“My whole life, I questioned whether or not I could have done what my grandfather did,” says Rob Sato. “How do you go risk your life for the country that has put your family in prison?”
Sato’s grandfather, Roy Sato, was a teenager during World War II, and he and his family were among the more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens, incarcerated in internment camps because of their ethnicity.
In late 1944, he was drafted in the United States Army and became part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of Japanese-American soldiers who fought in Europe. Sato drew in part from his own family history while illustrating the comic “442,” which is available through the mobile phone subscription service Stela.
They were being imprisoned by their own country and yet faced with this choice ... fight for this country or try to prove one’s ‘Americanness.’
Written by Koji Steven Sakai and Phinneas Kiyomura, “442” is fiction based on history, including the rescue of “The Lost Battalion,” the Texas 141st Regiment. It was a mission that resulted in the loss of hundreds of the 442nd Regiment soldiers. Sakai, who had worked at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles for 13 years, had long been familiar with the history of the 442nd team.
“It remains one of this critically under-told stories in terms of World War II,” says Ryan Yount, former editor-in-chief and creative director of Stela Comics, who edited “442.”
This chapter of U.S. history remains relevant, particularly in light of President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries, his plans to make camps for undocumented children, and the possible inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. On a broader level, though, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the service of the 442nd should prompt us to ask: Who is considered “American” and why?
“People revert to an atmosphere of myth that they want to live in,” Sato says. “There’s a fantasy that they want to live in about the past that you take into the present. Knowledge about this gives you a sense of the reality of human nature and what can happen if you drop the ball.”
Incarceration of Americans
In February 1942, Executive Order 9066 allowed for the incarceration of Japanese-Americans living on the U.S. West Coast. They were forced from their homes and taken to assembly centers, primarily in California, before they were sent to camps across the country.
This kind of racism didn’t just happen overnight. U.S. law at that time barred Japanese immigrants from citizenship.
“They were completely cut off for life,” Sato explains.
When he was a kid, Sato’s grandfather would sometimes speak in schools about the incarceration and 442nd. While working on the comic, Sato looked to his family to learn more about that history. His grandfather is in his 90s today, so Sato opted to ask “gentle questions” when he saw him.
“My dad had interviewed him in college, so there were old interviews,” Sato says. “My oldest uncle did a lot of gentle prodding here and there so he had information that he could give me.” There were also photos from the time period that Sato hadn’t previously seen that were included in his recent exhibit at the GR2 gallery in Los Angeles’ Sawtelle Japantown neighborhood.
Sato’s great-grandfather migrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s, and his great-grandmother arrived in 1919, yet they weren’t allowed to become citizens. Sato’s grandfather, though, was born in Stockton, California, making him a U.S. citizen at birth. But at that time, there was also the Alien Land Law in California that barred non-citizens from owning land and primarily affected Japanese immigrants living in the state.
“When my grandfather was born, he was the firstborn male in the family, so they immediately bought land under his name to have a stake,” Sato says. But, when Japanese-Americans were incarcerated, they also lost their property.
Then there was what’s known as the “loyalty questionnaire.” The survey asked many questions, but two questions in particular — numbers 27 and 28 — had major ramifications. Question 27 asked if one was willing to serve in the military. The following question asked if one was willing to give up loyalty to the Japanese emperor.
“I think the standard line, and also the one my grandfather said, was it’s like being asked the question, ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’” Sato says. “There’s no answer that doesn’t implicate you in some way.”
Japanese-Americans were thrust into a horrible situation: They were imprisoned without the option or means to defend themselves — their livelihoods stripped from them — and then a number of young men either volunteered for or were drafted into the military.
“The real crux for me was this choice that the Japanese-Americans were having to face,” says Yount, “that they were being imprisoned by their own country and yet faced with this choice of what to do, whether to sign these papers to sign up and to somehow fight for this country or try to prove one’s Americanness or to not.”
The service of Japanese-Americans in World War II helped bring about changes in the United States. “World War II was a watershed event in a lot of ways,” Sakai says. “The bravery of the 442nd and other segregated units changed our nation’s history.”
In 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order that desegregated the military. A few years later, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 allowed Japanese immigrants, among others, to become citizens.
“The argument was how could we keep citizenship away from these parents who gave their children’s lives to this country and say you don’t deserve to be citizens of this country,” Sakai says. “That didn’t make sense back then and it still doesn’t make sense. It’s important that we remember that today when we talk about immigration and other things.”