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1940s Japanese Internment Inspires Museum Show, SLSO Performance

Starting in February of 1942 through 1946, the United States government detained about 112,000 people of Japanese heritage, approximately 75,000 of whom were American citizens.
Dorothea Lange
Courtesy of National Archives
From 1942 through 1946, the United States government detained about 112,000 people of Japanese heritage, approximately 75,000 of whom were American citizens.

The early 1940s marked a culmination of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States — with Japanese Americans bearing the brunt. Months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 112,000 people on the West Coast were forced into internment camps, without evidence, trials or even an allegation that they’d done anything wrong beyond the fact of their Japanese heritage.

A deep look at that history is now on display at the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum in downtown St. Louis as part of the Smithsonian traveling exhibit "Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II." It also inspired the major work renowned musician and composer Kishi Bashi will perform with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on Sept. 17.

Bashi’s piece, “Improvisations on EO9066,” takes its name from Executive Order 9066, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in February 1942. The order forced detainees into internment camps in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. The order was based on the prejudicial assumption that Japanese Americans living in the U.S. were loyal to Japan and intending to cause harm.

How St. Louis Became A Place Of Refuge For Japanese Americans Facing Internment In 1940s
The "Righting a Wrong" exhibit at Soldiers Memorial Military Museum looks at the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Historian Mark Sundlov discusses the history it surveys.

Approximately 75,000 of the detained individuals were American citizens. Hysteria ultimately undermined their 14th Amendment rights.

“Constitutional rights and guarantees, that we all assume that we have and that we’re protected by, were all within a matter of weeks stripped from those individuals, as they were forced to give up their homes and the businesses that they operated, their personal belongings, pets, anything that they own, basically,” explained Mark Sundlov on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air.

Sundlov is the managing director of Soldiers Memorial Military Museum. He joined host Sarah Fenske to explore the exhibit’s themes and highlight local connections to this national story.

He noted that people within and outside of the U.S. government expressed opposition to the executive order, but that those voices were ultimately drowned out.

One local institution that made a difference was Washington University.

“Washington University did an amazing and wonderful thing — the morally righteous thing — and that is [they] opened their doors to Japanese Americans who were looking for places to attend university,” he explained. Other universities, he said, were “just outright denying Japanese Americans the right to matriculate in their universities.”

Two notable students who were released from internment camps in California to attend Wash U were Richard Henmi and Gyo Obata. As architects, they later designed some of the iconic buildings that still grace the St. Louis landscape, such as Henmi’s “Flying Saucer” in Midtown and Obata’s James S. McDonnell Planetarium at the St. Louis Science Center.

Kishi Bashi’s debut at the SLSO 

Listen To Kishi Bashi Delve Into His Musical Works Inspired By Japanese Internment Camps

St. Louis is also a meaningful setting for renowned singer, musician and composer Kashi Bashi, who is of Japanese ancestry.

He played his first solo show at Off Broadway in 2012, thanks to a St. Louis backer of the Kickstarter campaign that helped fund his debut album, “151a.”

“I have a lot of history with St. Louis. I'm very excited to be coming back in a huge way,” he said on Thursday’s show.

Bashi will have his first full symphony show here on Sept. 17, with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra set to perform "Improvisations on EO9066.” The multimedia piece explores Japanese internment, relating it to the American government’s marginalization of other racial minorities.

Bashi said his parents came to the U.S. after the war. It was only later that he met other Japanese Americans who had a painful relationship with their native culture.

“Growing up as a post-war, Japanese American kid, I was always proud of my culture, and I always try to speak Japanese and read Japanese and connect with my culture,” he told host Sarah Fenske. “But as I met survivors, and whole generations of people who are descendants who did not speak Japanese, it was really sad to see this kind of cultural divide that they had in their lives that they're still grappling with today.”

Bashi describes many of his musical works as “fun pop music” that’s positive and uplifting. While works like his 2017 album “Omoiyari” explore themes of sadness and assimilation, they also focus on love and empathy.

Overall, he said, “I like to just encourage people to really have a great feeling about their existence.”

Omoiyari: A Song Film by Kishi Bashi - (Official Teaser #1)

Related Event
What: "Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II
When: Now through Oct. 3.
Where: Soldiers Memorial Military Museum (1315 Chestnut St., St. Louis, MO 63103)

Related Event
What: Moving Images: Photography and the Japanese American Incarceration
When: 11 a.m. Sept. 7
Where: Virtual, via Zoom

Related Event
What: Kishi Bashi debut at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 17
Where: Powell Hall (718 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63103)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.