By Sarah Gabot
JAMsj director and curator, Jimi Yamaichi, a pioneer against Asian American discrimination and a hero to several local communities, will be the remembrance speaker at the 31st Annual San Jose Day of Remembrance event. The 2011 Day of Remembrance event, titled “Fighting Against Fear,” commemorates the signing of Executive Order 9066 which led to the incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent during WWII.
Yamaichi will address his experiences of struggle and protest during a time when America was less tolerant of Asians, especially Japanese, in America. His speech will touch upon his experience in the Heart Mountain and Tule Lake internment camps as well as America’s “historical fear of people who look like the enemy.”
In his camp days, Yamaichi protested against the injustice that was felt by many Japanese Americans. Yamaichi insists that sharing his experience during these times is for everyone to learn from. Yamaichi said, “This is an American story, not just a Japanese American story.”
“When I became 21, I tried to register to vote,” Yamaichi recalled, “but they refused and wouldn’t let me.” Yamaichi also saw the humiliation that his older brother, Shigeru, endured while Shigeru was serving in the armed forces. “They took away his rifle, “ Yamaichi said, “ and when Franklin Roosevelt visited Fort Riley, they separated all of the Japanese American soldiers and held them under armed guard so that they were not to be seen.”
Yamaichi was angry that he and others were deprived of their constitutional rights and that his brother suffered great indignities while serving his country. These strong emotions compelled him to become a draft resister.
Unlike what happened at the other camps, the Tule Lake resisters were the only ones who were not fined or jailed. Judge Louis E. Goodman dismissed the charges against the resisters, saying “It is shocking to the conscience that an American citizen be confined on the ground of disloyalty and then, while under duress and restraint, be compelled to serve in the Armed Forces or prosecuted for not yielding to such compulsion.”
“The judge was worried about the community’s reaction to his decision,” Yamaichi recalled. “He kept the car running and took off as soon as he issued his ruling.”
Yamaichi also recalled the resettlement period after internment, a time of prejudice and animosity towards Japanese Americans. Yamaichi walked into the union office near Japantown San Jose and asked for a union card.
The man behind the front desk scoffed at the thought of giving an Asian a chance to join the union, and even worse, a “Jap.” He turned Yamaichi away without hesitance.
Unwilling to give in, Yamaichi made himself a familiar, relentless face to the union office. He was turned away every time. “I went every week,” he said, “he told me to get out.” Eventually Yamaichi’s persistence paid off and he became the first Asian American to join the local union.
Yamaichi was the first Asian American to break down the union’s barriers, carving a path for Asian Americans everywhere to receive equal opportunities in the workforce.
Yamaichi, now 88 years old, is still on the forefront of fighting prejudice and discrimination for all minorities. Soon after the September 11 attacks, Yamaichi was one of the first in his community to reach out to Muslim Americans. Yamaichi felt compelled to build bridges between the communities. He showed compassion and strength for the Muslim community in a time when people lived in fear and failed to support them.
The Day of Remembrance is an annual event by the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee, a progressive organization in the Japanese American community dedicated to educating the public about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, and is committed to defending all people on issues of civil rights, equality, justice, tolerance and peace.
The Day of Remembrance 2011 will be held on February 20, 2011 at San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, 640 North 5th Street, San Jose, CA 95112 starting at 5:30pm.