Commentary: Japanese American wartime incarceration sites faced with potential budget cuts

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Museum of Fine Art hosts "Chiura Obata: An American Modern," major touring retrospective of Japanese-American artist (1885-1975), whose work captured Western landscapes and his time at the Topaz War Relocation Center (internment camp) during World War II. Exhibit opens Friday, May 25. Pictured is Untitled (UC Berkeley students), ca 1930s, Ink on paper.

After meeting with Democratic and Republican members of Congress two weeks ago, my colleagues and I in a coalition of Japanese American groups felt inspired and re-energized by the bipartisan support we received for the program that dedicates money to preserving the sites were 120,000 Japanese Americans were confined by the government during World War II.

We learned that not everything in Washington is a partisan issue.

The Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) program has $11 million left of its original $38 million authorized in 2006 by a Republican Congress and signed by President George W. Bush.

Now we’re going to need that bipartisan support again to overcome the funding cut in the budget plan released Monday. It calls for eliminating the funding for the JACS program for 2020.

Seven of the concentration camps that held more than 110,000 Japanese Americans during the war are in states controlled by Republicans — Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. The three members of Congress from Wyoming, where my parents met as children at the Heart Mountain incarceration camp, all support the continuation of the JACS program. All three are Republicans, as is Alan Simpson, the three-term former senator who has been a constant advocate of the work to commemorate Heart Mountain, which now is home to an award-winning interpretive center.

These leaders realize that the money from the program creates jobs and economic development in the rural areas where all of the 10 former incarceration camps were located. The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation that I chair has received substantial support to build our world-class museum and restore facilities at the site of the camp. We also provide educational resources and programming for teachers, students and the general public to learn about what happened to Japanese Americans in World War II.

In Utah, the Topaz camp received JACS funding to help pay for the development of the museum and educational programming where 11,212 Japanese Americans spent all or part of the war.

In Idaho, the non-profit Friends of Minidoka is assisting with the restoration of the site of the former camp at Minidoka, a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service. They got support for developing a new exhibit, digitizing historical photographs and producing a documentary and educational curriculum package about the camp, where over 13,000 Japanese Americans from the Pacific Northwest were incarcerated. These museums, programming and community-centered projects are engaging the public and enriching the local economy and culture.

As I learned while researching my upcoming book about the Japanese American incarceration, the long-term effects on my community from the war are profound. My parents rarely talked about the trauma they and their families experienced during the war, starting with the loss of their homes and businesses. The sites supported by the JACS program host annual pilgrimages in which former prisoners and their families can learn about the incarceration, heal some of their wounds and try to ensure that another similar injustice that does not happen again.

America needs a forum to learn about this history. We will not stop seeking the restoration of this vital program, and we need your support.

Shirley Ann Higuchi

Shirley Ann Higuchi is a Washington, D.C., attorney and past president of the District of Columbia Bar. She chairs the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (www.heartmountain.org), which runs an interpretive center at the site of the camp where her parents were imprisoned. Follow her on Twitter at @HiguchiJD.