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Asian America's fear, anger and isolation is rooted in US history

Asian America's fear, anger and isolation is rooted in US history
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Sometime in the early 1950s, a revelation struck Tadachi Kohara, a Japanese American survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bombing in 1945: “White people believed that we survivors had a bad disease.” Worse yet, the disease was deemed contagious, something that Kohara believed was evidenced by a peculiar way in which white people acted: “On a bus, they escaped from a seat next to a Japanese.” Born in San Fernando, Calif., in 1929 and returning to America from Japan (where he spent the war years) in 1950 as a young man, Kohara is one of many U.S. survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, a subject I've spent years studying for a fothcoming book.

This year of pandemic has made me think of Japanese American and Korean American survivors in a new light, as the longstanding exclusion of Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans (APIDA) from U.S. society has been shaping so much of what the APIDA community experiences. “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu” have become American lingo. The recent killing of eight women, including six Asian women in the Atlanta area, has only exacerbated the APIDA community’s fear, anger and isolation.

What has been particularly taxing is the persistent invisibility of APIDA as one of America’s racialized minorities. Authorities have said that the heinous crime in Georgia was a result of sex addiction, not of racism. The mass shooting in Boulder, Colo., less than a week after the Georgia tragedy has quickly shifted the public discourse from hate crime to gun control. 

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APIDA are so used to their imposed invisibility that they often excel at downplaying the pain that comes with it. Take, for example, Kohara’s story. Because these “white people” who avoided Kohara were likely unaware of Kohara’s survivorhood, it is striking that Kohara took their racially motivated actions as a sign of their fear of secondary irradiation. He could handle survivorhood; racism, in contrast, was difficult to acknowledge. 

Indeed, this conflation of disease and race — APIDA as a “diseased” racial group — that struck Kohara has long perpetuated the invisibility of racism against Asian Americans. The conflation, for one, has made it easy for Americans to exclude APIDA without sounding overtly hateful. Instead of professing hatred, they can say that they are simply avoiding persons infected with a contagious disease.

The coronavirus has certainly highlighted this pattern, though it has little that is historically new. When Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) struck Asia in 2003, New York’s Chinatown became empty. Many New Yorkers believed, falsely, that the virus had spread to the Chinatown community. “Coughing while Asian” became emblematic of the disease.

Turning our eyes further into the past, Nayan Shah’s “Contagious Divide: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown,” reveals that the Black Death that struck San Francisco in 1900 led city authorities to affix the label of “Oriental plague” on Chinese immigrants. The label gave others a pass to discriminate. In the era of the exclusionary immigration acts that posited Asians as “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” the justification was soundly underpinned by law.

This conflation of race and disease has made APIDA’s experiences of racism difficult to see. Masako Kawasaki, a Japanese American survivor whom I interviewed in 2012 in Sunnyvale, Calif., brought home the pain of invisibility for me. Her story of Hiroshima, 1945, was familiarly devastating — she had lost her father, brother, sister, aunt and grandmother to the bomb. Kawasaki herself suffered anemia and spent many years bedridden.

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After a few hours of interviewing her, I turned off my recorder and collected my notebooks and the photo albums that she had loaned me. This was a good day’s work, I thought, thanking her for her time and generosity. We exchanged good-byes. As I was getting ready to get into my car, Kawasaki came to me, running out of her house. “You know, it was difficult,” she said, ready to grab my arms. “To be unseen for so long. It was humiliating.” Her eyes began to swell with tears as I stood there. 

American survivors like Kawasaki have never been recognized by the U.S. government. Despite their activism during the Asian American Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which aimed to create a publicly-funded medical program for the treatment of radiation illness, the U.S. government has continued to stand by its position that these survivors were collateral damage incurred by the legitimate act of war.

Hidden behind this nationalistic narrative, which still surrounds Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is the racism that makes Asian American survivors invisible. For a long time, they were seen as former “enemies” whose suffering should not matter. As the American War raged on in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, Asian deaths and injuries were further naturalized. The mainstream sentiment was “Asia is overpopulated anyway. It’s no real loss.” Asian American survivors of the 1945 bombings quietly suffered in the community without basic health care. Don’t even think about getting treatment for radiation illness; there was no clinic for them to go for a flu shot or TB treatment. When one’s race is so seamlessly associated with disease, injury and death, it is hard to point out that race matters, too.

Racism is breathtakingly creative. It takes a range of shapes and expressions. It is crucial but not enough to protest white-on-Black violence and terror, inhumane treatment of refugees and undocumented immigrants and high rates of poverty and suicide in Native American and Indigenous communities. Invisibility that hides racism is also American racism’s product. I thought I was compassionate to American survivors. If not, why would I write about them? But for Kawasaki, this was not enough. She had to rush out of her door, to see that this historian understood the pain of Asian America.   

Naoko Wake is associate professor of History at Michigan State University and the author of American Survivors: Trans-Pacific Memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.