[A legend in the Los Angeles Japanese American community, Bill Watanabe was born in the Manzanar concentration camp during World War II. He founded the Little Tokyo Service Center in 1980. He is a Christian and a founding member of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Christians for Social Justice.

With Bill’s permission, we are reprinting an article of his originally published in the Rafu Shimpo in 2017Particularly during this Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, his wisdom and experiences are invaluable resources for our community. – Editor]

This year marks the 75thAnniversary of the issuance of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 (EO 9066) in February of 1942 that authorized the mass-incarceration without any due process of all Nikkei [people of Japanese ancestry outside of Japan – Ed.] living along the west coast of America. Within the context of this gross injustice based solely on fear and racism, there were some stories of courage and kindness.   The following true story is but one example.

In the small town of Sebastopol in Northern California there is a beautiful Buddhist temple named Enmanji (you can google “Enmanji Sebastopol” to see pictures).   

The building is a faithful representation of a 12thCentury Kamakura-style temple (the structure has the distinction of being made without the use of nails) and was once displayed at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. After the Fair ended, the temple was donated to the Buddhist church in Sebastopol and was dismantled and re-constructed at that location. The temple became a center for the Nikkei community in Sebastopol and the surrounding farming areas.  

When WW2 broke out, the white population of Sebastopol were conflicted with fear instilled by rumors of a Japanese military invasion and treacherous espionage. Now, all of a sudden, people looked at the local Japanese community with suspicion and perhaps even anger and hatred. Soon thereafter, because of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, all of the Japanese were rounded up and incarcerated at remote prison camps. There were however some white high school kids who were acquainted with their JA classmates and considered them as friends that were being unjustly treated. 

After the war had ended, Japanese families began to return to Sebastopol.   There were angry feelings by some townspeople who did not want the Japanese to come back. The Enmanji Buddhist temple became a target of anti-Japanese animosity by racists and there were attempts to fire-bomb the temple and incidents of drive-by shootings into the temple as if it were a target-practice range.

The local United Church of Christ had a youth group made up of high schoolers who knew that this Buddhist temple was important to their Japanese American friends. They also felt as Americans it was wrong to target a church or another person’s legitimate religious beliefs. The youth decided they would stand guard on-site and protect the Buddhist temple every night to prevent future fire-bombings or drive-by shootings. It is hard to imagine such courage and bravery on the part of these young lives – to care for and express love for their friends! They did this every night for 3 months until emotions cooled down and the threat diminished.

The temple still stands today as a testament to how a group of courageous young people of one faith decided to take a stand for freedom and justice during difficult times to protect the religious rights of another faith. 

This is an example of what makes America great.

Author

Bill Watanabe is the founding Executive Director of the Little Tokyo Service Center. Since 1980, in conjunction with the Board of Directors, he guided its growth from a one-person staff to a multi-faceted social services and community development program with 150 paid staff. Bill received his Masters in Social Welfare from UCLA in 1972. He has been married for 36 years, has one daughter, and lives near downtown Los Angeles, only a short drive to his ethnic neighborhood of Little Tokyo.

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