I will forever cherish.
As I drove home after our conversation, I became extremely nervous. This is an important privilege. A chance to make a difference. Questions and doubts ran through my mind. What if I am not the right person to ask? What if I say the wrong thing or present myself differently than what others know? It wasn't until I met Katrina Hajagos at the interview and photo shoot that I began to worry less. Katrina soothed my doubts and fears. She made it simple by taking things slow and one step at a time.
The photoshoot was beautiful. She asked me to pose on an island of sand at Gustavus Beach that was slowly being washed away by the incoming tide. I felt vulnerable, exposed, excited, and empowered all at once. All while trying to follow Katrina’s directions, the ocean was taking the island away. By the end, we were surrounded by water; we had to cross shin deep in water to shore. But Katrina captured the moment perfectly: the sunlight on my skin, the strong mountain view behind me, and the power of the ocean all in one shot. We were in the right place and the right time.
After drying out at Katrina’s cabin, we began the interview. I have never been more nervous. My hands were sweaty and shaky, my heart was pounding against my chest, and my brain was overloading of the different questions she was going to ask. The questions opened new doors for me to have a better understanding of myself and my role as a young female. The interview was a moving moment for me. But my interview wasn’t close to the highlight of this experience.
I have known Barb Miranda for over ten years. She started out as my neighbor, but soon transformed into a person I admire and care for deeply. Barb is a driven, nurturing, and powerful woman. A strong woman that inspires me! I had no doubt when I learned she was being interviewed as an influential woman figure in our community. I was proud. Knowing that I was coming from a community with strong females from every corner makes me extremely honored to call this place my home. And being a part of Barb’s interview and photoshoot showcased the change she will make.
Throughout Barb’s interview, I listened to her talk about her past, how she came to Gustavus, why she built Sunnyside Market and Deli, our town’s health-food store, and why she ran for mayor. I had the privilege of learning all the steps and decisions she made that has shaped the leader Barb is today. It was an inspiring moment. One that brought me closer to Barb. A moment that made my respect for her grow. Watching her shine as she talks about her beliefs and her goals made me want to conquer the mountains. She made me beyond excited for where my life is going and the changes I will make. She gave me the confidence to start out strong and never stop fighting. I had a moment to think about what types of leadership roles I want to pursue and take, in college and in life. And as we both move on with our lives, we will always have this moment to share and look back on.
Power in Place is an inspirational organization. Its goal is to share the unique stories of females in politics of small towns to large cities. By sharing these stories, it gives not only the future generations of powerful women but the current generations role models. Power in Place provides hope. It creates opportunity. It will spark change. And I am incredibly honored to be a part of the change.
Aishwarya Cozby was born in Mumbai, India on April 1, 1999. At the age of two, she was adopted by a loving family. Aishwarya has grown up in Gustavus, Alaska, a remote town in Southeast Alaska that is only assessable by boat or plane, for sixteen years. Her favorite things to do is participate in sports, explore surrounding scenery, and spend time with family and friends. Now, Aishwarya is working towards a BSN at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. Her life goal is to become a traveling nurse, all while fighting for the rights of all people, no matter their gender, race, sexual orientation, religion.