The repercussions of World War 2 were not just widely felt just in Germany, in fact, many countries involved in the conflict faced the same aftereffects. It is not just the government or soldiers that experience the initial on-ground drawbacks, but also the commoners who face firsthand complications of war. Something similar happened with Aki Kurose, a Japanese- American in the fall of 1941. Kurose, an American citizen by birth was reminded of her heritage for the very first time during the Pearl Harbour attack of 1941.
As Kurose, along with her family first view the news on television, they never imagined how their life would change dramatically in the coming years. Aki Kurose was born and grew up in America’s diverse culture of ethnicity, she never once thought of herself as anything but American until the day after the attack. This is a piece of history through the lens of Aki Kurose.
Aki Kurose was an American teacher and social-justice activist who helped establish Washington state’s first Head Start program.
Born in Seattle, Aki Kurose was the third of four kids of her parents. Her parents had immigrated separately to America in search of better jobs and education but met through mutual friends in Berkeley, California. After marriage, the family settled in Seattle where they lived most of their life until the attack on Pearl Harbor. As Aki and her siblings were born in America, they all were granted American citizenship by birth. However, their ethnic background was not just much evident but also makes them bearable of the circumstances.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise military strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service upon the United States against the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. The attack killed 2,403 Americans and wounded more than 1,178. At that time Kurose was in her senior year at Garfield High School in Seattle, Washington. The family brushed off their worries as the kids had American citizenship but the very next day when Aki went to her school, she was reminded of her unequal status when a teacher told her, “You people bombed Pearl Harbor.”
Amid paranoia, racism, and fears of sabotage, people labeled Japanese Americans as potential traitors. The rules became much stronger and more racist towards people of ethnicity or color. FBI confiscated their homes and possessions as well as detained community leaders without trial. As Aki’s family had no such connections, they were not subjected to these atrocities immediately. However, when President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, that’s when their life changed for the worst.
According to Executive Order 9066, the Military was authorized to create zones from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” Within the next few months, more than 112,000 Japanese Americans and even the people of partial heritage were evacuated to the inlands. Initially, Japanese Americans were pushed to leave restricted areas and migrate inland, but soon the government froze their bank account and imposed a strict curfew due to the which Aki and her family along with several others were not able to leave.
Two months later a proclamation passed according to which Japanese Americans were forbidden from changing their residency and were trapped in military zones. First Aki and her family were forced to move to Puyallup Assembly Center also known as camp Harmony where they were allotted a single room apartment in the barracks of a parking lot. By May, the family along with thousands of others were moved to the War Relocation Authority camp at Minidoka, Idaho. It was one of the many makeshift detention centers built to detent the potential traitors of the nation.
In the following months, the army shifted them to long-term camps in desolate areas. These camps were guarded by armed soldiers and was overcrowded with poor sanitation. People quickly fell ill but were unable to receive any medical aid or treatment throughout their stay in the camp. The incarcerees were responsible to keep the camp running, so many of them started teaching the young ones in compact classrooms, while others manage farms and poultry. Many rebellions and protest groups were formed inside the camps but were silenced as many endured the changes.
Kurose completed her high school education in Minidoka and became involved with the American Friends Service Committee. The committee donated old books to the camp and issued clearance for students seeking higher studies. Aki left the camp to attend the University of Utah but after facing unavoidable repercussions of war, was forced back to Seattle. Soon after she was able to attend Friends University in Kansas.
By 1944, the Supreme Court ruled the continued detention of American citizens without charges was unconstitutional, hence the camps went down and the incarcerees were offered a mere $25 along with a train ticket to their pre-war address. But this relief was not enough to compensate for the damages. Many of them had no jobs and their houses were snatched. Though Kurose’s family was able to keep their apartment, the family faced poverty when no companies offered jobs to Japanese Americans.
Though the camps were closed, the stigma in the society continued. Aki along with her fellow people faced discrimination and resentment. The Japanese American workforce was replaced by African Americans. But as the discrimination grew so did the anti-discriminatory camps and unions. In 1948, after graduation, Aki Kurose married Junelow (Junks) Kurose and moved to her in-laws in Chicago. In 1950, when the couple had their first child, the family decided to have a home of their own. But discriminatory real estate practices and a shortage of housing made it impossible for them to find a house. So, they stayed in Seattle with Kurose’s family until they were able to find a home of their own.
On the other hand, these experiences motivated Aki to find work with Seattle’s first interracial Labour union and joined the Congress of Racial Equality. Aki became a teacher and over the next few years, she immensely contributed to civil rights marches and anti-war demonstrations. But she was one among few who found a living for themselves. Many incarcerees, particularly of an older generation never recovered and were hence drowned in lifelong poverty. Children of incarcerees later began a movement calling for the United States to apologize for the injustice.
On the other hand, Kurose continued teaching despite the racism she faced in workspaces. In 1980, she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the National Advisory Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children. In 1985, she was named the Seattle Teacher of the Year, and in 1990 she was given the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). Her work integrating peace advocacy with education was recognized internationally in 1992 when she received the United Nations Human Rights Award.
By 1988, the United States government also officially apologized for the wartime incarceration admitting to injustices caused to Japanese American and giving them the closure, they very much needed.