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In LA's Little Tokyo, Japanese Americans Protest 'Modern-Day Concentration Camps'

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Members of the Manzanar Committee hold banners bearing the names of the different camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during WWII. (Josie Huang/LAist)
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Fort Sill, Oklahoma is a long way from Los Angeles, but for local Japanese Americans, what's about to happen at the Army base feels very personal and raw.

The White House plans to move 1,400 migrant children into the base, the same place where 700 people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated during World War II. Decades earlier, members of the Apache Nation were held at the same location.

On Thursday night, more than 500 people held a rally in L.A.'s Little Tokyo to protest the detention of migrant children and family separations at the border, in concert with Japantowns in San Francisco and San Jose. At one point, the crowd gathered outside the Japanese American National Museum in L.A. spontaneously broke out with the chant, "Fort Sill, shut it down!"

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Margaret Kuwata, center, holds a print listing the names of camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated. (Josie Huang/LAist)
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Joy Yamaguchi, whose grandparents were among the 100,000 Japanese Americans and immigrants incarcerated during World War II, was newly-returned from a protest at Fort Sill last week, part of a seven-person contingent from Los Angeles.

"No more incarceration of children on our watch," Yamaguchi, 23, said to the crowd. "Never again is now."

A debate over whether migrant detention facilities should be called concentration camps has been raging since Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to them as such on Twitter earlier this month. But for Kanji Sahara, the matter is settled. He was 8 years old in 1942, when he and his family were moved to the detention center at the Santa Anita racetrack, then to the Jerome camp in Arkansas.

"We know what concentration camps are, and these detention centers are exactly that: modern-day concentration camps," Sahara said.

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Kanji Sahara says migrant detention camps are "modern-day concentration camps." (Josie Huang/LAist)
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Since World War II, Japanese Americans have also spoken out against Islamophobia, and in support of Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights.

But lawyer and activist Mia Yamamoto, who was born in the Poston, Arizona camp during the war, was disappointed even more members of her community hadn't turned out for Thursday's rally.

"Talk to the people who didn't come, who didn't bother, and ask them if they have adjusted to injustice," Yamamoto said. "Because complacency is complicity."

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Mia Yamamoto exhorts Japanese Americans to show up for the migrant children. (Josie Huang/LAist)

Leslie Ishii, whose parents were incarcerated, said for her, activism is part of the Japanese American legacy.

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"Being Asian and being Japanese, and being mass incarcerated for that, you absolutely understand the process of incarceration and how brown and black people are criminalized," Ishii said.

Ishii was part of the group from Los Angeles that went to the Fort Sill protest last week, and she hopes to return. She said she showed up for the children. Not enough Americans did that for her family.

That Thursday's rally took place at the Japanese American National Museum on Central Avenue bore great significance for the people who knew the location's history. This is where Japanese Americans were ordered to wait with all their belongings for buses to take them to detention centers. They were given tags with identification numbers.

"So we're standing on hallowed ground," said Ann Burroughs, the museum's president and CEO. "There's enormous power in place, as we all know. There's enormous power in memory."

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Hundreds in Little Tokyo protest White House plans to use Fort Sill in Oklahoma as detention center for immigrant children. (Photo by Josie Huang for LAist)

Japanese American activists say they have to stay vigilant on multiple fronts. They're also keeping a close eye on whether a citizenship question will be added to the 2020 census.

Kathy Masaoka, co-chair of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, recalled how first-generation Japanese, or issei, were rounded up using Census information.

"We are very concerned about the census being used to identify new immigrants because that's kind of what happened to our community," Masaoka said. "I don't think we trust anything this government is doing right now."