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Why Michi Remembers Pearl Harbor

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Shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor 35 years ago next week, Michi Nishiura, 15, and her family were ordered to move from their California farm to a detention camp in Gila, Ariz. “We were brainwashed into calling them relocation centers,” she says. Though two-thirds of the 110,000 people uprooted were, like Michi, American citizens, the federal government considered them potential security risks because of their Japanese ancestry. Many went willingly. “After Pearl,” says Michi, “we felt that camp was a means of atonement.” Earlier this year Michi, now Mrs. Walter Weglyn, published an intense but scholarly study of the period, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps. She theorizes that one reason for the internment was that the inmates might prove useful for a prisoner exchange with Japan. After being released, Michi went on to college and eventually became a costume designer, working for eight years on the Perry Como show. Childless, she lives in Manhattan with her husband, a Czech-born perfume chemist whose family was imprisoned in a Nazi camp. Michi believes such internments could happen here again. “If the economy gets worse,” she warns, “racial prejudice could emerge.” Would she submit again? “If today they said, ‘You have to leave your home in six days,’ I’d say, ‘Put me in jail. Or shoot me. But I’m not going to pack.’ ”