Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Japanese American Incarceration During WWII

Note: After hearing Wendy Maruyama speak, I've decided to follow Densho's terminology convention for the Japanese American incarceration during WWII. I had been taught to refer to it at the "Japanese American internment".

Imagine that one day you hear someone hammering on the outside of your home. You open the door to find a member of the United States armed forces hammering a notice onto your home. It seems the president recently signed an executive order allowing the military declare the area you live in a "military area" and relocate you. To where? He doesn't know. For how long? He doesn't know that either. You're allowed only one bag each so it can't be that long can it? Can you refuse to leave? Absolutely not. You have 48 hours to pack and report to your local train station. What about your dog and cat? Don't be ridiculous, of course they can't come!

So, why are you being relocated? Because the United States is at war with the country your grandparents are from - the country of Atlantis. Are you Atlantish? No. You're an American citizen. Do you speak Atlantish? Barely. You can understand some of what your older relatives say when they speak Atlantish but you always roll your eyes and tell them to speak English. Have you ever visited Atlantis? No.

Suddenly, your neighbors come bounding up your stairs, cash in hand. They offer to buy your $3,000 flat screen for $20. You can't take your 2 year old car. They offer you $100 for it. That $1,000 sofa set? They'll give you $50 for that. WTF?

Sound insane? This is what tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were experiencing beginning on February 25, 1942, six days after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War, "to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion."

E.O. 9066 resulted in General John L. DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Command, issuing Civilian Exclusion Orders, so he could cart off people of Japanese ancestry, both citizens and non-citizens alike. More than 60% of the Japanese incarcerated by these orders were American citizens.

Japanese people being rounded up to be sent off to camp.

Are you thinking, "Oh, that would never happen today,"? One of my favorite quotes ever was written in 1905 by philosopher George Santayana.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." 
I heard it as a child and it's stayed with me. Unfortunately, even when people remember, some people think the incarceration was a great idea. Conservative commentator, Michelle Malkin (who is Asian American, by the way), wrote a book in favor of internment in 2004.

Apparently they sell it at the Manzanar bookstore. At Eric Muller's talk, Paul Watanabe, director of the IAAS, told us an anecdote he heard from a student who is currently on an archeological dig at Manzanar. Someone came into the bookstore, purchased Ms. Malkin's book, and proceeded to tear it up at the register. We all laughed, but clearly this person was angry about the book, and the book is no laughing matter.

Some people think it's absolutely logical that we locked up people of Japanese ancestry. We were at war! My favorite little discussed fact about the Japanese during WWII is that:
"In fact, during World War II, no Japanese American in the U.S., Hawaii or Alaska, citizen or immigrant, was ever convicted of espionage or sabotage."
Source: Sites of Shame: Background - Mass removal of U.S. citizens.
Something else that isn't discussed much is that the vast majority of Hawaii's Japanese population wasn't locked up. In 1942 Hawaii was still a territory, not a state, but E.O. 9066 still applied to Hawaii. Using the "logic" that the Japanese people were a threat to national security, all Hawaiian Japanese should have also been locked up.
Yet only about 1% of Hawaii's Japanese population was incarcerated. Many were sent to mainland camps but some were held in Hawaii (a fact missing from many history books. I grew up thinking there were no camps in Hawaii and didn't learn about them until recently). According to my relatives they took only the educated, wealthy, community leaders. Basically anyone with any influence. Why? My mom told me it was due to economic interests - imagine if you locked up that much of the workforce. So many of the Japanese were laborers on the plantations. Even with the other nationalities they wouldn't have been able to harvest all the crops. It would have affected Hawaii's entire economy. General Delos Emmons, the commanding general of the Hawaiian Department, resisted all calls for a wholesale incarceration of Hawaii's Japanese population. It seems he may have been a far more open and fair-minded man than General DeWitt, but he also had to have been aware of the economic realities.

So, why were the mainland Japanese and Japanese Americans locked up? Last week I came across this paper suggesting that the mainland incarceration was driven by the labor unions. The Japanese were successful farmers all up and down the West Coast which upset a number of white people. There were groups working against the Japanese before, during, and after the war to limit their ability to own property, and keep them from living in/returning to their areas. It seems clear to me that the mainland incarceration was driven by racism.

Last weekend I attended 2 talks and an art exhibit about the Japanese American incarceration during WWII. I'll write about them in the next two posts.

Eric Muller: Colors of Confinement - Book Talk @ UMass Boston
Wendy Maruyama: Executive Order 9066 - Artist Talk & Exhibit @ SAC

For further reading, please visit Densho.

For information about the incarceration in 日本語, please visit the Hirasaki National Resource Center Materials List.

11/18/15: I have been remiss in failing to note that Japanese and Japanese Americans were not the only ones to be incarcerated during the war because of their ancestry. These incarcerations were not as widespread as the Japanese and Japanese American incarceration but the numbers were not insignificant. While German Americans and Italian Americans seem to have been the most common groups to be incarcerated, the Honouliuli Internment Camp on Oahu is said to have held other Europeans as well: "Italian, Irish, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Finnish ancestry; most arrested and detained as “Germans,” despite their U.S. citizenship and their non-German ancestry".

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