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A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America - Excerpt Part 3

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The policies designed by the governments of Franklin Roosevelt and Mackenzie King were arrived at independently, with no effective coordination. All the same, the two were similar in their provisions. Indeed, the Canadian experience points strongly to certain conclusions regarding events south of the border. First, military necessity was not the governing factor in the removal of Issei and Nisei. The same arguments were made in British Columbia as in California about ethnic Japanese being fifth-columnists, yet Canadian Army and Navy leaders, as well as the RCMP, opposed mass evacuation. General Maurice Pope, vice-chief of the Canadian General Staff, like General Mark Clark in Washington, considered the threat of Japanese invasion a chimera and deplored the manipulation of invasion fears by West Coast political leaders as a pretext for arbitrary action against Japanese. Nevertheless, the military chiefs were passed over by civilians more interested in political realities than strategic questions.

Conversely, the Canadian experience underscores the primary role of West Coast prejudice and the specter of anti-Japanese violence in forcing reluctant national leaders to take dramatic action. West Coast commander General R. O. Alexander recommended relocation of Japanese Canadians out of a—partly manufactured—fear of violent demonstrations arising from the campaign against them on the coast. Similarly, Prime Minister Mackenzie King told his cabinet (and his diary) that the escalation of racial prejudice and the threat of rioting made it necessary to remove Japanese Canadians to avert racial violence —although, King’s own, nearly simultaneous statement that he could not trust any Japanese Canadians suggests the importance of his own bigoted sentiments in inspiring his action. That said, there is no evidence that protection as such was ever discussed during the period by any of the government officials responsible, and logically the various heavy restrictions placed on those removed would have been needless if such were the case. Nevertheless, the evidence does lend credence to the notion that concerns about racial violence and civil disorders were present in the minds of the deciders.

Finally, the Canadian experience, like the American one, suggests that the scope and nature of the removal policy were determined primarily in accord with political interests, without regard for framing policies that mixed security with protection of democratic rights. In the United States, the army pushed for military zones encompassing entire cities, and eventually an entire region, even though the ostensible danger of Japanese subversion related only to a coastal invasion. In Canada, West Coast groups demanded arbitrary action against people of Japanese ancestry within a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. A compromise policy was worked out, which initially satisfied West Coast representatives. However, even before the plan could be developed or put into operation, it was scorned by West Coast extremists dedicated to achieving their historic goal of getting rid of the “Japs.” This indicates that the “security” sought by the West Coast could not be resolved by ordinary means because it did not depend on meeting and neutralizing actual threats—the only way to placate them was by an official policy of forcible segregation.

Jackfish Roadwork, Ontario. Photo courtesy of Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre Archives.

Another fruitful area for transnational study and comparison is the postwar era. While less well chronicled than the camp experience, the period following the allied victory in the Pacific and the end of World War II was one of dramatic shifts in the lives of ethnic Japanese in North America.  Indeed, it is not too much to say that the early postwar years were almost as vital as the wartime events in determining the location of Japanese communities, and the nature and condition of their inhabitants. There were strong commonalities during this period in the condition of those who had been removed from their homes by official order. Ethnic Japanese throughout North America, released from confinement, worked to establish themselves outside, whether in new communities outside the West Coast or (in the United States) in their former Pacific Coast locations. Impoverished by their removal and excluded from the wartime economic boom, most had to accept low-paying menial jobs and struggle to support themselves and their families. Because of lack of money for better housing, together with widespread racial discrimination, they were forced to crowd into housing in urban slum areas (often in racially shifting “buffer zones” between black and white areas). Meanwhile, thousands of Issei and Nisei in the United States and Canada who had agreed to deportation under duress or had been brought up from Latin America for internment were forced to battle in the courts to win the right to remain, while those who had been accepted “voluntary” expulsion to Japan had the task of beginning life anew in a devastated country most could only dimly recall or had never known. In both countries, as a matter of elementary justice, the government agreed to accept claims for compensation for property losses, but given the narrow range of the losses considered and the difficulty of proving amounts, the relief finally granted was more symbolic than real. All the same, the civil rights of people of Japanese ancestry were dramatically expanded in the postwar years. Nisei from British Columbia, who had been long deprived of voting rights throughout Canada, were at last enfranchised in 1949. Japanese Americans won signal victories in the Supreme Court over the alien land acts and other forms of racial discrimination, and in 1952 Issei were allowed to become American citizens.

Yet the variations across borders in official policies with regard to people of Japanese ancestry were no less significant, and those of the United States and Canada diverged dramatically. To be sure, despite various self-justifying assertions by Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King and political leaders in Ottawa that their arbitrary wartime treatment of Japanese Canadians was designed to coordinate with Washington’s, the two countries’ policies were in fact quite distinct from the start.[i] The WRA provided housing and education for camp inmates, sponsored camp newspapers, and supported leisure activities and cooperatives. Japanese Canadians did not receive such assistance and had to rely on religious and nonprofit groups for aid or use their own funds. Furthermore, the large-scale official confiscation and forced sale of the properties of Japanese Canadians had no parallel south of the border, while there were no battalions of Nisei soldiers in Canada (like those of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in America) to demonstrate the loyalty of the group. Postwar policy nonetheless differed in kind as well as degree between the two nations. In the United States, exclusion was lifted as of the beginning of January 1945, and Issei and Nisei returned to the West Coast in large numbers even before the war was over. Federal officials offered assistance to resettlers, and federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court, struck down West Coast legal discrimination against Japanese aliens. In contrast, Ottawa’s policy, designed to appease the demands of racist whites in British Columbia and to win their votes, was to pressure Japanese Canadians into giving up their citizenship and leaving the country entirely, or failing that, to move east of the Rockies and disperse into small groups. Japanese Canadians were not permitted to return to the West Coast until Spring 1949, and the former West Coast residents remained stripped of voting rights until that time.

How do we explain this striking contrast? It is tempting to make invidious comparisons between enlightened American rulers and bigoted Canadian ones, or to draw facile conclusions about national character. However, the truth is that the leadership of the two nations was not so far apart in their general ideas. Even after his advisors agreed in Spring 1944 that there was no longer any military threat justifying the continued existence of the camps, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt delayed lifting exclusion for six months out of political self-interest and fear of violent West Coast reaction. Similarly, the President and his advisors all agreed that Japanese Americans would be better off resettling in small groups outside the West Coast, and they devoted their efforts to promoting dispersion with such tools as they had. White House officials recognized, nonetheless, that they had no power to keep Japanese Americans from returning to their homes or to compel them to settle elsewhere. Mackenzie King and his cabinet, conversely, extended the authority they had been granted originally for national defense into the postwar period, despite the lack of any conceivable national security justification, and instituted a compulsory dispersal policy that resembled Roosevelt’s ideal policy.

Instead, the basic differences between the two countries were constitutional and political. Because of the liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, the powers that the U.S. government held over Japanese Americans were limited, especially once the war drew to a close. While the U.S. Supreme Court was prepared, in the Korematsu decision, to grant the army considerable leeway to take actions in the name of national security, the justices simultaneously ruled in Ex Parte Endo that loyal citizens could not be kept in confinement indefinitely, and later struck down wartime military rule in Hawaii in the case of Duncan v. Kahanamoku . The Court’s rulings lent constitutional approval, and political cover, to the lifting of exclusion, even before the end of the war. Canada’s Supreme Court, operating in a common-law system that enshrined parliamentary supremacy and did not include a bill of rights, upheld in the case of mass deportation the government’s ability to declare or extend its emergency powers. The cabinet thus was enabled to contemplate radical limitations on the fundamental liberties of citizens, even in peacetime.

The other consideration was the role of West Coast leaders in playing the race card. During the war years many California politicians, appealing to popular opinion, made public statements denouncing Japanese Americans as spies and opposing their postwar return to the coast. So strong was the opposition that John Bricker, Republican candidate for vice president in 1944, proposed that West Coast residents be permitted to vote on whether or not to permit Japanese Americans to return to their region. However, once the Supreme Court ruled and the army declared exclusion lifted, figures such as Governor Earl Warren and Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron called for public obedience to the orders and helped welcome the returning inmates. (By these actions, Warren may arguably have thereby succeeded in redeeming his tarnished reputation for civil rights, thereby making possible his emergence as a national political figure and his eventual appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.) As a result, terrorist attacks were not widespread and public tolerance began to prevail, at no apparent political cost to the public officials responsible. In contrast, British Columbia MPs and local leaders persisted in whipping up popular racism and brandishing the threat of violence to blackmail Ottawa into violating the rights of Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry. Cabinet ministers and advisors were unwilling to call their bluff, or to look at events south of the border in order to realize their error, and the Liberal Party suffered as a result the taint of bigotry and the loss of a pair of West Coast seats in the 1948 general election.


i. About the only detectable instance of any coordination took place in the spring of 1942, when the U.S. Army raised questions regarding the security of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, along which the “internee” camps were located at a number of points. “To minimize the threat of sabotage, Canada closed certain camps and took additional police measures elsewhere.” Dziuban, Military Relations between the United States and Canada , p. 284.


* 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

9066 Canada incarceration internment World War II