Sacramento Roots

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February, 2002


SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- As the plane began descending toward the Sacramento airport, the green patterns of the farm fields below shifted to suburban housing developments, then to a scattering of rectangular high rise buildings surrounding the golden dome of the state capitol. I tried to locate the Victorian structure of the Crocker Art Museum but the plane quickly flew past the downtown area and was again descending over farm fields. I could now see the airport approaching. I was arriving for the opening of one of the Japanese American National Museum's traveling exhibits, "Henry Sugimoto: Painting An American Experience" at the Crocker Art Museum of Sacramento.

This trip, however, was more than my fulfilling my duties as the Chairman of the Japanese American National Museum. Sacramento is a special place to me. It was to this land, one hundred years ago, that my grandparents came from Hiroshima, Japan. It was here that my grandfather began farming, growing strawberries, plums, and hops. It was here, in an old Victorian farmhouse that my mother was born. It was here in the soil of Sacramento, the capital city of California, that my American roots were first planted.

The exhibit of Henry Sugimoto's paintings is also very personal to me. When World War II began, this gifted artist was among the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were rounded up by the U.S. military and incarcerated in American internment camps. He painted scenes of his imprisonment in the two camps in Arkansas -- Rohwer and Jerome. Rohwer was the camp to which my family was sent from our home in Los Angeles. I look at Sugimoto's paintings of the camp landscape and they remind me of the swampy creek where I used to play by the barbed wire fence. I remember the scenes he painted of the communal hubbub in the washroom, where babies were bathed as well as the laundry done. I recognize the picture in his painting of the long line at the mess hall where we queued up three times a day for our meals. I look at these paintings by Henry Sugimoto and I'm reminded of the fear and anxiety of fellow Americans that sent us into that barbed wire imprisonment. I hear from these images on canvas, the resonance of the fear and anxiety felt today toward people of Middle Eastern descent. These paintings of sixty years ago are profoundly relevant to our times today.

We live in a time of terror. When in public places, when in congested places, certainly when we're at the airport, we feel an indefinable sense of anxiety.

A dark, bearded person might fill us with some unease. That nervousness is not irrational. We are responding to what we have read, heard, or seen. That sense of unease might be called experiential "racial profiling." But race has to be just one part of the whole picture. That dark, bearded person might be a student or a dentist or a salesman -- nothing more. Simple racial profiling is an inadequate rationale for anxiety. Indeed, a terrorist can look like the all-American boy next door - like Timothy McVeigh.

We are Americans, the most diverse people on this planet. We look like the people of the world - every race in every shape and form. We are also a people who subscribe to the rule of law - not of racial discrimination. We believe in a system of due process where a person cannot be detained without charges, due cause or right to counsel. That is what makes our system of justice so great. Yet, at times of stress, our government can react hastily and without clear thinking. In the aftermath of September 11th, Middle Eastern immigrant men have been detained without charges and without counsel, their families uninformed of where the men had been taken or when they might be released. It was exactly the same with Japanese immigrant men immediately after Pearl Harbor. This kind of racial profiling ultimately resulted in a most egregious violation of the U.S. Constitution - the wholesale removal and incarceration of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast. There was no due process - no charges, no trial, just imprisonment by race. The scenes that Henry Sugimoto painted from his "American Experience" have this profoundly important cautionary message for our times today.

The opening of the exhibit of Henry Sugimoto's works in Sacramento was a great success. I'm told that this was the biggest opening in the history of the Crocker Art Museum. In my mother's hometown, in my state capital, where my roots go down deep, my own American experience was hugely well received. The exhibit will be in Sacramento until March 24, 2002.

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