With anti-Asian hate incidents on the rise, movement grows to educate people about rich history of Asian Americans in Chicago and beyond

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May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

But this year, anti-Asian hate crimes have skyrocketed across the country.

A group that tracks attacks reported against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders found more than 6000 incidents in the last year.

However, this discrimination and hate against Asian Americans is nothing new.

Now, there’s a growing movement to help educate people about the rich history of Asian Americans in this country and Chicago in particular.

The Nisei Lounge in Wrigleyville is one stop Erik Matsunaga makes on his walking history tour of the Japanese American community that once was.

Nisei Lounge moved up here, they were saying 1951, making it probably the oldest bar in East Lakeview now, possibly the oldest baseball bar,” Matsunaga said.

Following World War II, Japanese Americans flooded into Chicago, especially into the North Side around Lakeview Matsunaga’s was among family.

I’m a fourth generation Japanese American on my father’s side,” he said.

Prior to the war, there were only about 400 people of Japanese descent living in Chicago.

That number exploded to more than 20,000 after.

Despite this massive influx into the city, only a handful of the original businesses from this community like Nisei Lounge remain.

Matsunaga started giving the tours when he realized this history was starting to disappear.

I tried finding a book on it. I tried looking online. I couldn’t find anything,” he said. “I never set out to be an expert on anything. It just wasn’t there and I wanted my kids to know what happened.”

This was all in part because of what brought Japanese Americans to Chicago in the first place.

In 1942, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. One hundred twenty thousand people of Japanese descent were forcibly removed from their homes and rounded up into 10 prison camps.

The majority were American citizens.

Finally when the camps closed in 1945, thousands made their way to Chicago.

Michael Takada is CEO Japanese American Service Committee.

We have been working in this space physically for the last 50 years, but the organization was created in 1946,” he said.

Chicago, he said, became an attractive city for Japanese Americans to establish roots and call home because the city offered jobs.

I think Chicago it’s always been a hub, a transportation hub,” he said.

But while other cities established enclaves like Little Tokyo in Los Angeles and Japantown in San Francisco, there’s a reason why a community doesn’t exist like that in Chicago.

As the population was growing here and as people were being released from the camps, they were being instructed to not congregate. They were being instructed to assimilate, blend in,” Takada said. “So by virtue of that directive, you don’t see a J-Town forming in Chicago.”

The War Relocation Authority said do not congregate,” Matsunaga said. “People look at you suspiciously, you have to get out there and assimilate.”

This fear still plays out across the country today.

Grace Pai is the Director of Organizing Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago.

The past year has been incredibly difficult for Asian American communities across the country,” Pai said.

New data shows anti-Asian hate incidents have increased dramatically.

Stop AAPI Hate found more than 6600 incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

We’ve seen it escalate into physical violence,” Pai said. We’ve seen it escalate in terms of bullying and harassment that people are experiencing and it’s not new.”

That’s part of the reason why Asians Advancing Justice helped to introduce the TEAACH Act in Illinois. It would require schools in the state to include Asian American History curriculum in all public-school classrooms. That includes the incarceration of Japanese Americans.

It’s education that these organizations say is lacking today.

Unfortunately the reality is that history is taught in a very one-sided way in our public schools right now. And most students are not learning Asian American history when they’re learning U.S. history,” Pai said.

Even to this day, it is a bit disturbing to still find people who when we talk about the incarceration experience of World War II, they’re like, ‘Really? I wasn’t aware of that.’ Or, ‘I didn’t realize the severity of the situation,’” Takada said.

I do think it’s a shame that we have this kind of rich history here in Chicago that nobody really knows about,” Matsunaga said.

The JASC continues services for everyone from children up through senior citizens. It’s still to this day a community center for people of Japanese descent but also has evolved into a social service agency for Chicagoans.

This is the stuff of real research,” JASC’s Emma Saito Lincoln said. “So having a safe place to preserve documents, ephemera, and artifacts, we do have artifacts here as well, that illustrate this history, it enables someone today in 2021 to study what happened decades ago.”

While physical structures may have come and gone, there’s hope education can keep the rich history alive.

I think the more society understands and hears the stories of other people, they will come to realize this is not something that we should be fearful of, or hateful of,” Takada said.

Earlier this week, the TEAACH Act passed unanimously in the Illinois Senate.

It now goes back to the House of Representatives.

If it goes to the governor’s desk to be signed into law- Illinois would become the first state in the country to require a unit on Asian American history in public schools.

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