Vermont Reads 2009: A Violation of Civil Liberties

09/21/09 7:50AM By Mitch Wertlieb
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AP/National Archives
Japanese citizens gather at a train which will take them from the Santa Anita assembly camp in California to the internment camp at Gila River, Ariz. in 1942.

(Mitch Wertlieb) On the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, Japan bombed the United States' naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was one of those watershed events that marks a clear dividing line between "before" and "after."

Good Morning. I'm Mitch Wertlieb.

Prior to Pearl Harbor, the United States had maintained a tenuous peace apart from the conflict overseas...that raged following Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939. After Pearl Harbor, the fact of war touched every American and transformed all aspects of daily life.

This morning, we begin our 2009 collaboration with the Vermont Humanities Council to support its one-book, state-wide, community reading program Vermont Reads.

This year, the Council selected When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. The book is classified as fiction for adults and young-adults, and it's about a Japanese-American family forced into internment during World War II.

Mark Stoler
Mark Stoler is emeritus professor of history at the University of Vermont and he puts into perspective the internment of as many as 120,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans.

(Stoler) "It's been called the single greatest violation of civil liberties in American history, by that I mean a one shot violation.  I mean clearly the experience of African Americans throughout our history is a much greater one, but this is one time, what happened here."

(Wertlieb) Julie Otsuka's story offers readers a chance to learn about this lesser-known aspect of World War II history. But the book also examines how we view and treat "the other" among us. And it raises issues that are still relevant today, such as loyalty, identity, and what it means to be American during uneasy times. 

Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. War Department pressed for the power to "relocate" people from areas considered critical to national defense. They were sent to housing facilities called "War Relocation Camps."

Professor Stoler says the order signed by President Roosevelt did not specify that Japanese-Americans should be targeted.

(Stoler) "The commanding general is given the power to exclude people from military areas, but everyone knows, there is code here, everybody knows who that means, but those exact words are never used.  Overwhelmingly, there are these hysterical rumors of Japanese sabotage on the West coast; in fact the earliest Pearl Harbor report coming out of the government claimed that it was partially the result of Japanese sabotage."

(Wertlieb) Families were sent away and in many cases they lost everything they had. Professor Stoler says that, in some cases, families were even split up.

(Stoler) "Part of it is also dependent on whether or not you were willing to sign a loyalty oath and say that you were willing to renounce all allegiance to Japan and fight in the US Army.  And people are treated differently depending on whether they sign those oaths or not."

(Wertlieb) Julie Otsuka's book is a work of fiction, but it's based on these historical events. The author's own family was among those sent to the camps. So for her, it's also personal, even though her mother, uncle and grandmother didn't speak much about their experiences during the war.

Jerry Bauer
Julie Otsuka
(Otsuka) "And I think that's something that's probably typical of many Japanese-American families who went through that experience. Afterwards they tended to be very quiet, and repress that experience."

(Wertlieb) It's a subject that's never been discussed much US history books. And Julie Otsuka thinks she knows why.

(Otsuka) "We learn about slavery and segregation, but I think those are great evils that in the end were overcome, but I think the story of the internment, it was a story of failure without redemption and I think it's something that we feel very shamed about and I think we would rather just ignore."

(Wertlieb) In one chapter of the book Otsuka effectively captures the ten-year-old boy's sense of isolation and dislocation as she weaves together images of the camp and memories of home. Julie Otsuka reads from When the Emperor Was Divine.

(OtsukaExcerpt) "ALWAYS, HE WOULD REMEMBER the dust. It was soft and white and chalky, like talcum powder. Only the alkaline made your skin burn. It made your nose bleed. It made your eyes sting. It took your voice away. The dust got into your shoes. Your hair. Your pants. Your mouth. Your bed.

Your dreams.

It seeped under doors and around the edges of windows and through the cracks in the walls and all day long, it seemed, his mother was sweeping.

One evening, before he went to bed, he wrote his name in the dust across the top of the table. All through the night, while he slept, more dust blew through the walls.

By morning his name was gone.

At dusk the sky turned blood red and his sister took him out walking along the outer edge of the barracks to watch the sun go down over the mountains. "Look. Look away. Look. Look away." That, she told him, was the proper way to look at the sun. If you stared at it straight on for too long, you'd go blind.

In the darkening red twilight they would point out to each other the things that they saw: a dog chasing a porcupine, a tiny pink seashell, the husk of a beetle, a column of fire ants marching across the sand. If they were lucky they might see the Portuguese lady strolling along the fence with her husband, Sakamoto, or the lady with the white turban - she'd lost all her hair, they'd heard, overnight on the train - or the man with the withered arm who lived in Block 7. If they were very lucky, the man with the withered arm might even raise it - the arm - and wave to them.

One evening, while they were walking, the boy reached over and grabbed the girl's arm. "What is it?" she asked him.

He tapped his wrist. "Time," he said. "What time?"

She stopped and looked at her watch as though she had never seen it before. "It's six o'clock," she said.

Her watch had said six o'clock for weeks. She has stopped winding it the day they had stepped off the train.

"What do you think they're doing back home?"

She looked at her watch one more time and then she stared up at the sky, as though she were thinking. "Right about now," she said, "I bet they're having a good time." Then she started walking again.

And in his mind he could see it: the tree-lined streets at sundown, the dark green lawns, the sidewalks, boys throwing balls in backyards, girls playing hopscotch" mothers with pink quilted mitts sliding hot casseroles out of ovens, fathers with shiny black briefcases bursting through front doors, shouting, "Honey, I'm home! Honey, I'm home!"

When he thought of the world outside it was always six o'clock. A Wednesday or a Thursday. Dinnertime across America."

(Wertlieb) Author Julie Otsuka, reading from her book, When the Emperor Was Divine, the story of a family displaced by the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. 

Tomorrow we'll hear more about the forced evacuations and how they disrupted people's lives for years. You can find more about this series and the Vermont Reads project, and offer your own thoughts on our Web site,

For VPR News, I'm Mitch Wertlieb.  

Explore the entire series:

Visit the Vermont Reads 2009 Homepage



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