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The holiday season is a time for extended family reunions. A huge one came earlier this year for Japanese Americans smiling and embracing in the Holiday Inn lobby here. From the lobby’s leather couch, 90-year-old Bacon Sakatani gazed at the gathering from under bushy gray eyebrows and a Korean War veteran’s cap. His wrinkled skin, stretched over high cheekbones, crinkled with the smile of a thankful grandfather watching his loved ones gather.
Sakatani, though, said the reason for this Heart Mountain Pilgrimage was not a happy one: “We went through an injustice together.” For decades he has spurred efforts to bring Japanese Americans back to where the federal government incarcerated them from 1942 to 1945. Now, for two days each year, about 400 former Japanese American incarcerees and their families and friends gather in northwestern Wyoming to pass on their stories and teach younger generations what resilience looks like.
In 1941, Bacon Sakatani, age 12, hoped to buy a new bike like other boys at school. Sakatani’s parents and four siblings lived on a small rented farm near Los Angeles where they grew cauliflower, cantaloupes, and onions. He vividly remembers Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and what came next: The FBI arrested Sakatani’s father along with 6,600 other “high risk” Japanese Americans the government suspected could be loyal to the emperor of Japan. Sakatani’s older brother dropped out of high school to run the farm in their father’s absence.
Ten weeks later, on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the military removal of Japanese Americans from a West Coast military exclusion zone. The new War Relocation Authority made plans to move 120,000 Japanese Americans to 10 hastily built camps scattered throughout the West. Families could only bring what they could carry.