The First Unitarian Society hosted internment camp survivor Sam Mihara Tuesday night. Mihara, a scientist who helped create NASA’S Delta rocket, bore his emotional scars before a packed audience.
Mihara, an American of Japanese descent, was imprisoned unjustly with his entire family at Heart Mountain Internment Camp during World War II. Mihara imparted both his experiences and his fears about the current racial climate in the United States with nearly 100 guests in one of two speeches he made in Madison Tuesday.
Mihara’s experiences during World War II are striking even today. He spoke about going to school the day after Pearl Harbor and having teachers telling the class about how his people had done this. How his people were evil. How his people needed to be gotten rid of.
He spoke about the day his family was rounded up by armed soldiers and transported to a lonely, awful prison camp and how the town around that camp was frightened to have so many people around who didn’t look like them. People who filled their shops and restaurants with signs forbidding Japanese from entering.
“We hated the use of the word Japs,” Mihara told the audience. “It did us severe harm. It is like current misuse of the word Nigger. To use these words socially is not okay. It is very, very derogatory.”
Mihara’s presentation covered the entirety of his time at Heart Mountain and his experiences there. He spoke about the racial climate when his family was able to finally return to San Francisco where his home was. He said people looked at them as if they weren’t even human.
Following his presentation, Mihara opened up to questions from the audience. When people asked how it was possible that his family would be imprisoned just for what race they were, he said that prejudice and hysteria made people not care about the Constitution or even what was right in their hearts.
“Even today I can tell you that a great number of people still think it’s okay to imprison entire races of people,” he said. “Today it could be Latinos or Middle Easterners or Muslims. This could happen to anyone. This could happen to your family, it could be your son or your daughter.”
Most of the audience questions were about how the experiences of the Japanese Americans during World War II would be applicable to today’s world, why no one did anything to help them and why it took so long for them to be freed.
“Racial hatred impacted everything,” Mihara said. “It was not very popular to support the Japanese during World War II. No one wanted the case. No Civil Rights attorneys or even the ACLU.”
Derrick Smith, the Director of Strategic Planning at Catholic Charities, was in the audience and saw parallels between how Mihara described life as a Japanese American and the experiences members of the African-American community have had.
“It’s interesting because it’s the story of us,” Smith said. “We’ve been interred our whole lives in America as black people. It’s important to see how our experiences have been similar to his so that history doesn’t repeat itself.”
Today, the calls from President Trump and many supporters of his have been to remove people from this country based on their race and to stop people from entering this country based on their religion.
During the question and answer with the audience, Mihara said he has gone to detention centers where Hispanic people are being held for deportation. He said the conditions there are far worse than in the prison he was kept in solely for the crime of being Japanese.
Mihara is concerned that we as Americans are looking for strangers among us to blame for perceived wrongs in our society. He said it’s on people like him to provide context and memory for people.
“This should never happen ever again to anyone else,” Mihara said. “There are better solutions for people. We need to continue speaking out against these slippery slopes.”