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Coming to terms: Exhibit a reminder of Japanese incarceration

Coming to terms: Exhibit a reminder of Japanese incarceration

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What’s more important: personal liberty or national security?

Is it better to conform or resist?

What can result from unchecked authority?

How do we decide who belongs?

These are among the questions the Benton County Historical Society would like patrons to consider as they move through the latest exhibit at the Philomath Museum.

And no, they have nothing to do with the Black Lives Matter movement. Or the upcoming presidential election. Or anything else related to current politics.

The exhibit is “Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II,” and examines the impact of Executive Order 9066, which sent 75,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry and 45,000 Japanese nationals to incarceration camps following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Admission is free. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, but visitors are asked to call to confirm before traveling because of scheduling complications caused by the global pandemic.

Told through a series of photos and captions, the traveling exhibit was developed by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Mark Tolonen, curator of exhibitions for the museum, said the Smithsonian sends regular catalogs of its traveling exhibitions. This one, he said, particularly appealed to staff.

The museum chose to augment the showing by adding a set of Japanese kimonos from Corvallis fiber artist Karen Miller.

The exhibit opened Aug. 21 but does not yet have a closing date. “It will definitely go through September and hopefully longer,” he said.

Tolonen said he understands why viewers might see parallels between the exhibit and some of the questions Americans find themselves asking today, but the museum didn’t seek to show the posters for that reason, necessarily.

“I believe it’s an objective look at the history. Hopefully visitors will draw their own conclusion,” he said. “Each poster starts with a question, something like, ‘Why did this happen,’ or, ‘How could we keep from happening again,’ that kind of do fit in with our current political situation. But I don’t think they’re politically left or right.”

“Righting a Wrong” looks at immigration, prejudice, civil rights, heroism and what it means to be an American.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the order that forced Japanese Americans out of their homes and scattered them among 10 camps west of the Mississippi.

From March 1942 to March 1946, families lived crammed together in barracks and converted animal stalls surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. One of the temporary camps was in Portland, where 3,676 people stayed for five months in the livestock pavilion of what is now the Portland Expo Center, waiting to be transferred to large camps elsewhere.

Citizens had little to no notice before being rounded up and could take few of their belongings with them. After their relocation, the government froze bank assets while FBI officials searched the homes of thousands of Japanese residents and seized items they deemed to be contraband, such as cameras, weapons and radio transmitters.

While Japanese American soldiers fought for the United States, camp residents were required to complete allegiance questionnaires that asked them whether they were willing to serve in the United States military if so ordered and if they would swear “unqualified allegiance” to the U.S. and “forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor.”

The camps closed following a Supreme Court decision. Congress issued a formal apology in 1988 that provided some $20,000 each to more than 80,000 Japanese Americans in restitution.

How does democracy work?

How can we have liberty and justice for all?

How will you shape the future?

Tolonen said he hopes visitors ask themselves the prompt questions each poster offers and come to their own conclusions.

“It’s a small exhibit, (but) I found it emotionally heavy. It gave me a lot to think about,” he said. “They’re really quite impactful.”

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