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Asian-Americans furious over readers' letters in the LA Times

A screenshot from the
A screenshot from the "Letters to the Editor" of the LA Times' Travel Section. Asian-Americans are angry the Times published letters that they say minimized what Japanese-Americans went through at internment camps during World War II.
Screenshot from the LA Times

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It was a fairly standard travel story published in the Los Angeles Times.

But it sparked a controversy that left Asian-Americans furious.

The original Nov. 28 article was about national parks that served as reminders of America's history on race relations and civil rights.

Two of the California sites included former internment camps where Japanese-Americans were forcibly held and isolated during World War II.

Then came the responses.

The paper published two reader reactions to that story in the "Letters to the Editor" section.

As the U.S. was putting families into the internment housing and feeding them, the Japanese were slaughtering Filipinos by the tens of thousands and U.S. soldiers after hideous torture.

War is evil, but I would have much rather been interned by the U.S. in California than by the Japanese in their captured lands.

– Dick Venn

Meanwhile, another wrote:

Virtually everyone in the U.S. was assigned jobs to help the war effort. The Japanese were assigned the job of staying out of the way and not causing complications. Millions of Americans were assigned far worse jobs. Hundreds of thousands were wounded or died.

The interned Japanese were housed, fed, protected and cared for. Many who now complain would not even be alive if the internment had not been done.

– Steve Hawes, Sunland

The backlash was almost immediate.

"Slaves were also housed and fed, but nobody would argue that slavery was a good thing," said Koji Sakai, former vice president of programming at the Japanese American National Museum.

"Get out of here with that s**t," posted Phil Yu on his blog Angry Asian Man. "There is no other side of this history. The wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans is widely and officially acknowledged as one of the most egregious civil rights violations in our nation's history."

The U.S. government is very clear on the subject, too—in 1988, it officially apologized to Japanese-Americans and gave each surviving internee $20,000 in reparations, calling the camps a "grave injustice."

"The Japanese-Americans' civil rights were taken away from them, they lost everything. Including my family: they lost their house, they their property and they lost many years of their lives," said Sakai. "For a lot of Japanese-Americans, we righted a historic wrong, and now we're retrying these moments in history."

The Times declined to be interviewed by KPCC about this but did address the controversy on its own site, saying, "Davan Maharaj, editor-in-chief and publisher of The Times, said the letters did not meet the newspaper’s standards for 'civil, fact-based discourse' and should not have been published."

Sakai agrees: while a Letters to the Editor section is where open conversations can happen, he argues the Times should have curated it better to only allow in comments rooted in facts.

"It was full of historical inaccuracies," he says.

But he's especially worried that people will walk away thinking that a community can be okay with internment camps because he's seen that idea popping up recently.

"Within the last year, with all the rhetoric around the presidential election on both sides of the aisle, people said, 'Maybe we should lock up Muslim-Americans.' People have been using the Japanese-American incarceration as a precedent," he said. "It's important that it doesn't happen to anybody else."

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue media player above.