ON BEING “AMERICAN” : World War II JAPANESE INTERNMENT CAMPS

As a nation encompassing an array of cultures and colors, the United States has for a long time been domestically and internationally known as the “land of the free.” No matter our lineage, a childhood memory shared amongst us all is groggily heading to school and, first and foremost, pledging our allegiance to one flag. However, history as well as current events has shown us time and time again that the meaning behind being “American” has never had a fixed definition, let alone guaranteed us all the same rights. A moment in history that serves as an example of this malleability is the subsequent internment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans in the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.[1] Of particular interest to this paper is Norman Rockwell’s pre-Pearl Harbor painting of the “Four Freedoms.” This painting encompasses, as President Roosevelt notes, the “rights of men of every creed and every race… [and] the crucial difference between ourselves and the enemies we face today.” [2] As a symbol for long-established American values, this paper will further explore the ways in which these supposedly fixed values had been challenged during WWII, with special regard to those of Japanese descent. Moreover, this paper aims to present specific examples that highlight the ambiguity behind the meaning of being “American” within the nation at the time.

Rockwell’s January 4, 1941 painting had very explicitly detailed the following four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.[3] While these freedoms had generally been accepted to represent American values as a whole, this nevertheless led to varying interpretations of what they meant, and as we learn later on, whom they were allowed for when tragedies arise. The main theme that serves as most important, however, is the word most repeated: freedom. Once the Japanese army attacked Pearl Harbor, this became the headlining reason for the necessary U.S entry into the war. As the American people were riveted with images of die-hard, radical kamikaze pilots willing to die for their nation, fear had circulated and became one of the primary reasons for rising anti-Japanese sentiment. While these feelings were already very much around in Hawaii and the West Coast, hatred towards these “enemy aliens” had been officially enacted by the State through President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066.[4] The order had made no exception for Japanese-Americans, those born and raised in the very “land of the free.”

The Nisei directly affected by the order had to first figure out the right way to respond. That is, how would an “American” appropriately react to this order? Scholar Alice Yang Murray writes in What Did the Internment of Japanese Americans Mean?, “For many Japanese Americans, the stigma of suspected disloyalty and the loss of liberty inflicted the deepest wounds… As one internee recalled ‘The most valuable thing I lost was my freedom’”.[5] Through this small account, one can see how much freedom and liberty had been widely understood to be a natural right among the American-born. Had there been an understanding among the Nisei that this wasn’t so then perhaps the Execute Order would not have been so outstandingly regarded as un-American among scholars. One of two “options” left to those of Japanese-descent was to comply and leave for the camps in hopes of proving their American-ness and loyalty this way. The other option was to resist and stand up for one’s rights as American-born citizens.

The decision of whether or not to comply had been designated by government officials as a kind of loyalty test. Yang Murray points out that Representative Leland Ford had “developed a simple test of loyalty: any Japanese willing to go to a concentration camp was a patriot; therefore it followed that unwillingness to go was proof of disloyalty to the United States.” [6] This had also been a common interpretation among the Nisei and Issei who were more often prone to just comply in order to avoid the subsequent label of being Japanese spies and traitors. Furthermore, this reaction had also been encouraged from newspaper clippings showcasing how much praise could be gained from American government officials if they had only listened to the order. A 1941 article wrote of a Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) member’s letter to the State, Justice, and Navy Department:

Our faith that American sportsmanship and tolerance would triumph over hysteria and mob action in time of war has been justified … and considerate treatment given to American Citizens of Japanese ancestry and to their parents, who though excluded from naturalization by law, are in the main devoted and loyal to this great Republic.[7]

The Nisei and Issei, of course, were seeking much more than simple approval from American government officials; they were in search of acceptance from their fellow (white) Americans. An additional thing to note in this particular letter was the inclusion and loyalty to the Issei generation. As noted by Yang Murray, there had been tension between the Issei and Nissei, over the best way to hand the situation they were in. JACL leaders had mainly comprised of Nisei who thought, “cooperation, assimilation, and regaining the right to fight in the military were necessary to combat racism.” [8] Through the circulation of media like this, perhaps this could clear them of unfair suspicions that were widely held about anyone from the “enemy nation.”

Interesting enough, it turns out there was really no clear way for the Japanese to win his battle of proving one’s American-ness. American General John L. Dewitt had even noted, “There are going to be a lot of Japs who are going to say ‘oh yes, we want to go… We’re good Americans… but those are the fellows I suspect the most.”[9] These differing expectations and ways of evaluating whether or not someone of Japanese descent was loyal really highlights the importance of race and how much that truly shape(d/s) the “accepted American.” World War II “enemy nations” had after all included nations aside from Japan, such as Germany and Italy. While Murray notes that Americans of German and Italian descent has indeed been affected, nevertheless, it was never to the extent of issuing such as mass order like that of 9066.[10] Another thing that begs more attention is the fact that this policy never explicitly targeted the only group that was forced to follow it.[11] This decision could perhaps allude to this international role mentioned previously that needed to be upheld at a time when American capability as a global power had been challenged. When the U.S was fighting for a world that would prioritize freedom and liberty, the nation itself could not be so transparent about its own doing. As history and current events show, the U.S had prioritized the security of some at the expense of a “few.”

The flexibility of the “American” is also evident among the minority of Japanese who were able to either escape the internment camps completely and those who could apply for leave from the camps. As for the first group, there was a rising demand for labor because of the absence of workers drafted to fight in the war. Tad Sato had been one of the lucky few to escape the Executive Order completely. Instead, he worked on constructing the Great Northern Railroad.[12] When Sato is asked why he thinks he didn’t need to go to the camps, he expected to be told by the higher-ups that he was trustworthy. [13] However, he reveals, “But as it turned out, it was very pragmatic. He says, ‘Hey, we knew we were gonna be short on labor, so we’re planning on you people working to maintain the railroad.’ So that’s what happened.”[14] We can note themes of exploitation within this example and by examining the free status of Japanese Americans in Hawaii as well. Here, too, the Hawaiian economy could not afford to let go of its human capital “unless replaced by an equivalent labor force from the mainland”.[15] Through these anomalies, it’s hard not to notice American willingness to overlook “security threats” as long as there was use for their fellow “enemy aliens.”

Regarding those who had been interned, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) had allowed some to leave in order to help out other Americans. Within the camps, the internees had to be resourceful by growing their own food.[16] Of course, when situations arose that conveniently required human bodies to work on American fields in order to sustain an American war economy, white Americans sought and vied for these interned Japanese.[17] Yang Murray reveals “many farmers were eager to have Japanese American workers… this placed the camp in competition with the labor demand on the outside.”[18] Once again, the reaction among the WRA who oversaw the camps had varied and reveals once again the flexibility at the center of this paper. For example, one officer noted that “the most ‘loyal and willing workers’ the officer found, were the Issei men and women — coincidentally those least likely to be able to leave the camps in search of temporary work elsewhere.” [19] At this point, it’s clear how difficult it was to convince high officials of one’s loyalty to the American flag. It begs the question that I imagine was so often in the minds of internees:

Was it more “American” to leave and help out the national economy or to abide by a government order? Were the Japanese not expected to better their own situation or seek their own “freedom from want?”

This situation became all the more complex as it pertained to the drafting of some of these men to fight a war against the nation belonging to their mothers and fathers. One former internee, Rudy Tokiwa recalls having a meeting with other potential draftees, “‘Do you plan to go back to Japan after this is over?’ Some of ’em were saying, ‘Nah, I couldn’t, I wouldn’t be able to make it in Japan. I can’t hardly speak Japanese’… ‘Well, if we plan to settle in this country, we better be able to prove ourselves.’”[20] The Nisei in this group had clearly taken the path of demonstrating overt American patriotism by volunteering, reflecting similar sentiments as the JACL organization. Moreover, it’s important to also look at the ways in which second-generation Japanese were conflicted when it came down to who they were. Even if they absorbed more of the Japanese culture passed down from their parents, this of course does not serve as evidence for being anti-American in anyway. This period of explicit anti-Japanese sentiment brings up the obvious question: Can an American not be both?

Source: The New York Times Link: https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2017/02/08/rarely-seen-photos-japanese-internment-dorothea-lange/

Throughout these examples, we can confirm the problems behind these differing expectation for Japanese and Japanese Americans. It’s important to note as well that being born in the United States had been expected to give the Nisei a smaller advantage over their parents and other Issei. Clearly, however, this advantage proved to not fare better as Executive Order specified all persons of Japanese-descent, whether or not one was born here or legally allowed to exist. Of all the themes detailed here, there is one that has long been central to the meaning behind being American; that is, that the American mold did not include people of color. The only perspective that could ever have a power in affecting the situation of the interned Japanese were those of white Americans. Given the war hysteria, this category narrowed down to white Americans who had political, military, or even media power.

By learning about the inhumane and unjust internment of Japanese peoples in WWII, these historical accounts can help to shape an American future that learns from past mistakes. There should be a fixed understanding among everyone that an American can encompass different cultures and colors. As this understanding is hard to enforce, there is a need for the government to really enforce and protect the four freedoms promised for all.

[1] Eric Foner, “Give Me Liberty! An American History.” (New York: W.W Norton &

Company, 2017), 868.

[2] Ibid, 862.

[3] Ibid, 861.

[4] Yang Murray, Alice. What did the Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II mean? (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2000), 8.

[5] Ibid, 9.

[6] Yang Murray, Alice. What did the Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II mean? (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2000), 37.

[7] “Federal Officials Send JACL Praise. State, Navy And Justice Departments Are Appreciative Of Messages Of Assurances Sent By Headquarters. Wire Pledge Given to Roosevelt.” December 16, 1941. From Densho Digital Archive. Japanese American Courier Collection. http://archive.densho.org/main.aspx (accessed April 9, 2017).

[8] Yang Murray, Alice. What did the Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II mean? (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2000), 14.

[9] Yang Murray, Alice. What did the Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II mean? (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2000), 43.

[10] Ibid, 8.

[11] Ibid, 8.

[12] “Working for the Great Northern Railroad Allows Some to Avoid Concentration Camps (Tad Sato Segment 13)” by Stephen Fugita. From Densho, Densho Digital Archive. August 15 1998. Film. http://archive.densho.org/main.aspx (accessed April 9, 2017).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Yang Murray, Alice. What did the Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II mean? (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2000), 60.

[16] Ibid, 130.

[17] “Attending a Meeting to Decide How to Answer the So-Called “Loyalty Questions” by Tom Ikeda and Judy Niizawa. From Densho, Densho Digital Archive. July 2 & 3, 1998 Film. http://archive.densho.org/main.aspx (accessed Apr. 9, 2017).

[18] Yang Murray, Alice. What did the Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II mean? (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2000), 131–132.

[19] Yang Murray, Alice. What did the Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II mean? (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2000), 132.

[20] “Attending a Meeting to Decide How to Answer the So-Called “Loyalty Questions” by Tom Ikeda and Judy Niizawa. From Densho, Densho Digital Archive. July 2 & 3, 1998 Film. http://archive.densho.org/main.aspx (accessed Apr. 9, 2017).