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The great resisters of Japanese American history have a powerful story to tell

Teaching about their contributions to civil rights is essential for building unity and solidarity with Asian Americans

Fred Korematsu (left), Minoru Yasui (center), and Gordon Hirabayashi (right), at a Jan. 19, 1983 press conference in San Francisco on the petitions to reopen their three landmark cases that challenged the evacuation of 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War II.Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Gordon Hirabayashi wasn’t having it. During World War II, this great Japanese American resister refused to register for “relocation,” a deceptive word that really meant locking up citizens for racist and xenophobic reasons. He turned himself in to the FBI instead.

Upon conviction, he self-reported to an Arizona prison by hitchhiking from Washington to Idaho and Utah, visiting family along the way. When he got there, authorities didn’t believe his order to be admitted was even real.

I was sitting in a college Asian American history class when I first heard Hirabayashi’s name and how he knew exactly what he was doing: creating a test case about incarcerating Japanese Americans without due process. I also learned about other trailblazers, such as Fred Korematsu, who refused to go to an internment camp.

I’d always dreaded learning about World War II after a peer in eighth grade said I bombed Pearl Harbor because I’m Japanese American. It didn’t help that portrayals in our K-12 textbooks stereotyped Asian Americans as a silent people who quietly accepted their circumstances.

Why, at 21, was I just learning about my people’s role in resistance?

For the first time in my life, I felt seen and visible within the walls of a classroom. History shows us Asian Americans have consistently engaged in resistance against injustices by challenging systemic racism as far back as 1879, organizing strikes and protests in the 1960s, or resisting today’s anti-Asian racism. But ongoing anti-critical race theory campaigns and backlash from the far right demonstrate that the struggle for an antiracist education continues.

Demonstrators take part in a rally, Love Our Communities: Build Collective Power, to raise awareness of anti-Asian violence, at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, California, on March 13, 2021.RINGO CHIU/AFP via Getty Images

Asian American activism and resistance throughout history are essential examples for today’s youth concerned with racial justice and xenophobia. Asian American history is also essential for building unity and solidarity with communities who experience forced removal, historical dispossession, and racial and state violence. Without these lessons, students will receive an incomplete civic education.

In the 1879 case, Ho Ah Kow v. Matthew Nuan, Ho Ah Kow challenged the constitutionality of San Francisco’s Pigtail Ordinance, which required prisoners to cut their hair to within an inch of their scalps. This forced Chinese prisoners to cut their long ponytails, called queues. A judge found that anyone within U.S jurisdiction is covered by the 14th Amendment’s equal protection provision. Moreover, the 1898 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Wong Kim Ark established that the amendment granted birthright citizenship to children born in the United States. More legislative challenges occurred during World War II in response to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent incarceration of Japanese Americans.

Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Japanese Americans were ordered to report to assembly centers. Korematsu, a 23-year-old welder born in Oakland to Japanese immigrants, was arrested for defying these orders. In Korematsu v. United States, Korematsu’s conviction was deemed constitutional because the detention was based on “real military dangers,” not race. Legal scholars regard the case as an “anticanon,” a ruling later viewed as wrongly reasoned or decided, along with Dred Scott v. Sanford, Plessy v. Ferguson, and the landmark worker’s rights ruling Lochner v. New York. Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution is celebrated annually on Jan. 30 in California and other states.

Members of the Japanese American Mochida family in Hayward, California, awaiting relocation to a camp, May 8, 1942.Dorothea Lange/Getty Images

Historical violations of civil rights still have implications for today’s struggles for land rights and racial justice. The goals of settler colonialism are the erasure and removal of Indigenous people, to take and use land indefinitely, and to establish property rights over land.

Arizona State University (ASU) researchers found a link between Japanese American incarceration and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Urban Indian Relocation Program, which intended to move Indigenous people off reservations and into industrial employment during the late 1950s.

“American Indians were portrayed by the U.S. nation-state as not knowing how to make land productive, while Japanese Americans were portrayed as being highly capable farmers,” says Karen Leong, an ASU associate professor of women and gender studies and Asian Pacific American studies.

This is a function of White supremacy: to establish division and opposition between groups. Solidarity and coalition building must be our resistance.

In 1988, Japanese Americans received reparations and redress from the U.S. government. In turn, many Japanese Americans have also shown their support for H.R. 40, the federal bill to create a commission to study reparations for Black Americans.

Several states are realizing the importance of this history.

New York is piloting a curriculum this fall, and Illinois, New Jersey, and Connecticut passed legislation mandating Asian American studies. In these curricula, it’s imperative to teach our interconnected histories and shared stories of mobilization and resistance across communities.

On June 25, 2022, the Unity March in Washington, D.C., became the first Asian American-led mobilization on the National Mall. One of the goals of the Unity March’s Equity Platform is an inclusive curriculum in K-12.

At the Unity March, surrounded by other Asian Americans and our co-conspirators, I experienced Asian American civic action in real time. I felt motivated, moved to tears, and empowered. In this coalition building, I was actively participating in the long history of Asian American resistance.

Kimi Waite is yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese American) and a North American Association for Environmental Education fellow. As a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project, her writing and curricula about the intersections of race, education, and environmental justice have been published by outlets such as PBS LearningMedia, American Documentary, Ms. Magazine, The Progressive, and Rethinking Schools. Find her on Twitter @KimiWaite.