Written by Karen L. Ishizuka, Ph.D., President of Okura Mental Health Leadership Foundation
In 1942, Los Angeles mayor Fletcher Bowron called my uncle – Kiyoshi Patrick Okura – “the most dangerous Japanese in Los Angeles.” In the same historic breath, the virulent columnist Drew Pearson accused my uncle of passing himself off as an Irishman by the name of “K. Patrick O’Kura” who wormed his way into the city government and planted a ring of fifty saboteurs.
Made “official” by the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities, such “news” was widely published. “Spying by Japanese on Pacific Coast,” proclaimed the Los Angeles Times on February 8, 1942. ”8,000 Jap Agents Operated in U.S. Before War Started,” insisted the front page of The Denver Post on March 8, 1942. Many of these articles called out my uncle in particular. One L.A. Times editorial even published a correction – that Pat Okura was not the chief examiner of the city Civil Service, as HUAC claimed, but merely one of ten junior personnel technicians — who, even so, may have managed the crime he was accused of.
Other articles misspelled his name “Kiyoski.” Simply a typo? Perhaps. Or a knee-jerk reaction to the cognitive dissonance that “foreign” names still present. Jap? Irishman? Polish? It nonetheless cast a further suspicious eye on Pat Okura’s dubious ethnicity.
Let the actual facts stand: that despite such widespread promulgations by the media and congressional committees alike, there has never been any evidence, then or since, of actual espionage or sabotage conducted by Japanese Americans during World War II. Fake news has been around for a long time.
Nevertheless, by the end of the war, over 120,000 Japanese Americans – including Pat and his wife Lily, my parents, grandparents and a dozen other aunts and uncles – had been imprisoned – by the government they pledged allegiance to – in over 50 detention facilities across the U.S. without due process of law. This real-life example of the fragility of American democracy was put into effect by FDR’s Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. Since 1978, Japanese Americans across the nation have commemorated February 19th as the “Day of Remembrance.” This year, on the occasion of its 80th anniversary, I also reflect that EO 9066 is the reason the Okura Mental Health Leadership Foundation, a small family foundation of which I am currently president, came to be.
In 1980, after a vigorous grassroots campaign, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) was formed to examine the enduring impact of EO 9066. Similar to the pending H.R. 40, which would establish a federal commission to study the effects of the enslavement of African Americans, CWRIC’s mission was to determine the government’s culpability in the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. CWRIC sponsored eleven public hearings across the country, at which over 750 Japanese Americans spoke publicly for the first time about how their lives were disrupted and their trust in their government was betrayed. Pat was one of them. In his testimony, he said that besides Drew Pearson’s attack, that HUAC filled two pages of their report on his personal integrity, character, and “unpatriotic activities all by innuendos, [and] guilt by association.” Ruefully, Pat added that as a result of the false accusations levied under the guise of a U.S. report and the publicity that followed, he had been sidelined from federal employment for twenty years.
“I am convinced and truthfully believe that my professional career was set back 10 to 12 years because of Executive Order 9066 and the incarceration that followed. At age 60 I was able to attain the level of my professional career that should have happened when I was 45 or 50.”
In retrospect, he was one of the lucky ones. Statistical research indicates that during the incarceration, suicide was double that of the national population with evidence suggesting this may have been as much as a four-fold increase over pre-incarceration rates. The ongoing psychological and intergenerational trauma on survivors, their children and grandchildren have been felt, as well as studied, by many.
In 1982, CWRIC issued a report that concluded that the U.S. government policy of exclusion, removal and detention was not a military necessity as it had previously claimed but instead was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” Based on this report, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act was passed. The act included an official apology from the U.S. government for the wrongful incarceration, and token payments of $20,000 to surviving detainees. Pat and Lily used their redress payments to seed the Okura Mental Health Leadership Foundation.
Pat had long had an interest in mental health before his WWII experiences made it into a personal one. He was the first Asian American to graduate with a master’s degree in psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1935. He worked as a psychologist at the legendary Boys’ Town in Omaha, Nebraska for 17 years, recruited by its founder, Father Edward Flanagan, who brought 50 Nisei to replace staff who had gone into the military in 1942. And the wartime trauma and violation of civil rights also propelled him into a lifelong quest for social justice. Among his proudest moments was when he prodded the leadership of the Japanese American Citizens’ League to be part of the 1963 March on Washington.
His zeal for equal rights and emotional well-being is carried on through the Okura Mental Health Leadership Foundation. Our mission is to improve the mental health and quality of life for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and other disadvantaged populations by promoting training, research and services and developing national and international leadership. Certainly, in this age of Asian hate and racial reckoning – exacerbated by the psychological liabilities of a staggering pandemic – the interconnection between well-being and civil rights cannot be ignored.
This year, on the 80th anniversary of EO 9066, Japanese Americans not only remember our maltreatment, but also ardently call for the passage of H.R. 40 to study and develop reparations for African Americans, because we know from experience that it is not simply a bureaucratic performance, but is a concrete path towards restorative justice – as the Okura Mental Health Leadership Foundation bears witness. There are now an unprecedented number of co-sponsors for H.R. 40. What is needed now is to contact House Leadership – Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy – to bring it to vote. Let’s all be the most dangerous AAPIs in the country. As John Lewis admonished, “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America.”
The Okura Mental Health Leadership Foundation is an institutional member of AAPIP.