CRAASH Raises Awareness of Japanese Internment - Ben Masanobu Arai Speaks at HunterCRAASH Raises Awareness of Japanese Internment
Ben Masanobu Arai Speaks at Hunter
This past Thursday, Hunter College students heard firsthand what it was like to be detained in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
During an event hosted by the Coalition for Revitalization of Asian American Studies at Hunter College (CRAASH), Ben Masanobu Arai recalled his experience before a crowd of students. Arai and his family were among the 110,000 detainees of Japanese descent after the U.S. government issued Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942.
“There were a lot of people that came [to the discussion],” said Sabrina Fong, one of the event’s coordinators. “I was so happy.”
“It was really sad. Arai told me before the event that he might get choked up talking about his painful memories,” Fong said.
Arai was eight years old when his family was taken to the Minedoka camp. He remembers riding on a train through the desert to get to the camp in the middle of nowhere. It was an experience, he said, that deeply scarred him, changing him from a normal eight-year-old boy who wanted only to play and read comic books, to a far more cynical person.
Arai recalled the rough wood floor in the barracks, on which he walked barefoot, giving him splinters. He talked about his confusion as he heard his parents and sister crying for reasons that he could not yet understand. He recalled the men being forced to work on government projects, such as dams, and referred to this as slave labor.
He discussed radio announcements that claimed Japan was sending balloons to bomb the USA. Fearful people in the camp thought they saw one in the sky, but it turned out to be the moon. They said that Japan was coming to liberate them, but Arai’s father, a pacifist, did not necessarily welcome Japanese influence. They would have drafted him to fight against China.
Arai had to deal with racism throughout college, which he said continues to this day. He told the story of going into court to fight a traffic infraction. The judge asked him if he was from China. After correcting the judge on his nationality, he was then told that America has always been good to Japan. His angry response caused the judge to complain to the Bar Association that Arai was rude, but after Arai explained himself, the complaint was dropped.
“I am bitter, but my bitterness fueled my desire to finish law school when I wanted to blow my brains out,” said Arai in his speech, noting that, even though his life in the camp was a very dark period for him, it made him focus on fighting the injustice in the world.
Today, Arai does just that. Working as an immigration lawyer, he tries to make sure that no one else is subjected to the discrimination he faced. He currently takes on a number of pro-bono cases because many immigrants cannot afford lawyers.
Even though the American government paid restitution for the internment, Arai says nothing can properly make up for what happened. “It was a token thing to absolve their guilty conscience. Money can’t make up for what they lost…. Freedom has no dollar sign, no amount. Our family lost everything.”