Japanese American Internment During War Remembered at Screening

July 9, 2014

The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation and Hogan Lovells hosted a screening of the award-winning documentary Witness: The Legacy of Heart Mountain on May 12 in honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.

The documentary examines the imprisonment of thousands of Japanese Americans at an internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, during World War II and the efforts to preserve the history and legacy of the camp. Witness is a recipient of a 2014 Edward R. Murrow Award from Radio Television Digital News Association.

The screening was followed by a panel discussion about the internment and other events that have helped shape the Asian-Pacific American community and U.S. constitutional law.

Former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta was interned at Heart Mountain as a child and is featured in the documentary. During the panel discussion, Mineta recalled seeing the large signs that read “aliens and non-aliens” at the camp.

“As a 10-year-old kid I was looking at the sign thinking, what is a non-alien?” said Mineta, who was born in San Jose, California. “But even then our own government wasn’t referring to us as citizens, and that’s why, to this day, I cherish the word ‘citizen’ because my own government wasn’t willing to call me [that] during the internment.”

The internment of Japanese Americans from 1942 to 1946 is not widely covered in American textbooks, and its specifics are not as known to the public as other events during World War II.

“If the government did something wrong, it’s not going to publicize it,” said Shirley Ann Higuchi, chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation and former president of the D.C. Bar. In addition, many of those who had been in the camps, including Higuchi’s parents, were hesitant or reluctant to discuss the internment altogether.

Despite these challenges, Higuchi said she is confident that the history of the internment and the stories of those who were held at the camps can be preserved, partly through efforts of organizations like the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation. But Higuchi also encouraged young people to step up and educate themselves and each other so that the memory of the internment does not fade.

Asked whether something similar to the internment could occur again in America, especially in light of recent debates on the balance between civil liberties and national security, the panelists agreed that American citizens must always look to protect their constitutional rights.

“We don’t have to be vigilantes about it,” said Mineta. “But we have to be very vigilant in making sure our constitutional rights are protected.”

Other panelists included Mee Moua, president and executive director of the Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Washington, D.C.., and Vincent Eng, partner and chief executive officer at VENG Group, a government relations and public affairs firm.