by Ann Yonemura
May 29, 2020
I am an American. I begin here, because these four words encapsulate a core element of my identity—one that I have never questioned, but that I have had to assert and defend repeatedly.
President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 came less than three months after Pearl Harbor. My parents, their siblings, and my grandparents were all among the 120,000 people of Japanese descent removed from their homes to “Relocation” camps. The only exception was my father, who was drafted into the U.S. Army before the internment order. After training in Japanese language, he served in the Military Intelligence Service in the Pacific and in the U.S. Occupation headquarters in Tokyo.
After Dad’s return to California as a decorated first lieutenant, my parents reunited in Berkeley, where my father completed his interrupted law degree. He immediately faced employment discrimination, which also affected his African American and Jewish classmates. They began their first practice together. He later became a leading immigration attorney who worked for reform of the discriminatory U.S. quotas.
Our parents raised my sister, brother, and me as Americans, encouraging us in our educations, music lessons, church, and other activities. We spoke English at home and ate mostly American food, with occasional Japanese dishes like Dad’s favorite sukiyaki, homemade sushi, and New Year festival dishes. Mom and Dad made sure that we learned early about the injustice our community had experienced during the war and the discrimination we would face with other racial and religious minorities.
With this strong foundation of family, community, faith, and encouragement, I was able to work in a field that bridges my Japanese ancestry and my American nationality. In my career of over forty years as a Smithsonian Institution curator of Japanese art, I was often in the company of colleagues, mentors, and students who looked like me.
But life in America, as I am painfully reminded now, requires constant vigilance. The recent increase in vandalism and attacks against Asian Americans is alarming and widespread. In addition to pandemic precautions, I have had to dial up, again, my alertness for situations that might become dangerous because “I wear my race on my face.” I have also resolved to rededicate myself to resistance against the racism and injustice that harms us all. I am grateful for the support of the St. Margaret’s community as we transform our faith into action.
I am an American.