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A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America - Excerpt Part 1

In the spring of 1942, a few months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor launched World War II in the Pacific, the United States Army, acting under authority granted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and confirmed by Congress, summarily rounded up the entire ethnic Japanese population living on the nation’s Pacific Coast.

These American citizens and longtime residents—some 112,000 men, women, and children—were packed into military holding centers for several weeks or months and then transported under armed guard to the interior of the country. There they were confined in a network of hastily built camps constructed and operated by a new federal agency, the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Although some of these inmates were able after a time to leave the camps and resettle outside the West Coast, most remained in captivity for the duration of the war.

This official action, commonly called the internment of Japanese Americans but more accurately termed their confinement, has often been referred to as the worst civil rights violation by the federal government during the twentieth century. While the government’s actions did bring significant pain and hardship to those affected, there was no mass torture or starvation, and sympathetic officials and outside workers worked to ease the situation. In that sense, the suffering of the inmates in the WRA camps was not comparable with that of the masses caught in the agony of total war or targeted by tyrannical regimes—the prisoners in the Nazi death camps, for instance, or the Chinese people under the Japanese occupation—or with the historic degradation of African Americans, although such comparisons are inherently troublesome. Rather, what is particularly noteworthy about the confinement of the Issei (Japanese immigrants) and Nisei (American-born citizens of Japanese ancestry) is its fundamentally ironic character:i it was an arbitrary and antidemocratic measure put into effect by a government devoted to humanitarian aims, which occurred as a part of a war the nation was waging for the survival of world freedom. Through its official actions, undertaken in the name of national security, the United States not only brought suffering to its own people but handicapped its war effort. The federal government diverted massive resources to building and maintaining an extensive network of camps to confine an entire population of citizens and permanent residents, people whose loyalty was shaken by official actions premised on their group disloyalty.ii The WRA’s total budget through 1945 was 162 million dollars. In addition, the army spent an estimated 75 million dollars to round up and remove Japanese Americans. In vivid contrast, the Japanese community in Hawaii, whose members were not singled out for wholesale confinement, made exemplary contributions in the form of volunteer soldiers and war workers. Finally, army officers and Justice Department officials, who sought to assure the orderly release of inmates from the camps and their scattering into communities outside, resorted to manipulating evidence and covering up information about the initial removal policy to defend it from judicial review.

The wartime confinement of Japanese Americans remains not only a critical event in the Asian American experience, but a resonant point of reference and touchstone of commemoration for diverse groups of Americans. Dozens of works have appeared describing the signing of Executive Order 9066, the presidential decree that undergirded the action, as well as the court challenges to the government’s actions. An equally large literature has sprung up on the camp experience of the inmates—their family relations, their schooling, their resistance, and even their artistic creations. These works have rightly focused on Japanese Americans as important actors in shaping the nature of government policy and camp life, despite the numerous limitations on their freedom and the economic and psychological burdens they faced as a result of confinement. The inmates helped staff and operate schools, churches, hospitals, and cooperative stores. In conjunction with camp administrators, and sometimes in defiance of them, they organized social groups, sports competitions, musical bands, literary magazines, and crafts classes. They also struggled to preserve autonomy from invasive camp administrations. Using their limited channels of self-government, they called for redress of grievances, and on several occasions they expressed their resistance through organized strikes or even rioting. More negatively, hard-line factions of inmates organized harassment and sometimes violence against suspected informers, or those considered too friendly to camp administrators.

Finally, a growing literature has emerged on the later movement by former inmates and their children for compensation for their confinement and for reconsideration of the Supreme Court decisions upholding it. The so-called redress movement triumphed in 1988, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act, granting all those affected by Executive Order 9066 an official apology and a twenty-thousand dollar redress payment. Meanwhile, citing official misconduct and manipulation of evidence at trial, federal courts vacated or overturned the convictions of three Nisei who had challenged their removal.

Given all the attention that these aspects of the wartime experience of Japanese Americans have received—the books, plays, poetry, Days of Remembrance, museum exhibitions, documentaries, feature films, etc.—it might be wondered what need there is for another historical book on the subject. Indeed, some ten years ago, when I began research on President Roosevelt and the story behind the signing of Executive Order 9066, I was obliged to reject the advice of a distinguished historian who urged me to choose another field of study. How, he asked me, could there possibly be anything new to say on the confinement of Japanese Americans, a matter about which so much had already been published?

The reasons for putting out a new book nevertheless seemed compelling then and are even more so in the case of this volume. First, the camps remain oddly obscure in popular American memory: most ordinary people I have spoken to have never even heard of them. Among those who are informed about the wartime events, there remain serious conflicts over how to interpret their legacy. Were the camps an isolated result of wartime hysteria? How do they fit into the larger history of American racism? What impact did they have on Japanese communities outside the camps? Into the void of public knowledge has stepped a small but tenacious circle of assorted right-wingers and war buffs who continue to deny or rationalize the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast and the institution of the camps. Their campaign gained new strength in the post-9/11 crisis, amid the deep national anxiety over immigrants and potential threats to national security. Clearly, the entire subject of Japanese American confinement taps into some deep sources of anxiety, and this makes it call out for clear-minded historical study.

What is more, the existing literature on Japanese Americans does not take account of the profusion of new information (and in a few cases misinformation) that has come to light in recent times. Vast numbers of newly declassified or digitized documents have become available, and family and oral history archivists have put together innumerable testimonies by Japanese Americans that shed light on particulars of their experience. In the course of my ongoing historical research, I have come across collections of previously unseen or unknown material that deepen our understanding in fundamental ways. Meanwhile, the work of a new generation of scholars has left our understanding of supposedly familiar events altered and enriched.

Therefore, a first purpose of this book is to set down a record of Executive Order 9066 and the wartime Japanese American experience in a clear and digestible fashion. In the process, I will join together elements of the generally accepted narrative with significant new information, so as to form a much-needed synthesis. My goal is naturally to help those readers who are new to this history, but also to deepen the understanding of those who have some experience of it.

Part 2 >>

Notes:

i. Japanese communities are conventionally divided up by generation. The Issei are the first generation immigrants, while the Nisei are their second-generation children. A subset of the Nisei is the so-called Kibei, Nisei who were sent back to be educated in Japan.

ii. The official confinement of Japanese Americans in the WRA camps overlapped with a separate set of U.S. government policies toward “alien enemies,” which included the Justice Department’s control and detention, and in some cases internment, of Japanese, German, and Italian nationals based on suspicion of their individual actions. Insofar as ethnic Japanese were handled, I discuss these policies briefly. I have elected not to discuss the internment experience of Italian and German nationals and their families, both for reasons of space and to avoid confusion with the quite distinct experience of Japanese Americans moved on a mass basis, without due process. Instead, with those distinctions in mind, I direct the reader to the literature on these groups. See, for example, Lawrence de Stasi, ed., Une Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2001); Arnold Krammer, Undue Process: The Untold Story of Americas German Alien Internees (Lanham, Md.:, Rowman and Littlefield, 1997). For the confinement of Italian Canadians, see Mario Duliani, The City without Women: A Chronicle of Internment Life in Canada during the Second World War (Oakville, Ont.: Mosaic Press, 1994).

 

* This is an excerpt from A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America (Columbia University Press, 2009) by Greg Robinson, posted with the permission of Columbia University Press.

© 2009 Greg Robinson

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