Left: Japanese Americans board buses in front of Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple on First Street in Little Tokyo in 1942. (Photo by Jack Iwata) Right: Demonstrators protesting violence in the wake of a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., march down First Street on Aug. 13. (Photo by Marcus Mizushima)
By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
First Street North, Little Tokyo, U.S.A. This is where the Japanese American community will gather this weekend to celebrate the 77th Nisei Week Japanese Festival. Dancers, taiko drummers, cosplayers, the Nisei Week Queen and her court will be greeted by thousands of people lining the streets of Little Tokyo.
Little Tokyo, the Japanese American neighborhood first established 130 years ago and one of only three historic Japantowns left in California, has been witness to many such festivals and celebrations. That this festival is the longest running ethnic celebration of its kind in the nation is a testament to this community’s resilience and optimistic spirit, often in the face of withering prejudice and racism.
Places such as First Street are sacred, retaining the memories and bearing witness to events that have transpired long ago. First Street North has also been witness to other, darker moments in our history. At First and Central Avenue in 1942, Japanese Americans carrying their spare possessions in suitcases lined up to board buses for desolate concentration camps. Jack Iwata took the photo of the men, women and children gathered at that moment of singularity; their past lives were gone, replaced by an uncertain, cloudy future. Japanese Americans who lived through the incarceration have much to teach the nation about the personal toll of racism.
Last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville has made it clear that hatred, violence and bigotry of the sort that led to tragedies such as the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, are ascendant once more. Last Sunday, protestors marched down First Street, passing that site where Japanese Americans were rounded up 75 years ago, to decry where we are as a nation.
In World War II, the Japanese American community was failed by its president, a Democrat, with tragic consequences that continue to resonate. Today, our president, a Republican, has failed to bring us together and bind the wounds of a nation wounded by racism. There is no moral equivalency in the face of hatred. In 2017, we have reached a moment of singularity. What happens in the weeks and months to come will be up to all of us.
In the spirit of Sue Embrey, Fred Korematsu, Min Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi it is time to stand up for what is right and say that racism must not be tolerated. Empathy towards one another, kindness and love, but also Japanese values such as gaman (perseverance) and kizuna (bonds of friendship) are vitally important. Little Tokyo and the Japanese American community, with all its challenges and conflicts, aspire to embody those values and must continue to do so against a rising tide of intolerance.