What Pearl Harbor Means to Me

This Saturday, December 7th, marks the 73rd anniversary of the military attack on Pearl Harbor. Dr. Patti Kameya offers some reflection on the legacy of the event that officially drew the United States into World War II. 

What do we mean when we “remember Pearl Harbor”?

In 2002 I happened to catch a Chicago suburban jazz station’s Pearl Harbor special, where they played anti-Japanese swing era songs such as “We’re Gonna Have To Slap The Dirty Little Jap.” To me, the show resonated with the post-9/11 rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes. I would have felt better if they had placed the songs in their historical context, or at least told listeners not to attack Japanese-looking people. But there are other ways to remember Pearl Harbor too. Growing up Japanese American, I learned about Pearl Harbor as a lesson in military preparedness, and as a reminder that our nation must be better in how we treat perceived enemies. And as I grew older, I learned about former Japanese American internees advancing the cause of civil rights. I was proud that they went on to better themselves and our nation. I wonder how my life might have been different if my parents also told me how Pearl Harbor inspired Japanese Americans to pursue social justice.

And there are yet other ways to remember Pearl Harbor. As people who study, live, and work in Minnesota, we should remember Pearl Harbor for Minnesota’s hospitality toward Japanese Americans, even as they were no longer welcome in their West Coast hometowns during the war. At Camp Savage and Fort Snelling, about 6,000 Japanese Americans were trained as Japanese language translators and interpreters for the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). Arguably, the MIS gave the US forces a decisive advantage early in the conflict. The MIS decoded Japanese messages, but the Japanese never cracked the American code. The MIS also effectively interrogated captured soldiers. Their work saved lives of not only Americans, but also Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Chinese, Okinawans, and other groups of people involved in the Pacific conflict. After the war, the MIS also facilitated the Tokyo Tribunal and the occupation of Japan. In this way, Minnesota both helped the military effort and showed the rest of the nation a better way to treat perceived enemies. And so when we remember Pearl Harbor, let’s remember it in a way that respects the humanity of all people, and in a way that reminds us of the people we really want to be. It would be a shame if Minnesotans forgot this part of their unique history.

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2 Responses to What Pearl Harbor Means to Me

  1. David Williard says:

    Excellent, insightful post, Patti! Pearl Harbor’s legacies–both the proudly patriotic and those tainted by racism and the cultural and legal discrimination it prompted–need to be not only remembered, but better understood.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: We’ve Made History – 1 Year in the Blogosphere! | UST History

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