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A ‘Comprehensive Treatment’ of the Wartime Incarceration of Japanese Americans

During the 1980s, I was privileged to co-direct the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project (OCJAOHP), jointly sponsored by the Japanese American Council of the Historical and Cultural Foundation of Orange County and the Japanese American Project of the Oral History Program at California State University, Fullerton. In addition to producing 15 bilingual oral history volumes with pioneering Issei and Nisei, this project yielded a survey of Japanese American historical sites in Orange County and gave rise to the 1989 publication by Lynx Books of an epic historical novel, The Harvest of Hate.

Originally written in 1946 by a World War II mathematics teacher at the Poston Relocation Center named Georgia Day Robertson, the published version included a preface by Hiroshi Kamei, who as a high schooler was among the some 2,000 Orange County Nikkei imprisoned at the Arizona detention camp. He credited his mathematical class work under Robertson’s direction for inspiring both his postwar graduation from Pasadena’s California Institute of Technology and his distinguished career as a mechanical engineer and aerospace company manager. Throughout the course of the OCJAOHP, for which Kamei was a prime mover, he exuded great pride in the volunteer work of his attorney daughter Susan as a member of the Japanese American Citizens League’s legislative strategy team in the Japanese American redress and reparations movement.

Although I have never met Susan Kamei in person, my reading of her bountiful book here under review redeemed for me the promissory note floated by her late Nisei father so many years ago as to her dedication to the cause of placing the landmark World War II Japanese American story into an enlarged and suitable perspective. After a stimulating foreword by Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, the author of When Can We Go Back to America? provides a short introduction stressing her father’s pivotal role in her career decision as a Sansei to become a lawyer and to then work alongside of him (and many others) for over a decade on achieving redemption and modest compensation for those 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry who were unjustly evicted from their mostly West Coast homes and incarcerated within inland American-style concentration camps.

Kamei then embarks on a five-part series covering 355 pages consisting for the most part of her narrative account of the period spanning Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the passage of the Civil Liberties Act on Aug. 10, 1988, interspersed with overwhelmingly Japanese American voiced commentaries relative to differing facets of the WWII Japanese American experience drawn from “previously published works, oral histories, congressional testimonies, or works in the public domain” (p. xi). She next devotes a sixth part of her monumental book, a total of 161 pages, to providing substantial biographical entries relative to those individuals whose first-person voices she has drawn upon to vivify and supplement her third-person overview. She then rounds out her book with a variety of very useful appendices along with other vitally significant informational items.

With respect to her narration, it is superlative in every important respect: well-researched and documented, exquisitely expressed, judiciously reasoned, and self-effacingly represented. Some readers may find the biographies of her “contributors” excessive, but I found each of them both interesting and revealing and I applaud Kamei for generously conferring upon these individuals the status of veritable co-authors of When Can We Go Back to America?

Insofar as I have a reservation about this book, which I regard as among the very best comprehensive treatments of its consequential subject matter, it involves Kamei on two occasions presenting moot points as matters of congealed historical fact. In the first instance, she unambiguously writes that “Rosalie [Hankey] Wax, a field worker from the Japanese and American Resettlement Study, made a false allegation against him [Ernest Kinzo Wakayama] to the FBI, claiming he was a ruthless gang leader” (p. 212). In the second case, Kamei unequivocally states that during the Dec. 8, 1945, presentation by General Joseph Stilwell of a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross to Staff Sgt. Kazuo Masuda at his family’s farm in Fountain Valley, California, “Kazuo’s mother refused the medal in protest for having lost her son while being incarcerated by the country he’d been serving” (p. 273). Kamei may be correct in these assertions, but I would have liked seeing from her the documentation supporting them, since I believe them to be at this point debatable.

 

WHEN CAN WE GO BACK TO AMERICA? VOICES OF JAPANESE AMERICAN INCARCERATION DURING WWII
By Susan H. Kamei
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021, 736 pp., $22.99, hardcover)

 

*This article was originally published in the Nichi Bei Weekly on January 1, 2022.

 

© 2022 Arthur A. Hansen / Nichi Bei Weekly

incarceration Susan Kamei When Can We Go Back to America? World War II