New Portland Community College President Mark Mitsui made it clear at a Feb. 21 event on the Southeast campus that he wasn't about to shy away from difficult topics such as race, war and politics.
Mitsui opened PCC's Day of Remembrance by talking about how President Franklin Roosevelt's executive order 9066, signed 75 years ago, affected his own family. His parents, grandparents, and other relatives were imprisoned in camps for no other reason than their Japanese heritage.
In all, about 120,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese citizens were imprisoned in camps in the United States until the end of World War II. Much smaller numbers of people with Italian and German heritage — mostly Italian and German nationals — also were detained.
Mitsui's mother, born on a southeastern Washington farm, was one of more than 3,000 held at Jantzen Beach livestock yards in what is now the Portland Expo Center. Detainees were held there in cramped and noxious conditions during hot summer months before being sent to inland camps.
Mitsui didn't know that part of the story before he moved here, though he remembers distinctly how he felt at age 10 when his parents told him their experiences at the Tule Lake and Heart Mountain concentration camps.
"I was shocked," he said. "It's hard to imagine your parents in prison."
Mitsui said he wanted to host the event — that featured, among others, a historian, a conflict resolution expert and a Muslim leader — because of "the importance of remembering history, so that we don't repeat it."
Restraint gave way to fear
Mistui and Mari Watanabe of the Portland Business Alliance explained for the approximately 200 attendees several schisms wrought on the Japanese-American community by the war and executive order 9066. First, people of Japanese heritage in the country had to register with the government and fill out a questionnaire. Two of the questions — agreeing to U.S. military service and forswearing loyalty to Japan — proved very controversial. Then in the 1980s, when some sued the government for reparations, others didn't want the old wounds opened again.
"Stories like that played out through the entire community and still resonate today," Mitsui said.
PCC history professor John Shaw explained for the crowd the context for the executive order. The Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor shocked the nation, but many called for restraint.
"It took about six weeks after Pearl Harbor for the tide of public opinion to shift," Shaw said. "When it happened, it happened quickly."
He said major contributing factors were increasing suspicions of a West Coast spy ring (that never were proven) and the Feb. 15 takeover of British-held Singapore.
Roosevelt signed the executive order — which does not mention the Japanese at all — four days later in an environment steeped in fear.
"We can't just dismiss it from our hindsight 75 years later," Shaw said. "The support for Japanese internment was shared by Republicans, right, and liberal Democrats."
Peggy Nagae, the Portland-based lawyer who won reparations for those interned at the camps, said the scenario is different today because the courts that rubberstamped Roosevelt's order are pushing back on President Donald Trump's travel ban.
"That is a big difference," Nagae said. "When the courts begin to say 'we want evidence,' it will make a difference."
Roosevelt's order only gave the right to draw boundaries within which people could be excluded or prohibited from moving about freely. But the military commanders, who were charged with implementation, caught the racist intent — the government's assertion that, "as a race, the Japanese-Americans had more affinity to emperor of Japan than Americans," Nagae said.
"There was no evidence that because of their cultural background they should be more dangerous than German-Americans or Italian-Americans," she said.
The paradoxes of war
Harry Anastasiou, a Portland State University professor of conflict resolution, suggested that the current popularity of Trump and his isolationist ideas is directly related to the long, drawn-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"All the wars I have studied have one common denominator — they all drove society into prejudicial corners and dead ends," Anastasiou said. "It's as though warfare structures reality in such a way that you no longer have choices over what is human and uplifting and what is inhuman and destructive."
Anastasiou also described another modern paradox.
"We are so connected structurally ... but we are so disconnected as communities," he said. "The fundamental necessity today is to build bridges. More and more bridges."
Wajdi Said, Muslim Educational Trust co-founder, may have had the toughest message for the crowd though.
A chemist by trade, he said he looks for the catalyzing ingredients for such an event: hatred, bigotry and hypocrisy.
"I think we are all guilty of such behavior," Said said. "We need to look to that enemy within us, that bigotry within us."
He added that the Koran teaches that God designed people from mere dust so that they could be humble. He designed them to have different skin colors and different languages "so we can reflect on the beauty of God and the bounty of God," Said said.
Lynn Fuchigami Longfellow, executive director of the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, pointed out that although Portland's Japantown was wiped out by the internment, there are still some reminders today of the events of 1942. Along the waterfront there are several cherry trees, stone-chiseled haiku poems, and a Bill of Rights memorial.
They stand as a "reminder of the fragility of our freedom, and the freedoms under the Bill of Rights, and how we must always be vigilant to make sure those rights aren't violated, or threatened, as they are today," she said.
EDIT: This story has corrected the institution where Henry Anastasiou teaches.