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Wednesday, October 3, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Japanese Americans know how it feels to be 'the enemy'

Seattle Times staff reporter

"The enemy" is 80-something now, a married couple living in a Renton mobile-home park flush with potted pansies, blushing trees and U.S. flags. "The enemy" flies one, too.

Harvey and Edith Watanabe were among the estimated 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans in the United States who were castigated as the enemy after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Now, the United States is reeling again from an attack on its own soil. There's a new war with a new "enemy," and those earlier victims of prejudice are speaking out.

Concerned that history could repeat itself and that lessons of tolerance have not been learned, Japanese Americans nationwide are cautioning the country as it seeks justice against the suspected terrorists. These former World War II internees, and their sons and daughters, are urging Americans to remain reasonable and keep hatred in check.

Japanese-American groups worry about physical attacks as well as verbal harassment against Middle Easterners and Arabs, Muslims and Sikhs.

"This is a plea for all thinking and intelligent Americans to extend the hand of friendship to Arabs and Muslims," wrote Edith Watanabe last month in her first letter ever to a newspaper.

"As Nisei who suffered the war hysteria, evacuation and internment, I understand the humiliations and harassment that can be heaped upon innocent people if they only look like the enemy."

Chapters of the Japanese American Citizens League, a national civil-rights organization based in San Francisco, are meeting with Arab-American groups, talking about prejudice and what it feels like to be isolated. As a community swept into internment camps — and one that successfully waged a redress campaign — they are also advising Arab Americans on how to mount a public campaign to guard their civil rights.

This is especially critical, members of both groups say, as lawmakers consider anti-terrorism legislation that would grant Attorney General John Ashcroft greater authority in surveillance as well as the detainment of foreign suspects.

"What's happening now is that the government is talking about limiting the freedoms for certain select groups, and that's what I find so troubling," says John Tateishi, executive director of the civil-rights organization. "And once you go down that proverbial slope, there's no way to stop the slide."

The civil-rights organization, along with numerous civil-liberties and immigrant groups, has condemned proposals that include indefinitely detaining foreign nationals suspected of terrorism. That proposal was stripped from the House terrorism bill this week.

So far, the Japanese American groups say, they see a remarkable outpouring of public support for Arabs and Muslims. That was not the case 60 years ago.

On the other hand, Tateishi says, the anger now seems more widespread and violent. Japanese-American organizations say there were one or two racially motivated slayings following Pearl Harbor. Currently, three homicides — in California, Arizona and Texas — are among about 90 possible hate crimes being formally investigated by the FBI.

"Part of the government rationale at the time was to put us in internment camps for our own protection," Tateishi says about Executive Order 9066, signed Feb. 19, 1942. "In some way, there was some hysteria then, but it wasn't at all like it is today."

That hysteria, these Japanese American groups say, can be seen in the treatment of some Middle Eastern or South Asian airplane passengers — how certain passengers with Muslim names or dark brown skin have been removed from airplanes because other passengers or crews refused to fly with them.

Then there are opinion polls asking the public about national identification cards, internment camps and extra security for those of Arab descent.

In a recent Time/CNN poll, 49 percent said U.S. citizens of Arab descent should carry national ID cards; 49 percent said no. Asked if Arabs who are U.S. citizens should be kept in camps until it is determined whether they have links to terrorist organizations, 65 percent said no but 31 percent said yes.

"When I think of now, about restrictions or people who want to put them (Muslims and Arab Americans) into camps, it just makes me boil," Edith Watanabe says.

Pearl Harbor happened on a Sunday. She was a 19-year-old living in Burlington, Skagit County, attending business school in Mount Vernon. When she and her family heard the news, having returned from church, they were shocked — and never once fathomed they would be regarded as "different," she recalls.

She and her family, one of only two Japanese-American families in Burlington at the time, were slapped with an 8 p.m. curfew and restricted travel. Until Watanabe was sent to an internment camp in California, she had never seen so many Asians.

Harvey Watanabe, a 21-year-old Army recruit at Fort Lewis at the time, remembers being rousted from his bunk by his military mates, who had turned on the radio and said: You gotta hear this!

Within a few hours, he and his troop were sent to guard Deception Pass. "I didn't feel Japanese," he says. He met Edith two days later in Burlington, and the two were engaged when she and her family were sent to camp. He assumed a role in military intelligence, eventually petitioning for her release so they could get married. They will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary next year.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Harvey Watanabe flicked on the TV and watched the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He woke his wife. "Oh, no," she thought. And then both worried: The bigotry and prejudice. Here we go again.

James Arima, 56, of Bellevue, was born in an internment camp. "It must be very stressful to be an Arab American at the moment," he says.

Among the aftereffects of the internment, Japanese Americans say, was a feeling of shame, a feeling that somehow, for some reason, they were to blame for being put in camps.

"I need to go to the mosque" in support, adds Akio Yanagihara, 69, of Seattle, who spent his 10th, 11th and 12th birthdays interned. "I have empathy for Muslims and all the people who are being targeted."

At a recent potluck for the White River chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, the Watanabes, over teriyaki, sushi and peach pie, urged their chapter president to press the national office for continued denouncement of hate crimes and to seek support from political leaders.

"Unless we have a voice," Edith Watanabe says, "we're as bad as the people doing the crimes."

Florangela Davila can be reached at (206)464-2916 or fdavila@seattletimes.com

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