Commentary

80 years later, there are still lessons to learn from Idaho’s incarceration of Japanese Americans

The story of Japanese Americans during World War II and their contribution to this state must continue to be told, writes guest columnist Tara Rowe.

February 21, 2022 4:20 am
Minidoka barracks

The rising sun reflects off windows of the Block 22 barrack at Minidoka National Historic Site on Saturday, the 80th anniversary of the signing by President Franklin D. Roosevelt of Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the unconstitutional incarceration of more than 120,000 Americans from 1942 to 1946. (Courtesy of Timothy Floyd)

History is uncomfortable. 

Never is that truer than with the dark anniversary that the U.S. marked on Feb. 19. That anniversary is of the signing of Executive Order 9066 80 years ago by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an order that unconstitutionally evacuated Japanese Americans from military exclusion zones on the Pacific coast and relocated them to incarceration camps in seven states including Idaho. 

It is an anniversary that will go unnoticed by many, but there has never been a moment in the years since that tragic and unconscionable decision when acknowledging this action was not more needed.

The incarceration of Japanese Americans, conducted in the war hysteria of 1942, can be compared to the anti-German sentiment during World War I and the Islamophobia that reared its ugly head in this country following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. 

However, these Americans were stripped of their property, wealth and belongings to be placed in horrendous, poorly furnished barracks like those constructed on the high desert near Hunt, Idaho, in Jerome County. 

Minidoka War Relocation Center in the 1940s
In 1942, the Minidoka War Relocation Center was constructed in Jerome County at Hunt, Idaho. Locally, it was known as “Hunt Camp.” While in operation, the site was the seventh largest city in Idaho, incarcerating nearly 9,400 people at its peak population.
(Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

In the years since, this country has publicly apologized to those Japanese Americans who suffered losses well beyond their physical possessions. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 granted reparations to those who were incarcerated in the camps. Yet there remain things we as Americans and, specifically, Idahoans can do to acknowledge this history.

Over the course of the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Asian hate has been on the rise. As this anniversary harkens back to a time when Americans and their leaders showed a deep fear of Asians of all backgrounds, organizations that are fighting this disturbing trend in racism and bigotry directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders need our support. 

Stop AAPI Violence is one such group. While there may not be many Asian Americans in Idaho, there is a noticeable uptick in hate crimes and hate speech as evidenced by recent graffiti incidents in Boise. We must stand up for those around us who are being targeted. We cannot go back to 1942 and stop what never should have been, but we can do our part to stand up to violence and derogatory speech against all Americans in 2022. 

While the incarceration was a federal policy, it was supported here at home by Gov. Chase Clark, who used his own derogatory terms for those of Japanese ancestry and demanded that those being evacuated to what would come to be called Minidoka be held under armed guard and barbed wire. It is a blight on his administration just as it is that of FDR. 

Idahoans may say that it had nothing to do with us; it had everything to do with us. We condoned the treatment of the incarcerated. This despite the fact that in the later years of the policy, these Japanese Americans were allowed to work on surrounding southern Idaho farms, greatly benefiting the agricultural industry both in labor (they were paid pennies compared to other laborers) and innovation.

The story of Japanese Americans and their contribution to this state must continue to be told. There are great Idaho historians who have written about Minidoka, the late Robert C. Sims of Boise State University did more to advance our understanding of the history of the Minidoka camp than anyone. His former colleague Todd Shallat has carried on in his shoes. 

With any anniversary like this, we must ask ourselves how we can best prevent repeating our history. The place to start this work is with our children. Young Idahoans may not even know about incarceration, much less that there was a camp here. Even the youngest generation can be introduced to this very difficult topic with phenomenal children’s books like Ken Mochizuki’s “Baseball Saved Us” and Amy Lee-Tai’s “A Place Where Sunflowers Grow.” “Dust of Eden” is a beautiful book about a young woman and her family relocated from Seattle to Minidoka — it is a great supplement for young readers who are learning about Idaho history in school. 

It is not enough to read a handful of books and stop there.

On this 80th anniversary, commit yourselves to taking your children to the Minidoka National Historic Site. Show them the Honor Roll that greets visitors upon arrival at the site. It will soon be adding to the names of people forced to live there. Take your classrooms or Boy Scout troops on field trips to the site, utilize the lesson plans the National Park Service has available to teach about internment and learn about the work the Friends of Minidoka are doing to preserve history for future generations. 

It won’t be easy to face this history, but it is necessary.

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Tara Rowe
Tara Rowe

Tara Rowe is an independent historian and scholar who frequently writes commentary for the Idaho State Journal. Her historical research includes contributing to the anthology "Idaho’s Place: A New History of the Gem State," the forthcoming anthology "Ezra Pound: A Century Later" and a forthcoming work on women in Idaho coinciding with the centennial of women’s suffrage. She is writing a biography of former Idaho congressman Richard Stallings. She was born and raised in southern Idaho, is an Idaho State University alumna and resides Twin Falls.

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