On Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order
9066 forcing 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans into
internment camps. Allowed only to take with them what they could
carry, they were forced to leave behind their homes, businesses and
belongings. Their homes and lives as they knew them were traded for
16×20 foot barracks with one shower shared between three families,
hay beds, and schools with no books, paper, or pencils. It is a
story often untold, but never forgotten.
For acclaimed filmmaker Emiko Omori, this story was the
beginning of her life when she and her family were relocated to one
of 16 internment camps. She was only one and a half.
In a day of remembrance, Omori visited Mills College on Feb. 21,
for a special screening of her award winning documentary Rabbit in
the Moon, a film of personal accounts of the internment experience
and the resistance and repercussions that took place in that time
The making of the film was a personal journey of sorts for Omori
and her sister Chizuko Omori, a main contributor to the work.
“We had never really looked back ever. For me and my sister it
was a part of our lives that we hadn’t really looked at,” said
Omori. The making of the film was a seven-year process, ending with
the award for Best Documentary Cinematography at the 1999 Sundance
Her film expressed how the U.S. government put heritage and
family in jeopardy. All who were 17 or older were asked, in a
questionnaire to determine their loyalty to the United States, to
denounce their allegiance to Japan or to serve the U.S. military,
as well as other questions having to do with one’s personal
cultural choices. Over 5,000 Japanese citizens renounced their
citizenship; others who resisted suffered consequences.
In the film, Omori summed up the experience through metaphors.
She said that in her culture, when they look up at the moon they
see a rabbit with its ears laid back hopping on one foot. In this
country, we look at the moon and see a man. She said that what the
U.S. was asking her people to do was to see the man and not the
“I am one of the last witnesses. All of the people in the film
were there but many have passed away,” said Omori. She stressed the
importance of giving those who resisted during internment a
platform to share their experiences.
“This is not new information,” said Omori. “It’s always existed,
it is just scattered around and buried in books and records.”
Although Omori finished this piece learning a lot, she was still
left with a lingering question. “I never felt like I got to the
bottom of why this happened to us. We were already known not to be
a threat, yet the government spent millions of dollars on the
internment camps,” she said. The only theory that somewhat answered
her question was the concept that Japanese-Americans were being
held hostage because of U.S. prisoners of war in Japan.
The film screening was followed by a panel discussion on
America’s history of infringement on civil liberties and human
rights with director of the Women’s Leadership Institute Margo
Okazawa-Rey and a representative for Campaign for Justice.
Okazawa-Rey, whose mother was held in an internment camp,
stressed the importance of revisiting this often dismissed history.
“These are things that I did not learn from my history books, but
from my mother,” said Okazawa-Rey.
She drew links to current issues in the wake of 9/11 such as the
Patriot Act and the racialization of immigration laws and also
pointed out that the same thing is happening now in Guantanamo Bay.
Also the precedent that the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, a redress
bill for interned Japanese-Americans, can set for reparations
movements for African- Americans and Native-Americans that are
still in progress.
Although reparations have been paid to Japanese-Americans,
Campaign for Justice continues to work for reparations for
Japanese-Latin Americans who were not included in the Civil
Liberties Act. In 13 countries in Latin America, 2,264
Japanese-Latin Americans were abducted from their homes and used in
a hostage exchange program for Americans held by Japan according to
the Campaign for Justice representative. Campaign for Justice is
currently working on litigation and legislation for this case and
others surrounding the issue. “A lot of this is just getting
resources off the shelves and into the books,” the representative
Okazawa-Rey stressed the importance of recognizing these
patterns, as well as learning and acting against them. “It is
important to recognize that fascism is a driving force in the
United States. I’d rather overstate it and be wrong than understate
it and be wrong,” she said.