Through the thriving Watsonville-Santa Cruz chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, Watsonville’s Mas and Marcia Hashimoto are keeping vigilant against racism and violence — which they say they’ve experienced their entire lives.
The most recent newsletter from the Watsonville-Santa Cruz chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League was released well before the March 16 murder of eight people, most of them Asian American women, by a white man in Atlanta.
Still, the JACL newsletter had something more than business as usual on its mind.
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The local chapter’s president, Marcia Hashimoto, and her husband, Mas, co-wrote a short article raising concern about a general escalation of racist attacks on Asian Americans. The Hashimotos also re-published in full a 1,000-word column on the same subject by Theo Wierdsma called “Xenophobia Erupting,” originally published in the Watsonville Pajaronian, as well as a statement by President Biden remembering Japanese-American internment during World War II.
If the local chapter of the JACL acts as a kind of community binding agent for Asian Americans in Santa Cruz County, then Mas and Marcia Hashimoto have for decades believed that a critical element in that bond is vigilance and a continuing awareness of civil rights.
“Our membership is not only Watsonville/Santa Cruz residents,” said Marcia Hashimoto. “We have members in San Francisco, as far east as Virginia.”
“And it’s not limited to Japanese Americans,” said Mas. “It’s for anyone who believes in the concepts of civil rights.”
The Hashimotos, both retired schoolteachers who worked and still live in Watsonville, are among the most longstanding civil rights activists and advocates in Santa Cruz County. And while the Atlanta murders have put the issue of discrimination against Asian Americans front and center in the headlines in recent days, such discrimination in California is something they say they’ve both been living with their entire lives.
A longtime history teacher at Watsonville High School, Mas Hashimoto was, in fact, among the roughly 120,000 people of Japanese descent incarcerated in concentration camps across the American West by the U.S. government during World War II. He was 6 years old when he and his family were relocated from his home to Watsonville to Poston, Arizona, on the Colorado River and near the California state line.
They were held in Poston for three and a half years. Mas is not one to prettify his language when talking about that period. He said, in a 2018 TED-x talk that’s been viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube: “I was a prisoner of war, during World War II, held by my own country.”
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He even had an older brother who served in military intelligence where he used his Japanese language skills in the war against Japan. “He was stationed in Minnesota,” said Mas, “and he wouldn’t come back to California. He only came back to take his kids to Disneyland and to attend my mother’s funeral, because California was such a racist state at that time.”
The TED-x talk is only one of many appearances Mas Hashimoto has made over the years speaking not only about his experience in Poston but how it relates to pervasive racism against other minorities throughout American history. He has devoted much of his life to speaking in front of school groups and other audiences.
Japanese-Americans have a rich history in the Pajaro Valley, arriving as immigrants in large numbers in the early 20th century, and building flourishing communities up until the infamous Executive Order 9066, in which the Franklin Roosevelt administration ordered all people of Japanese descent in the Western states to be rounded up and held indefinitely in internment camps.
After the war, Japanese Americans returned to their homes, but, said Mas, Santa Cruz County was no respite from racism. When he started teaching in Watsonville, he said, the John Birch Society was active locally — and white militias were regularly doing training in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
“It was a racist county,” he said, “but today we’re one of the most liberal counties in the nation. What changed was (the establishment of) Cabrillo College and UCSC.”
Since then, the Hashimotos have worked to keep the Japanese-American community strong locally with their activism through the JACL. And a big part of that activism is staying attuned to acts of anti-Asian racism that often come as a result of larger currents in geo-politics.
In the early 1980s, for instance, when the U.S. and Japan engaged in a heated trade war centered largely in the auto industry, a Chinese-American in Detroit was beaten to death by two white men. “They thought he was Japanese,” said Mas.
Such undifferentiated hatred is a common part of the Asian American experience, the Hashimotos say. “It doesn’t happen so much here in Watsonville,” said Marcia Hashimoto, “but in other states and other places, there’s a backlash. It doesn’t have anything to do with the Japanese Americans, but whenever the Chinese (government) comes out aggressively ahead of the U.S., we tend to suffer the backlash of that unfortunately.”
The spread of the COVID-19 virus has created a new dimension to racism against Asian Americans.
Marcia points to former President Trump’s use of terms like “China virus” and “kung flu” as rhetoric that inflames potential racist actions.
With the Atlanta murders, the Hashimotos are again keeping watch on incidents that might suggest other racist violence. They are encouraged by the many from outside the community who have expressed their support and their solidarity in standing against racism. “It’s so heartwarming,” said Marcia. “We can’t ever forget to thank people who extend their support.”
Still, these are tense times to anyone of Asian descent, said the Hashimotos. They cite the incident last summer in Carmel Valley when a white man unleashed a verbal attack on an Asian American restaurant server.
“It all alarms us,” Marcia said of the Atlanta killings and the growing trend of anti-Asian racism. “We’ve never had to go to the supermarket and think about when we come out and we’re alone, whether we’re going to get jumped or something.
“It seems as if we are much more alert to the possibility of being attacked in some way, and we’ve never felt that before.”
In this era, the role of the JACL is, said Marcia Hashimoto, to make sure that incidents of racism don’t go unanswered. “We want to say to anyone who is confronted with any kind of physical, mental, or verbal attack, you have to report this. I know that Asians are sometimes reluctant to do so, but I want them to know, if you’re reluctant, we can help you. We will help you. Just contact us.”