Shinno is a third-generation Japanese American. He’s a director of the Japanese American Citizens League, composer/musician for Hemisphere and a technologist for Dassault Systèmes who lives in Hillcrest.
As we honor Fred Korematsu, who fought against the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, I thought I could share my own story and family history from that time — tales that are often not told.
My parents grew up in Hilo on the island of Hawaii. Both were from large families, and they both often told me of their struggles to survive, splitting a package of hot dogs and sometimes not eating if there was not enough food to go around. My mother was the oldest of the clan, and often had to take care of her siblings during the day as her parents worked. Later, my parents moved to Honolulu to work at the Dole Pineapple plantation, which was backbreaking work. Then Pearl Harbor happened on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese planes attacked the United States Naval Base on Oahu, killing more than 2,300 Americans. Afterward, in California, Japanese Americans like Fred Korematsu and his family were rounded up and incarcerated. It was authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 of Feb. 19, 1942.
To this day, it still stands as one of the worst civil liberties violations in American history.
In Hawaii, since most of the population was Asian, and many were Japanese Americans, the men of the family were allowed to enlist in a branch of the military, certainly a better fate than Japanese Americans on the mainland. My father enlisted at the age of 20. According to what I was told, he spoke Japanese well enough to be an interpreter, and listened to Japanese communications during the war and wrote down what he heard every day.
After the war, my mom and dad moved to Chicago where my mother went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. My father went to Northwestern University, where he was the valedictorian of his class and subsequently moved to Detroit to work for the Ford Motor Co. for 25 years.
Why is this history important today? First, it tells how Japanese Americans, and others, have struggled to achieve the American Dream. My father was a hard worker, but I could see and hear from him and my mom, that as the only Asian in the office, promotions and advancement were few. He was often passed over in an environment that looked past Asians as leaders. I learned from his experience as I went out into the world to speak up when I thought I had earned raises and promotions and to challenge the status quo. Second, although I had a good childhood in the Midwest, I did and do experience discrimination and bias. Even as recently as during the pandemic when someone spit in my face during the lockdown, which I am sure was potentially aided by calling the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 the “Wuhan Virus” or “China Virus,” which is inaccurate and xenophobic.
Finally, many third-generation Japanese Americans (Sansei) have been distanced from their heritage, and the history of what happened to Fred Korematsu certainly has contributed to losing that connection, as businesses, homes and connections were lost. Teaching Japanese American history to our children in schools can help connect to the past to our joint futures.
While Fred Korematsu married, had kids, moved back to California in 1949 and worked as a drafter, it seems like his struggle for equality limited his work options for most of his life. In 1983, Korematsu returned to federal court, seeking vindication. In 1983, a federal judge threw out his conviction. That was the year I moved from Detroit to San Diego.
History continues to be written. Today I am a successfully working in technology, lead an original music band (Hemisphere) and serve on the board of directors for the Japanese American Citizens League. While the future is ours to write, will we learn from the past or ignore it? If we do not teach our true past history to future generations, we seem doomed to repeat it. May we live in an America that celebrates diversity, equality and unity for future generations.