Mary Tsukamoto, a small woman of sixty-six when I interviewed her in 1982, described to me the sufferings of her Japanese immigrant parents during the first decades of the twentieth century. She cried unself-consciously as she talked about the life of her family when she was a child.
“Then, on a Sunday morning on December 7, 1942, we heard over the radio the news of Pearl Harbor. Because we knew of the long, ugly background of anti-Oriental sentiment in which [my siblings and I] grew up, it was a frightening thing to realize that Japan was at war with the United States. We sensed something very, very foreboding and frightening.”
Mary had short, softly waved black hair that was edged with streaks of white around her face. Her brown eyes revealed her kindness, and she spoke with a gentle, young voice that nevertheless expressed much emotion. I gradually realized that her left arm was totally immobile, stuck as a ninety-degree angle.
Shortly after the beginning of WW11, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 commanding Japanese and Japanese Americans to be evacuated into concentration camps for the duration of the war. Mary’s family were poor, strawberry and grape farmers in the rural community of Florin outside of Sacramento in California.
“. . . By the middle of May, the sign went on the telephone posts. The [sign] asked people to be ready to be evacuated.” The people, desperate to get their affairs in order, rushed around, trying to prepare their farms for their departure.
Mary continued, “The last day was on May 29. Strawberries were red in the fields; in the peak of our season, we left our berries to rot!” Mary cried hard. “And many farmers depended on that crop to pay back debts they had borrowed in the stores and shipping companies, because each year they had to borrow in advance to make it. That was the kind of life we were living; they were just poor farmers. And so they didn’t get to harvest their strawberries and their grapes that year and they had debts they left, and the stores and businesses had great losses they could never claim. . . Some families were in the middle of their lunch, eating, when the military came running and said, “You’ve got two hours to catch the train.”
During the rest of the interview Mary described the sufferings at the camps she and other they endured. Decades later, she and other Japanese Americans tried to get an apology and reparations from the government. Finally, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law an official apology and provided both compensation of $20,000 to each survivor of the camps and funds to promote Japanese American culture and history. By then, many of the survivors were dead.
In Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do, philosopher Michael J. Sandel (2009) gives insight into the questions of reparations. Sandel talks about three approaches to justice. The first is the view that whatever maximizes the welfare of the greatest number of people is just. For example, one might say that it was just for FDR to imprison Japanese Americans during WW11 because it might have kept the rest of the population safe. The second approach to justice emphasizes rights. Basic human rights are important to this understanding, and it was against their basic rights to imprison the Japanese Americans. The third idea says justice evolves around promoting goodness and reasoning about the common good. (260) In this understanding, imprisoning Japanese Americans did not contribute to the common good because there was no Japanese American sabotage.
Sandel also talks about questions of the claims of community and collective responsibility, the idea that members of a group are somehow responsible for the actions of other group members, even if these actions took place in the past. (210) For example, are white people in the United States somewhat responsible for what happened to African Americans during slavery and the era of Jim Crow, a time that ended only forty-seven years ago? What about the promises made to slaves during the Civil War that they would receive “forty acres and a mule?”
One approach to these questions is the idea of “moral individualism.” In this view an individual is only subject to obligations he or she voluntarily undertakes through some idea of consent.(212) It says that as moral agents we are free and independent selves. Thus, whites alive to day bear no responsibility to Japanese Americans or blacks for what happened in the past.
Sandel believes that the concept of moral individualism is flawed, and we have “obligations of solidarity and loyalty, historic memory, and religious faith–moral claims that arise from the communities and traditions that shape our identity.” (220) However, these encumbrances can be oppressive. The idea of moral individualism developed in response to the abuse of class, caste, custom, station of life, and traditions of inherited status. He asks, “how is it possible to acknowledge the moral weight of community while still giving scope to human freedom?”
Sandel presents the arguments of Alasdair MacIntyre. He says that we humans are storytelling beings. People need to ask: “‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part? . . I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations, and obligations. . . [These are] my moral starting point. . .I am born with a past.” (221-223)
According to Sandel, both pride and shame are moral feelings that assume we have a shared identity. “You can’t really take pride in your country and its past if you’re unwilling to acknowledge any responsibility for carrying its story into the present, and discharging the moral burdens that may come with it.” With belonging comes responsibility.(235) It’s more than human rights.
Mary Tsukamoto’s story and the story of her Japanese American companions warns that justice is not what is good for the greatest number. Also, just thinking of human rights is often inadequate. We must concern ourselves with our obligations to communities with whom we share a past. They are part of our narrative, a story that continues into the present.
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