WASHINGTON >> For most of her life, U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui didn’t talk much publicly about growing up in a Japanese American family that was relocated to an internment camp during World War II.
She was born in that camp more than 76 years ago, in a desolate part of western Arizona surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. But her parents didn’t dwell on the experience. They urged her to look forward, to take advantage of the opportunities this country did offer.
Then came President Donald Trump and his Muslim ban, “kung flu” and violent incidents targeting Asian Americans.
“It was sort of like, wait a minute now. Here we go again. We can’t let these things go on. That’s the lesson,” Matsui, D-Calif., recalled as she reflected on her experience in an interview with The Sacramento Bee.
As incidents against Asian Americans began to increase, Matsui started talking more publicly about her life. Today she’s one of Washington’s leading voices fighting for legislation that aims to toughen the laws against Asian American hate crimes.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed an anti-hate crimes bill last week, and the House is expected to take it up shortly.
To supporters, the bill is historic. Passing it, said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, a Senate co-sponsor, would “send a clear message, that hate, bigotry and anti-Asian sentiment have no place in our country.”
Born in a relocation camp
Matsui recalled how her father very much embraced the American dream. His mother died when he was 5, during the flu epidemic of 1918-19. As a high school student, he traveled 20 miles a day to get to school.
He wanted to go to college, but had to work first, so he and a friend started a flower business.
But two months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. It would result in the relocation of 117,000 Japanese Americans to government camps, usually to remote locations where people lived in barbaric conditions.
Matsui’s mother grew up in Reedley, and her father was from Long Beach. They were taken to the Poston Relocation Center in western Arizona, where they met and got married. Doris Matsui was born there in 1944.
She left the camp when she was 3 months old. Growing up in Dinuba, “My parents didn’t emphasize the burdens they had. They wanted me to look ahead,” she said.
While a college student at the University of California, Berkeley, Matsui met others whose families had had similar experiences in the camps. She began asking her friends and her parents more questions.
“You begin to pick up in college and being married to Bob and working in Washington that the story is very significant. I never thought it was,” Matsui said.
She married Robert Matsui in 1966. He was 6 months old when his own family was sent to a relocation camp. His family returned to Sacramento after the war, and he grew up there.
He became a Sacramento city councilman in 1971 at the age of 29. He was a Sacramento area congressman from 1979 to 2005, and became one of the leaders of the successful 1988 legislation to provide a tax-free restitution payment of $20,000 to Japanese Americans “for the fundamental injustices of the evacuation, relocation, and internment during World War II.”
Individual apology letters signed by the president were sent to interned members of the Japanese American community, a particularly important point for many community members.
Robert Matsui died in 2005, and Doris Matsui won his House seat. A senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, she’s quietly built a reputation for championing local issues, notably health care, technology and clean energy. She co-chairs the Congressional High-Tech Caucus and the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. Her website biography does not mention the relocation camp.
Fight against hate crimes
As Trump pressed his Muslim ban during the 2016 presidential campaign, Matsui became more outspoken.
“What we need to keep in mind, what’s very different today than it was in 1942 was that there wasn’t a way for people who were experiencing these things to talk about them, and people who opposed the actions weren’t as public about it,” she told the “She Shares” forum in Sacramento in February, 2017, a month after Trump took office.
Trump had stirred a long-simmering passion. And as the COVID-19 pandemic tore through this country in 2020, his bitter rhetoric — blaming China for the virus, calling it the “kung flu” — triggered new fear and anger in Asian American communities.
“Everyone who was Asian American was cast in this dark light,” she recalled. “Every group, they come from different places. Along the way they have confronted many of the same problems in different forms.”
Last month, Matsui offered passionate testimony at a House judiciary subcommittee hearing on the hate crimes bill.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have heard constant hostile rhetoric directed at the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community, including from leaders at the highest levels of our government,” Matsui said.
“There is a systemic problem here — and we are duty bound to stop the spread of xenophobic and racist ideas that have escalated to physical threats.”
She discussed the bill April 15 at the White House with Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris — the first Asian American to hold the office — and seven other members of Congress.
The legislation calls on the Justice Department to “expeditiously investigate and document all credible reports of hate crimes, harassment, bullying, and threats against AAPI communities.”
It urges the federal, state and local governments to expand its data collection and reporting, so that incidences of hate crimes related to Covid would be more fully documented.
And it tells law enforcement to “hold the perpetrators of those crimes, incidents, or threats accountable and bring such perpetrators to justice.”
Today, as the bill nears its historic denouement, Matsui pleads her case around Washington.
“I’ve got grandkids. I don’t want them to feel the stain and the hurt. You look around and say, ‘This is all of us.’ We all come from another place,” she said.
“We can’t let these things go. That’s the lesson,” she said. “You realize that racist and volatile rhetoric can quickly become normalized.”