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Seung Hwan An, The Taft School, Watertown, CT

Perseverance in the Face of the Unknown: Japanese Americans in the 1940s and Korean Americans Today

In discussions of World War II, we often shift our attention to the fronts outside of America; yet battles were also fought within the American frontiers by Japanese-Americans, who were victimized by racial discrimination and war hysteria. In spite of the repressive environment into which they were coerced and the uncertainty of their futures, Japanese-Americans managed to succeed both in maintaining their morale during the war and in restoring their homes, lives, and businesses. Many years later, when I arrived in America, I found myself facing demeaning and discouraging expectations regarding my linguistic skills; I wondered whether I would ever be treated equally. My experience of uncertainty, though certainly not comparable in severity to the uncertainty facing interned Japanese-Americans, compelled me to apply myself even more diligently in pursuit of academic achievement. In this way, as in the case of interned Japanese-Americans, racial discrimination, though crippling and unjust, has also spurred greater effort and determination by members of minority groups.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, America ceased its two year period of neutrality and immediately entered World War II. The public, fearing espionage and sabotage by Japanese-Americans, supported President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which authorized internment and relocation of those for whom the president “deems such action necessary or desirable.” Many identify the true motive for internment with the anti-Japanese sentiment pervasive throughout the western United States before the war. Despite suffering from these discriminatory policies, Japanese-American communities had thrived economically. Sadly, in response, anti-Japanese organizations claimed that they were stealing job opportunities, a claim reflective largely of economic envy.

After Roosevelt’s order, approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans, 60% of whom were American citizens, were forced to move into encampments that housed hundreds of families in poor conditions. All of the internees were instructed to bring only what could be carried by hand, and therefore had to sell most of their land, houses, and businesses within a matter of days. Since supply was high when demand was short, many of these properties were sold at prices far below their original value. Given that people inside the camps made only a fraction of the normal wage, Japanese-Americans suffered an immense economic loss, which is estimated to be approximately $400 million by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

With time and effort, Japanese-Americans managed to build flourishing communities even within the oppressive atmosphere of the internment camps. Schools, churches, libraries, newspapers, and even sports leagues and Boy scout troops were established to maintain their hopes of leaving the camps and the decency of their lives. After the war, Japanese-Americans reestablished their businesses and were even in successful in gaining restitution, eventually securing passage of the Civil Liberties Act, which included official apology about the internment and offered $20,000 to every survivor of the camp.

Decades later, in 2007, my mother, my brother, and I moved from Korea to Boston in search of a better education. My memory of the flight to America was stained with tears and emotion; I was leaving my comfort zone and being taken to a new environment in which I barely spoke its language or knew the culture. Perhaps it was fear of the unknown that caused me to throw childlike tantrums, which, of course, were in vain. The first day at my new school revealed a clear linguistic and cultural barrier between me and my friends, as communication was nearly impossible given that I barely knew the alphabet. Academically, the inability to speak or comprehend English meant that I would not be able to either understand the teacher or interact with my peers. At times, I was overwhelmed by the uncertainty of success in all aspects of life, both academic and social.

For the next two years, I toiled to overcome these obstacles through after-school ESL classes. While actively seeking out help from others, I found friends who were willing to help me not only in classes but also outside school. I slowly began to find myself enjoying the company of others through sharing our different experiences and background. By the beginning of my third year in America, I thought I was fully integrated into American society, but what awaited me was yet more adversity.

On the first day of fifth grade, a new English teacher came into my classroom. When I started conversing with her, she casually queried, “you can speak English?” with a hint of surprise. The implicit notion that somehow, belonging to a different ethnicity, I would be less capable of speaking English, angered and vexed me. After months of diligently working and participating in class, however, her comments became more constructive and approving. At the end of fifth grade, prizes for best academic performance were given out. When the winner of the prize was announced, I jumped out of my seat and ran to the stage. I learned that in circumstances mainly beyond my grasp, the only things I knew I had control over were my dedication and perseverance.

The interned Japanese-Americans lost their property, businesses, homes, education, dignity and rights during the encampment. Although not comparable to the adversities faced by the Japanese-Americans, the limiting expectation and demeaning comments that I have suffered over the years in America have certainly encouraged my academic perseverance. Just as my endurance has translated into my academic success, the determination and the spirit that the Japanese-Americans showed even under the harshest conditions have led to significant reforms in legislations protecting the rights of minorities. Discrimination arises from the fear of the unknown, as we tend to react with skepticism and hostility towards other people, ideas, and cultures with which we are yet to be familiar. The solution to prejudice and bias, therefore, is a two-part effort, the first to welcome others with open arms, and the second to withstand adversities with unflagging determination.

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