FORT LEE, New Jersey (Mainichi) — Japanese American activist Tak Furumoto says that the Japanese internment during World War II is among the darkest moments in American history. The 77-year-old man shared the history of his family’s struggles to students and others in an online class held at the City University of New York in November 2021. He insisted that for the future of America, the stories of internment camps must be passed down.
Furumoto was born in northern California’s Tule Lake War Relocation Center in October 1944. His father was a first generation Japanese American, and his mother was second generation. Together with his four older sisters, they were a family of seven.
Before war broke out between the U.S. and Japan, Furumoto’s father had run a successful crops wholesale business in Los Angeles. But his assets were confiscated with the signing of Executive Order 9066, which made it possible for people of Japanese origin to be forcibly detained. Furumoto’s parents refused to swear allegiance to the United States, and were sent to the internment camp at Tule Lake which gathered Japanese Americans deemed as “enemy aliens.”
The family moved to Japan when the war ended, but returned as a family to Los Angeles in 1956. Furumoto was a fifth-grade elementary schooler.
Strong anti-Japanese sentiment awaited them in the U.S., and the family was forced to live in an unsafe neighborhood. They were referred to as “Japs,” a derogatory term for Japanese people, and when December and the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor would come around, they were blamed even by close friends. “I wanted to dig a hole and hide in it,” Furumoto recalled.
What eventually emerged was a feeling that he “had to be recognized as an American.” After graduating college he enrolled at a military academy and served on the frontlines of the Vietnam War. Furumoto struggled with PTSD after leaving the military, but in 1974 he started his own real estate business in New Jersey. He helped Japanese businesses entering the United States, and became successful.
Now, he devotes his energies to activities to drive out racial discrimination by giving talks at universities and public facilities on the history of internment, among other forms of activism. He got started in it after being involved years before in the campaign to have Fred Korematsu Day recognized in New York City, which was pushed forward primarily by a human rights group in the U.S.
The late Korematsu was a second-generation Japanese American who fought against the internment of Japanese Americans, claiming its injustice, and who went to the Supreme Court to challenge the U.S. government’s actions. The Supreme Court decision upholding the conviction of Korematsu for having violated orders to submit to forced relocation, was later effectively overturned. Fred Korematsu Day marks his birthday, Jan. 30, and is intended as a date to remember the importance of racial equality and social justice. Furumoto also spoke about his family’s experiences at the New York City Council, and in late 2017 it was recognized as an official observed day in New York.
He said that in American schools, talk of internment is reportedly confined to a single line in middle school textbooks. “If it stays this way the history will be lost. Passing it on is the responsibility of those left.”
The strengthened moves to block migrants under the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump also pushed Furumoto to act. Trump was a former trading partner of his, and he even worked selling 30 apartments in a building owned by the famous businessman. “Trump was always boasting, looking down on people around him. It was the same when he became president, he spread hate in society,” he said with concern.
In 2020, Furumoto succeeded in having Fred Korematsu Day recognized in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where he lives. He said, “The appeal of America is that even an immigrant can, depending on how hard they work, achieve the American dream. If we don’t fully remember the history of internment, the same things will happen to other races, and the American dream will die, too.”
(Japanese original by Issei Suzuki, Washington Bureau)