[COMMUNITY] Internment Camp Redux
- Internment Camp Redux
Emil Guillermo, Special to SF Gate
(Emil Guillermo is a radio and TV commentator and the author
of "Amok: Essays from an Asian-American Perspective," winner of an
American Book Award. E-mail: emil@...)
Washington, DC -- Ayleen Ito Lee feels her family's good name has
been slurred -- again.
Lee, 63, a Bay Area resident, is the daughter of Kenji Ito, a
Japanese American who was arrested the day after the Pearl Harbor
attack, on Dec. 8, 1941.
He wasn't interned, though. He was arrested for espionage in a case
similar to what happened to many Americans after 9/11.
Ito was one of hundreds rounded up by the FBI in a wave of anti-
Japanese mass hysteria following the attack.
No one arrested was ever found guilty of espionage. Ito himself was
acquitted of spying charges by an all-white jury in 1942.
But that's not good enough for right-wing provocateur Michelle
Malkin, who wants to retry Ito in her new book, "In Defense of
Internment: The Case for Racial Profiling."
The book tries to out-Ann Coulter Ann Coulter as it whips up a
little race hysteria and sets up a call for a new McCarthy-ish lock'-
em-up mentality in America. If you can tell a book by its cover,
then consider that there's a photo of a Japanese American next to a
picture of 9/11 terrorist Mohammad Atta on the front. If you can get
by that, you'll have the stomach for her thesis: The United States
was right in interning the Japanese, and maybe a similar strategy
should be employed again. After using a few pointed examples, Malkin
applies a broad brush to justify putting a whole race in internment
Malkin is the perfect ideological suicide bomber for this topic.
She's straight out of right-wing central casting. After the pro-
slavery or anti-affirmative-action African American, or the Latino
who is pro-border control or pro-Proposition 187, comes the Asian
American who is pro-internment camp. That would be Malkin, a
Filipino American doing it for the ultra-right. Under the guise of
open mindedness, she summons the Ito tale and others in her not-so-
innocent attempt to turn your sense of one of the most heinous
violations in civil rights history completely upside down.
So, it's not surprising that you won't find Kenji Ito's picture in
When Malkin called Lee last spring and asked for permission to use
Ito's photo, Lee refused.
Perhaps Lee would have been more agreeable if she had sensed
Malkin's interest in telling an honest tale rather than Malkin's
desire to use Lee's father's story to push an ultra-right-wing
agenda, one that supports what has happened at Guantánamo Bay, or
backs up the racial profiling that has resulted in hundreds of
innocent people jailed in the United States, many without formal
"She had her mind made up," Lee told me last week about Malkin. "She
wasn't interested in my side, not at all."
Now, Lee's glad she didn't grant permission and said even seeing her
father's name besmirched in Malkin's book is causing great pain.
"Yes, of course," she said. "My father was acquitted, and there was
no grounds whatsoever for the charges brought up against him. That
was part of the Pearl Harbor hysteria."
Kenji Ito, who died in 2003 at age 94, was a gifted debater and
public speaker. He became the first Japanese American admitted to
the State Bar of California after World War II and was a pioneering
force in the establishment of Los Angeles' Little Tokyo district.
Lee said her father was always American first. "He always said that
he never wanted any of us to learn Japanese," Lee said. "No Japanese
school -- 'You're American,' he'd say."
None of that interests Malkin, though. She concentrates on the young
Ito's days in Seattle. There, in 1937, he was a 28-year-old lawyer
known for his outspokenness about the Sino-Japanese War, in which
Japan and China fought over Manchuria.
Though the United States supported China, Ito spoke out for Japan.
"I was expressing myself as an American -- of Japanese ancestry, of
course -- who knew something about Japan and Japanese history," Ito
told The Pacific Citizen, a publication of the Japanese American
Citizens League in 1985.
He made more than 200 pro-Japan speeches over a three-year period.
"But that's not spying," said Lee. "People in covert operations
don't just go around giving speeches."
Lee also questioned how the intellectual exercise of debate could
undermine the safety of the American people. "We have freedom of
expression here," she said.
The speeches were the main reason Ito was arrested for plotting to
overthrow the U.S. government. The spy charges were later reduced
from espionage to failure to register as an agent of the Japanese
government. The case ultimately ended with Ito's acquittal.
Malkin, however, believes Ito would have been found guilty if
government prosecutors had been allowed to use top-secret cables
sent between the Seattle consulate and Tokyo.
Malkin claims the smoking gun is cable No. 45, dated May 11, 1941,
which said the consulate "was making use of a Seattle Nisei
lawyer 'for the collection of intelligences' on antiwar and anti-
Jewish organizations." Malkin concludes that the cable "provides
compelling evidence that Ito did in fact carry out his activities at
Japan's urging. Had the jury members known about the message, they
would have had a much stronger reason to find Ito guilty."
But Lee, a Stanford-trained lawyer, has researched her father's FBI
file extensively and has seen hundreds of cables (all of them
declassified and published since the late '70s). She said cable No.
45 proves little.
"It doesn't prove he was acting as an agent," Lee said. "It's
inconclusive. It could be an attempt by the Japanese consulate to
persuade Tokyo that they were succeeding in all the intelligence
efforts Tokyo directed them to conduct."
Malkin is so far out to the right on this, she's up a creek in her
own little boat of revisionist history fashioned from old documents
that may be interesting, but don't exactly get her from point A to B
without getting all wet.
She's so far out of the mainstream that even President Bush, when
asked about the book at the recent Unity Convention of Journalists
of Color, said simply, "We don't need internment camps. I mean,
But maybe this is similar to the real swift-boat ploy: Let
surrogates bring up the reprehensible and the unmentionable. Malkin
has already caused waves by going on Chris Matthews' cable show and
implying that John Kerry's Vietnam War wounds may have been self-
inflicted. (She couldn't say so directly. All she could do was
display her hyperactive imagination and ask, "Don't you wonder?")
On the internment issue, Malkin's the Asian American careerist who
wants attention so much, she'll gladly sell out all our civil
liberties for a little publicity.
But I want to be fair in considering Malkin's argument.
Let's even go beyond the Ito acquittal and suppose, for a brief
moment, that Malkin is absolutely right in everything she writes --
that there may have been some Japanese Americans and nationals
working for Japan in the United States, and that all those old
cables and memos she builds her case on tell us a little more about
what the Roosevelt administration knew about their activity at the
Even with that supposition, all of Malkin's declassified documents
don't enhance her sweeping generalizations.
The acts of a few certainly don't justify internment or racial
profiling of an entire race of people.
Malkin said her intent is to be hard hearted and unsentimental -- no
more pandering to liberal myths about a few hurt feelings. She
succeeds in being a hard-ass, ultraconservative gal. But she was not
hard enough when the facts didn't match her spin. Instead, she was
sucked in by her own spin, which leads to the book's fatal flaw:
It's a big leap to brand a whole race based on the actions of a few.
You wouldn't round up the neighborhood for one bad apple. Not
without proof. That's what the United States did when it interned
Japanese Americans during World War II.
It was a case of civil rights be damned; lock up the innocent.
In Ito's case, despite the acquittal, his entire family was subject
to U.S. Executive Order 9066, which evacuated 110,000 Americans of
Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast and sent them to
Ayleen Ito Lee was one of them. She was 15 months old.