Each year on or around February 19, members of the Japanese-American community gather for a complicated ceremony. A mixture of somber observance, flat-out activism and unbridled hope for the future, the annual Day of Remembrance is a protracted commemoration of one of this country's darker lapses in judgment: the day in 1942 when Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, setting in motion the subsequent internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans (70,000 of them American citizens) in the "relocation" camps. In the process of that mass incarceration, families were torn apart, fortunes and businesses were lost, and civil rights were heinously violated.
It's a little-known chapter in American history, and few Coloradans outside the tight-knit Japanese community even realize that one such camp -- Amache, located at the town of Granada near the Kansas border -- existed in the state. But filmmakers Irene Rawlings and David Foxhoven are doing their part to inform: Their film-in-progress, The Amache Project, centers on fifteen hours of personal interviews with former internees, mostly filmed during a reunion two summers ago at the site of the camp. They've furnished a searingly human face to go along with the formal historical facts; preview footage will be screened this weekend as part of commemoration events planned in Boulder and Denver.
"Some people were very leery about talking to us. On the other hand, some were eager to talk -- they felt it's a story not a lot of Americans know about," says Foxhoven. But the upshot of the film isn't restricted to the poignant impact of personal memoirs. "The one question that we asked everybody was, 'Do you think it can happen again?' To a person, they said -- unfortunately -- yes, they think it can. They said, to a man: If that would happen, we'd be the first to protest, simply because the taking away of freedom is not justified."
One of the people who appears in the film is Lane Hirabayashi, a professor of ethnic studies at CU-Boulder who is even more knowledgeable than most about that loss of freedom. His father was one of three Japanese-Americans who in 1942 took their cases before the Supreme Court in protest of the governmental edict. An organizer of this year's remembrance on the CU campus, Hirabayashi notes that Roosevelt's order did not name just Japanese-Americans. The United States was at war with such countries as Germany and Italy as well, he says, and "Roosevelt merely gave the military the right to do whatever was necessary to ensure national security. So the military authorities decided only folks of Japanese descent needed to be interned.
"This happened to Japanese-Americans, but it also has been an ongoing part of American history and world history," he adds. "I always tell my students they may think this is old history from fifty years ago, but war is always on the horizon." He calls this year's event at CU "a rallying point for all people interested in civil liberty."