Executive Order 9066, which cleared the way for the incarceration (or “internment”) of Japanese Americans during World War II, may have been signed 75 years ago, but Flora Ninomiya sees eerie parallels with the modern world.
“It’s important for you to understand that we have a president today who is issuing executive orders against Muslims, against immigrants,” Ninomiya told an audience assembled in Richmond to commemorate the anniversary. Three speakers, all children when 9066 was signed, recounted their experiences for an audience of about 40 people after a screening of Blossoms and Thorns, a short documentary by Ken Kokka about World War II-era Japanese-American flower growers in Richmond and El Cerrito.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s order, signed on February 19, 1942, provided for lots of land to be designated as “military areas” where groups of people could be held by military order. Executive Order 9066 thereby cleared the way for the internment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans, along with thousands of German Americans, Italian Americans and Aleutian Islanders. Japanese, German and Italian Americans were targeted because Japan, Germany and Italy were fighting the allies, and Aleutian Islanders because the Japanese government had occupied some of the Aleutian Islands.
Ninomiya was only 7 years old when the order was signed, and she was transferred from her home in Richmond to an internment camp in Granada, Colorado. Before the war, the Ninomiyas were one of 20 Japanese-American families in Richmond that ran nurseries, and her father travelled on public transportation to San Francisco to sell the flowers they grew. Of those 20 families, 19 returned to Richmond after the war, Ninomiya said.
This was in stark contrast to neighboring Solano County, in which only ten percent of the 120 Japanese-American families returned. The reason such a high percentage of Richmond families returned, according to Ninomiya, was the kindness of their neighbors, and the children of some of those neighbors came to the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Education Center in Richmond with Ninomiya on Sunday to commemorate the anniversary.
Francis Aebi, a Swiss-American grower who owned a nursery next to the Ninomiyas’, watched over their nursery after Roosevelt signed E.O. 9066, ensuring it was safe from vandals and anti-Japanese protesters. Around the nation, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) halls organized demonstrations calling for Japanese-Americans to be permanently expelled, and American newspapers were full of anti-Japanese rhetoric. Even Dr. Seuss drew cartoons supporting the internment of Japanese Americans.
Francis’ daughter, Lina Aebi Hale, appeared with Ninomiya to speak about the effects of 9066 on the Richmond community. “It was a dreadful time. Everything was in shortage and everything was rationed,” she said.
Vandalism of Japanese Americans’ property “was a popular pastime during the early days of World War II,” Aebi Hale said. “But they didn’t do it to the nurseries that we watched over.”
Another neighbor helped make it possible for the Ninomiyas to return to their pre-war life in Richmond after the internment camps were closed. Edward Downer, Jr., the president of Mechanics’ Bank in Richmond during World War II, held on to the Ninomiya’s mortgage until they returned home, saving the family’s house from foreclosure.
“Our mortgage was never called,” Ninomiya said. “When we started making income, we started paying back the mortgage.”
Downer, Jr.’s son, Edward Downer III, also appeared alongside Ninomiya to speak about his father’s role in Richmond during the war. “He was told by whoever that his position as a banker was more important than getting involved in the service,” Downer III said. “People don’t realize, but being in the banking business puts you in a position to help people.”
Park Ranger Kelli English said the experience of Japanese-Americans in Richmond was very different from other parts of the country. In Richmond, she said, many people were able to return home after prisoners were released from the internment camps because their neighbors helped preserve their property.
“In many other places, property either fell into disarray or was taken over by other groups of people who moved in,” she said. “Unfortunately there was a large part of the American population out there that was very opportunistic, and when the Japanese Americans were incarcerated they moved in and took over their businesses and took over their houses and took over their land.”
Japanese-American flower growers in Richmond benefitted not only from the kindness of their immediate neighbors, but from networks of Italian-American and Portuguese-American flower growers, said Park Ranger Raphael Allen, who facilitated Sunday’s event and also designed a lesson plan for public schools to teach children about Executive Order 9066.
“Many of us know about personal losses, about neighborhoods emptied out, how that played out was very different from one space to another,” he said. “The deep-sea fishermen in Long Beach were largely out by themselves, and they drew a lot of suspicion because people thought they were using high-powered radios to talk to the ‘motherland.’ Strawberry growers up in Puget Sound were the target of other farmers who wanted their land.”
Ninomiya said it’s especially important to tell the story of Executive Order 9066 now, as she feels President’s Donald Trump’s immigration policies—including his proposal to build a border wall and a recent Executive Order (covered in-depth by RichCon’s Lizzie Roberts) banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries—are reminiscent of the abuses of 9066.
“I feel that it’s critical to share our story, because when I first heard the words ‘Executive Order’ and I first started reading about it in the newspaper, I immediately thought about the Executive Order 9066 and how it affected the Japanese community on the West Coast,” she said. “He’s trying to target a specific group of people, Arabs or Muslims. He’s saying that we can’t have immigrants from Syria. He is saying that we must build a wall on our border with Mexico. These are all things that are all completely not American. Because the United States is a nation of immigrants.”
One of the main lessons to be taken from the experience of Japanese-Americans during World War II, Ninomiya said, is that people need to speak out against injustices committed by the government. She said only three Japanese-Americans in the entire country resisted their incarceration under 9066.
“I think that part of the lesson is that the Japanese did not raise their voice. But now, I think that anybody that is in the situation that we were in, should be raising their voice to speak out,” she said. “We should not be afraid to speak up to support the people that need support. We should be in contact with our legislators, both local and national. We should join civil-rights groups to support our own agenda.”
For her part, Ninomiya is not afraid to speak up any longer. In addition to speaking out at the Rosie the Riveter center, she attended the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration.
“I finally went to my first march on January 21. I went with my pink hat,” she said.