“Her watch had said six o’clock for weeks. She had stopped winding it the day they had stepped off the train” – When the Emperor was Divine, Julie Otsuka
We have all heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but what do we know other than the Japanese had attacked America? In my K-12 education, I sure don’t remember learning that there is a disproportionate number of US military bases in Hawai’i. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1945, which ordered the “relocation” of all persons of Japanese descent to incarceration camps. Why? Because they were Japanese and, thus automatically, a threat to national security. More than 120,000 first generation Issei and their Nisei children were affected – even to this day.
For the Japanese American girl in “When the Emperor was Divine” by Julie Otsuka, time had long stopped since she and her family were incarcerated. At the camps, there was literally no sense of time as they spent every single day waiting. Waiting for their father. Waiting to go home. Waiting for normal to return. But life can’t return to normal. In the three and a half years the family was imprisoned, many things had changed already – including themselves. From unconsciously sleeping together in the same room to quickly finishing their meals after their release, these habits were a testament of their legacy as criminalized “enemies.” Returning home wasn’t as simple as pressing an “unpause” button. They had to make sure not to trouble or offend anyone; they made sure to be the first to apologize even if they didn’t do anything wrong. They had to rebuild their trust with their peers and their neighbors and vice versa. In this America I know of, healing is so hard when her apologies often manifest in a monetary reparation and/or in a document that “acknowledges” the violence and trauma she inflicts on communities of color.
When life drastically changes, we can’t pause time and expect to return to “normal.” As we are ordered to stay at home and practice social distancing, this time of uncertainty is daunting and can be emotionally exhausting as we wait and wait and wait to go back to school, work, and hang out with friends. Of course, I don’t think it is fair to compare our experience during this pandemic to Japanese American incarceration, but I do hope we can learn to understand and accept that things will change – whether that is our attitude, our habits and routines, and more. Maybe this is too optimistic of me, but rather than being consumed with hate, frustration, and stress, how can we be present for each other and for ourselves?