Two months before her mother died, Teresa Maebori took a road trip with her from Seattle to Caldwell, Idaho, the site of the labor camp where her family spent part of World War II.
Maebori was born in the labor camp in 1945. Her family left when she was a baby, so the trip allowed her to piece together the story of their imprisonment, like that of so many other Japanese Americans, by the U.S. government during the war.
“I was very happy that we had gone together and that I could question and find out things, about what her life was like, how she felt,” Maebori said. “People often ask, ‘Why didn’t your parents talk about it?’ And I said, ‘Well, they were humiliated and shamed.’ It’s much like what Holocaust survivors feel. They don’t want to talk about something that was so traumatic.”
On Dec. 19, the National Council of Jewish Women Greater Philadelphia Section hosted Maebori to speak about what Japanese Americans went through during World War II. She connected her family’s experience to contemporary times.
After she retired from 36 years of teaching at Germantown Friends School, Maebori taught English to immigrant and refugee children. For years, she has also been an active member of the Japanese American Citizens League, which protects the civil and human rights of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, as well as other communities.
Early this year, she procured the art exhibit, Uprooted, at Friends Center, which showcases photos of Japanese Americans in labor camps during the war.
“Just because someone looks different or practices different religions or you make assumptions about them, it doesn’t mean they’re not Americans,” Maebori said. “America is diverse. It does not look just one way. We need to accept that difference and honor that difference and try to understand.”
Soon after her parents married in 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The resulting racism and war-time hysteria led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order that imprisoned Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants.
Today, these prisons are usually referred to as internment camps, but Maebori said that’s a misnomer: Concentration camps are defined as places that imprison an ethnic minority or political enemy in an armed compound, and that’s exactly what happened then.
“‘Concentration camp’ is more associated with the Holocaust, and that was certainly much more brutal and horrifying,” Maebori said. “However, being denied your constitutional rights as citizens of this country when you’ve committed no crime is also quite a shameful thing for this country to have done.”
Maebori’s parents are second-generation Americans. Their parents immigrated from Japan around 1900.
Laws that existed at the time — they would persist until the 1950s — made it illegal for Japanese individuals to become naturalized.
Roosevelt’s executive order forced her parents to move first to a camp in Tule Lake, Calif.
Eventually, they were offered the chance to move to a labor camp outside of Caldwell to farm sugar beets. It meant a small degree of freedom, as well as a wage, and Maebori’s father decided to pursue the work, becoming a supervisor on the sugar beet farm. In Caldwell, they lived in cottages and barracks that were built for migrant laborers during the Great Depression. But they were lucky, Maebori said, as most Japanese Americans lived in tents.
Her family faced constant discrimination, such as when her mother walked into the town of Caldwell and saw signs reading “No Japs” on storefronts.
“They were always confronted with the fact that they were marginalized and basically considered the enemy,” Maebori said.
Barbara Nussbaum, NCJW Greater Philadelphia Section president, said the organization hosted Maebori to create an event that connects to the organization’s values. This particular event highlighted the NCJW’s concern for the rights of immigrants.
Some of the attendees didn’t know about the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during the war, or at least not the full extent of it, so the speech was an eye-opening experience, Nussbaum said.
“In many ways, there’s parallels with how the Jews were separated out before the extermination in Europe,” she said. “We knew she was going to explain her story and the story of others, to educate people about the concern that it should not happen again. She spoke for over an hour, and there was dead silence in that room when she spoke.”
A study done three decades ago found that race prejudice, war hysteria and the failure of political leadership led to the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during the war. Maebori sees parallels between the world she was born in and the world of today, specifically with the xenophobia and racism that persists against Latinos and Muslims.
“If we aren’t careful, the Constitution is just a piece of paper unless we guard and honor what the rights are on that paper,” Maebori said.
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