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This page last updated 15 April 2007  

an essay for Anglicans Online

A Japanese-American Episcopal Priest's Perspective

by The Reverend Timothy Makoto Nakayama

As a 10 year-old child in Canada, on a December Saturday morning in 1941, I was given a glass of milk by the father of a fourth-grade classmate. Pearl Harbor was attacked on Sunday, December 7, 1941 by the military forces of Imperial Japan. On the following Monday morning at the corner of the schoolyard my fellow classmate turned on me and said, ‘You dirty, yellow Jap!’ That remark shocked and introduced me to the Second World War. It was to become the ‘Exodus’ Event for Japanese Canadians. (Simultaneously Japanese Americans were also being incarcerated).

We were removed and sent to ‘camp’. If ‘Little Tokyo’ was our ethnic ghetto, thought to be impenetrable and undesirable, and better removed, the forced removal galvanized us into a closer community than ever before. It united us as an ethnic people. We now were having a common experience of facing racial discrimination from a society to which we thought we belonged. World War II was the occasion, but we as a people began to speak of the period as being, ‘in camp.’ Pre-war days became dubbed, ‘before camp’, and the post-war period became, ‘after camp.’ It became a way of talking about the experience in a quiet way—a kind of in-house code, self-evident, immediately understood in the community without explanation. It was to become our ‘wilderness’ experience. We were ‘refugees’ in our own land.

From the moment of the attack, a grievous societal racist mistake began developing in the Americas. Japanese Americans, Japanese Canadians, Aleuts (Native People of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands), Japanese Peruvians, Japanese Brazilians—and other people of Japanese descent in Latin America--were vilified, vandalized, and attacked. Our citizenship by birth or naturalization was ignored or denied in the first place. We were falsely identified as ‘enemy aliens,’ registered, removed from our homes and businesses, evacuated, relocated, and incarcerated in far-off ‘camps’. In the United States it was a military action; Presidential Order 9066 sent the people to several military camps. In Canada it was a political action. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet passed an 'Order in Council': Japanese Canadians were sent to the gold and silver mining ‘ghost towns’ or isolated self-support communities in the mountainous interior of British Columbia. When the war ended the process of resettlement and getting back to normal took at least ten more years. More time passed. It took almost a half-century for the U.S. and Canadian governments to acknowledge the injustice.

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, when the four hijacked planes crashed almost simultaneously, two into New York City’s World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the other into a field in Somerset, Pennsylvania, the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor immediately became an oft-quoted media image to remind people of the stealth of this enemy attack. ‘It’s like Pearl Harbor all over again!’ Not really. Except for the stealth, there was little else in common.

Pearl Harbor, the base bombing with a heavy carnage of military personnel on December 7, 1941 was a sneak Japanese military attack on a military target, but on September 11, 2001 the passengers and crew of the four jet airliners and the people in the Pentagon and the World Trade Center overwhelmingly attacked civilian personnel. Besides the thousands of Americans casualties, people of at least 62 other nations are injured, dead or missing. The hijackers were on a suicide mission; those who attacked Pearl Harbor were not. There is no similarity here.

However, towards the end of the Pacific War, the Japanese military machine master-minded suicide missions against naval vessels. Those who trained and sent hijackers on their suicide mission caused deaths and injuries of innocent people and destruction of so much property. To the extent that both practiced monstrous mind-control and used suicide, there is a serious commonality at the level of idolatry.

Meanwhile, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was exploited in the two countries of North America. Racism and hatred against people of Japanese ancestry was used for the war effort among the general public. The entire population of an ethnic group was dealt with unjustly, sanctioned by government and the popular will. Voices raised in protest were largely unheeded.

Over many years the climate has changed, but it took over 46 years, August and September 1988, for this injustice to be officially acknowledged by the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Canada, respectively, after numerous representations, and a Congressional investigation and findings. Subsequently funds of reparations and words of apology were sent to the survivors in the two countries, and several years later at a much lower key to Japanese Peruvians.

Because of the attack of the terrorists a specific test now faces the USA. Have the American people learned this lesson about racism?

The frequent mentioning of the name of the high-profile suspect, Osama bin Laben, has cast a deep pall of fear over Americans who are identified with Arabic states and Islam. Hate calls have been directed at Middle Eastern people. Defacing of Mosques and ethnic businesses is occurring. Women wearing head coverings have been spit upon. Arabic students are leaving schools of higher learning and fleeing to their homes in the Middle East.

A Sikh from India wearing a turban was wrongly identified as an Arab and killed. (It is a reminder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American who was beaten to death in Detroit because he was wrongfully identified as a Japanese-American, when Japanese cars seemed to be taking over the car market. In this instance there were two wrongs at least--he was a Chinese American and not a member of the targeted ethnic group, and even if he were a Japanese-American, they had nothing to do with the Japanese or the Japanese market.).

High governmental figures such as George W. Bush, President of the United States, and Gary Locke, Governor of Washington State, are to be commended for their notes of caution to the American public about the wrongness of these kinds of targeted racism. It is to be hoped that their words are not merely lip-service that go unheeded.

The American public needs to be educated about Arabic peoples and Islam to be able to avoid such racial profiling and religious stereotyping that poisons our nation. It caused Japanese Americans to suffer unjustly 60 years ago.


THE REVEREND TIMOTHY NAKAYAMA is a retired priest living in the Diocese of Olympia (Episcopal Church in the USA). He was a missionary to Japan from 1991 to 2000. You can write to Fr Nakayama at

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