With the increase in anti-Asian hate incidents, the movement is growing to educate people about the rich history of Asian Americans in Chicago and beyond.
May is Pacific Island Heritage Month for the United States of America.
But this year, anti-Asian hate crimes have exploded across the country.
A group that tracks reported attacks on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders found more than 6,000 incidents last year.
However, this discrimination and hatred against Asian Americans is nothing new.
Now there is a growing movement to help educate people about the rich history of Asian Americans in this country and Chicago in particular.
The Nisei Lounge in Wrigleyville is a stop Erik Matsunaga makes on his walking tour of the history of the Japanese-American community that once was.
“Nisei Lounge moved here, they said in 1951, making it probably East Lakeview’s oldest bar now, possibly baseball’s oldest bar, ”Matsunaga said.
After World War II, Americans of Japanese descent flocked to Chicago, especially in the north side around Lakeview Matsunaga was among the family.
“I’m a fourth generation Japanese American on my dad’s side, ”he said.
Before the war, there were only about 400 people of Japanese descent living in Chicago.
That number exploded to over 20,000 afterwards.
Despite this massive influx into the city, only a handful of original businesses remain in this community like Nisei Lounge.
Matsunaga started giving the tours when he realized this story was starting to fade away.
“I tried to find a book on it. I tried to search online. I couldn’t find anything, ”he said. “I never wanted to be an expert on anything. It just wasn’t there and I wanted my kids to know what had happened.
Part of this was all because of what brought Japanese Americans to Chicago in the first place.
In 1942, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. 120,000 people of Japanese descent were forcibly evicted from their homes and gathered in 10 prison camps.
The majority were US citizens.
Eventually, when the camps closed in 1945, thousands of people flocked to Chicago.
Michael Takada is the CEO of the Japanese American Service Committee.
“We have been physically working in this space for 50 years, but the organization was created in 1946, ”he said.
Chicago, he said, has become an attractive city for Japanese Americans to settle and live there because the city offers jobs.
“I think Chicago has always been a hub, a transportation hub, ”he said.
But while other cities have established enclaves like Little Tokyo in Los Angeles and Japantown in San Francisco, there’s a reason a community doesn’t exist like that in Chicago.
“As the population grew here and people were released from the camps, they were ordered not to congregate. They were instructed to assimilate, to blend in, ”Takada said. “So under this directive, you don’t see J-Town forming in Chicago.”
“The War Relocation Authority said not to assemble, ”Matsunaga said. “People look at you suspiciously, you have to go out and assimilate yourself.”
This fear still rages across the country today.
Grace Pai is the director of the Organization of Asian Americans for the Advancement of Justice in Chicago.
“The past year has been incredibly difficult for Asian-American communities across the country, ”Pai said.
New data shows that anti-Asian hate incidents have increased dramatically.
Stop AAPI Hate has found more than 6,600 incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“We have seen it degenerate into physical violence, ”Pai said. We have seen it get worse in terms of the bullying and harassment that people experience and that is nothing new. “
This is part of the reason Asians Advancing Justice helped introduce the TEAACH Act in Illinois. State schools should include an Asian-American history curriculum in all public school classrooms. This includes the incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent.
It is education that, according to these organizations, is lacking today.
“Unfortunately, the reality is that history is being taught in a very one-sided fashion in our public schools right now. And most students don’t learn Asian American history when they learn US history, ”Pai said.
“Even to this day, it’s a bit disturbing to still find people who, when we talk about the experience of World War II incarceration, are like, “Really? I was not aware of this. Or, “I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation,” Takada said.
“I think it’s a shame that we have this kind of rich history here in Chicago that nobody really knows about, ”Matsunaga said.
JASC provides services to everyone, from children to the elderly. It is still to this day a community center for people of Japanese descent, but it has also become a social service agency for the people of Chicago.
“This is the real research thing, ”said Emma Saito Lincoln of JASC. “So having a safe place to keep the documents, instants and artifacts, we also have artifacts here, which illustrate this story, it allows someone today in 2021 to study what happened.” decades ago. ”
While physical structures may have come and gone, there is hope that education can keep the rich history alive.
“I think the more society understands and hears about other people’s stories, it will realize that this is not something we should be afraid of or hate about, ”Takada said.
Earlier this week, the TEAACH law was passed unanimously in the Illinois Senate.
He now returns to the House of Representatives.
If it goes to the governor’s office to be signed into law, Illinois would become the first state in the country to require an Asian-American history unit in public schools.
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