Wednesday, June 19, 2024

A Portrait of Japanese America, in the Shadow of the Camps

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In the nineteen-twenties, United States officials began preparing for the possibility of war in the Pacific, and the consequences this would have for the territory of Hawaii. About a third of Hawaii’s population were people of Japanese descent, a community that had first arrived in the late eighteen-hundreds to work in the sugarcane and pineapple plantations. But the group remained largely mysterious to American leaders. If the United States went to war with Japan, a military study from 1929 concluded, “all Japanese, alien and Hawaiian-born . . . should be considered as enemy aliens.” The report echoed long-standing nativist fears that Asians were incapable of assimilation. Colonel John DeWitt, one of the architects of Japanese incarceration, foresaw the need for “complete military control over the Hawaiian islands,” including the suspension of civil liberties and the selective imprisonment of anyone considered threatening to local interests. As the so-called Japanese menace grew in the thirties and forties, so, too, did anxieties about what role this community might play in future conflicts. George S. Patton, who would later become a famed general, drew up a list of a hundred-and-twenty-eight influential community figures in Hawaii, including teachers, doctors, and a priest, who might be taken as “hostages” in the event of war with Japan. Franklin Roosevelt proposed a similar, secret list of suspected agitators who might be “the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble.”

There was little evidence that these communities were hotbeds of sedition. The late historian Gary Y. Okihiro argued that these suspicions were purely speculative, drawing from caricature rather than firsthand knowledge. In September, 1940, an F.B.I. report on the inner workings of the Japanese community bore this out, suggesting that “local alien Japanese” were “not organized for purposes of sabotage or subversive activity.” In fact, the younger, American-born Japanese seemed “predominantly loyal” to the United States. Whatever grievances these communities held, the report continued, owed to the discrimination they had experienced at the hands of white employers and landlords. “As a result, their resentment is directed more toward the Caucasian Race than the American government as such.”

Nonetheless, the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, fuelled racist paranoia. Shortly after the bombing, the columnist Walter Lippmann warned of a potential “fifth column”—subversives secretly living within the United States, plotting a “combined attack from within and from without.” He proposed a temporary, wholesale incarceration of the Japanese in America, even if it meant compromising on civil liberties. Some outspoken government officials agreed. “We want to keep this a white man’s country,” Bert Miller, the attorney general of Idaho, said. “All Japanese [should] be put in concentration camps for the remainder of the war.” On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which gave the War Department the authority to forcibly remove and relocate all persons of Japanese descent in the Western states. With little time to evacuate their homes, many lost their property and businesses; decades later, estimates placed the total monetary loss between four hundred million and three billion dollars. The Wartime Civil Control Administration commandeered fairgrounds, racetracks, and cattle halls for temporary shelter in the Western states, where Japanese communities were concentrated, while barracks were built. Yet some hard-liners, like Chase Clark, the governor of Idaho, felt these measures didn’t go far enough. Clark compared the Japanese to rats; his proposal was to send them all back to Japan, and then to “sink the island.”

About a hundred and twenty thousand people of Japanese descent—two-thirds of whom were American citizens—were incarcerated in ten camps throughout California, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas. Tellingly, there was no wholesale roundup of the Japanese in Hawaii, despite the long-standing fears over the islands’ proximity to Asia, a fact that suggests that what happened on the mainland was a deeply arbitrary interpretation of military necessity.

While Executive Order 9066 was largely met with doubt, despair, and anger among Japanese Americans, it also became a source of collective shame that was seldom discussed in the years that followed. Few stories of camp life were published until decades later. This spring, the writer Frank Abe and the literary historian Floyd Cheung published “The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration,” an essential volume that collects more than fifty accounts of Japanese life before, during, and after the war. The title alone is a bold assertion of identity: for decades, the wartime incarceration of the Japanese was described in euphemistic terms such as “relocation” or “internment.” And Abe and Cheung’s definition of “literature” is admirably broad, encompassing letters, editorials, poetry, short stories, manga, and government documents. While there have been many books written on the history of incarceration, few have captured the kind of emotional detail that comes through in the largely first-person accounts collected by Abe and Cheung. Their selections paint a complicated picture, convening hopeful, patriotic idealists, righteous firebrands, and downtrodden cynics.

Before the Second World War, one of the more pressing existential issues facing the Japanese American community seemed to be the generation gap between foreign-born immigrants—the issei, or first generation—and their American-born children, the nisei. In 1929, the Japanese American Citizens League was founded to help this latter group navigate what it meant to be American. (Until 1954, foreign-born Japanese people could not become American citizens through naturalization.) Organizations like the J.A.C.L. retained a modest faith in the powers of assimilation. Toshio Mori, whose short story collection, “Yokohama, California,” was completed before the Second World War, but not published until 1949, writes of a “perfect day” at the park as two Japanese American baseball teams squared off. “The outcome of the game and the outcome of the day do not matter,” he writes, of this carefree, quintessentially American afternoon. “That is left for moralists to work on years later.”

The bombing at Pearl Harbor put immediate pressure on many young Japanese Americans to figure out where they fit in. Many had grown up with only a tenuous link to Japan, yet they also lived in the shadow of racist policies, like laws prohibiting “alien” ownership of land. Abe and Cheung focus on this moment of fear, offering the perspective of people reckoning with the inflexibility of wartime politics. John Okada, who would go on to publish “No-No Boy,” a dark, tortured portrait of the postwar Japanese American community, in 1957, was a student at the University of Washington in 1941. He wrote an anonymous account for the school newspaper exploring his conflicted feelings. “My dark features are those of the enemy,” he writes, though his “heart is buried deep in occidental soil.” “People will say things, and people will do things, / I know they will, and I must be strong.”

When Milton Eisenhower, brother of the future President, was appointed to oversee the War Relocation Authority, in March, 1942, he knew almost nothing about the Japanese communities he was tasked with incarcerating. He asked Mike Masaoka, the head of the J.A.C.L., for his thoughts. That April, Masaoka provided Eisenhower with eighteen pages of recommendations to promote assimilation and indoctrination within the concentration camps. Masaoka believed that his community had a patriotic duty to abide by Executive Order 9066. Not only that—he felt the camps could be used to produce “Better Americans” through further assimilation. “We do not relish the thought of ‘Little Tokyos’ … for by so doing we are only perpetuating the very things which we hope to eliminate: those mannerisms and thoughts which mark us apart, aside from physical characteristics.” As such, Masaoka hoped that those incarcerated would have “as much intercourse with ‘white’ Americans” as possible. He discouraged the use of Japanese in camp schools, writing that “special stress should be laid on the enunciation and pronunciation of words so that awkward and ‘Oriental’ sounds will be eliminated.”

Still, many instantly condemned the government’s actions. One of the most full-throated reactions came when the journalist James Omura testified in front of the House Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration, in February, 1942. “Has the Gestapo come to America? Have we not risen in righteous anger at Hitler’s mistreatment of the Jews?” Omura asked. “Then, is it not incongruous that citizen Americans of Japanese descent should be similarly mistreated and persecuted?”

Some of the book’s most engrossing scenes come during the early days of relocation, when the Japanese had to take it on faith that they would one day be free again. Charles Kikuchi, whose personal journals wouldn’t be published until 1973, was a student at U.C. Berkeley when his family submitted to incarceration. “Oh, oh, there goes a ‘thing’ in slacks and she is taking pictures of that old Issei lady with a baby,” he writes, possibly referring to the photographer Dorothea Lange, who famously documented the implementation of the executive order for the War Relocation Authority. “She says she is the official photographer, but I think she ought to leave these people alone.” Kikuchi suggests that many of the old-timers around him are still inebriated from the previous night, while many of the younger people look “like they are going on vacation.” Lily Yuriko Nakai Havey, in an account first published in 2014, recalls a surreal moment on her train ride to the camps, when a group of Navajo people boarded during a rest stop and provided them with pieces of fry bread. “When the train pulled away, we fell into bemused wonder. How did they know about us? Did the train really stop? Was this a dream?”

Conditions in the camps were spartan. Armed guards patrolled the barbed-wire fence; on April 11, 1943, a sixty-three-year-old man named James Hatsuaki Wakasa was shot dead by a guard for walking too close to it. Inside, barracks lacked insulation, and the bathrooms were communal, leaving people very little privacy. “You couldn’t even have diarrhea without people noticing,” Alice, a character in Hiroshi Nakamura’s “Treadmill,” complains. The book, unpublished until 2011, is believed to be the only novel written in English by a Japanese American while incarcerated in the camps. The excerpt included in Abe and Cheung’s collection features a character attempting to escape, a rare occurrence back then.

Over time, anger and despair gave way to feelings of resignation. The poet Bunichi Kagawa writes of how young Japanese Americans “calmed ourselves,” making the most of a terrible situation. “The quality of life in camp attained this level because we were able to regain a sense of who we were. . . . What we managed to accomplish with our mere hands and feet permeated our environment.” Kagawa poured his energies into writing, co-founding a magazine called Tessaku, which published stories and poems from inside the camps.

This range of perspectives, from Masaoka’s conciliatory patriotism to an anonymous verse cursing the “DAMNED FENCE,” offers a sense of the community’s complexity. What they shared was a feeling of powerlessness. Reflecting on his decision years later, Masaoka explained that he had hoped a policy of loyal coöperation would get everyone home sooner. “I was determined that J.A.C.L. must not give a doubting nation further cause to confuse the identity of Americans of Japanese origin with the Japanese enemy.” The Mothers Society of Minidoka—a camp in Hunt, Idaho—drafted a letter to President Roosevelt and the First Lady, asking that their children be allowed to leave the camps in order to enlist and serve their country. They received a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt concurring that this would, indeed, help win the sympathy of their fellow-Americans. At the bottom of the letter is a note from the White House staff: “Dictated but Mrs. Roosevelt had to leave before signing.”

In February, 1943, the War Relocation Authority and the War Department administered a questionnaire designed to affirm the loyalty of those incarcerated in camps. It also offered draft-age men the opportunity to enlist in the military, if they answered affirmatively to two questions. The first asked their willingness to serve in the armed forces, wherever ordered; the second required their “unqualified allegiance to the United States,” as well as their renunciation of Japan. Approximately twelve thousand young men volunteered for service. The well-documented heroism of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, which consisted almost entirely of American soldiers of Japanese ancestry, was a boon for wartime morale.

Yet the loyalty questionnaire was divisive within the camps. One in five nisei—the American-born, second-generation Japanese Americans—refused to answer, answered no, or qualified their answers to one of these two questions. Draft resisters organized sizable protests, particularly at the camps in Poston, Arizona, and Heart Mountain, Wyoming. At the Tule Lake Segregation Center, in California, they were met with violence.

These men would later be seen as heroes. But what’s striking about Abe and Cheung’s collection, particularly in these moments of rebellion, are the modest hopes held by those incarcerated. “I just wanted to be who I was—a Japanese American, an American of Japanese descent, an American citizen,” the poet and playwright Hiroshi Kashiwagi writes. He was in his twenties during his incarceration. Kashiwagi refused to enlist, and he grew dismayed by the harsh treatment of his fellow draft resisters. “I renounced my American citizenship at Tule Lake,” he writes, but he came to feel like it “was the dumbest thing I ever did in my life.” Yet this was a no-win situation. How else to reckon with the paradox of your government seeking patriotic obedience while stripping you of your rights? “Living under such pressure, it’s inevitable that there should be doubts and questions about your actions, as well as feelings of guilt. Were my actions wrong or bad? What kind of man did this make me?”

Okihiro, the historian, whose book “Cane Fires,” from 1991, tracked the roots of anti-Japanese sentiment in Hawaii in the eighty years leading up to the Second World War, passed away late last month, at the age of seventy-eight. I’d been rereading his book alongside Abe and Cheung’s collection when I learned of his death. Okihiro grew up on a sugar plantation on Oahu, in Hawaii. “Cane Fires” grew out of his firsthand perspective of how wartime jingoism bore down on individuals, like his parents and grandparents, who “burned and buried” all traces of Japanese culture, like flags, letters, and records. An influential scholar and inspiring teacher known for his generous, mellow vibe, Okihiro later reflected on the deep psychological wounds that remained. “It was not so much the loss of property that bothered Japanese Americans,” he explained in an interview that he did in 2010. “It was the loss of their humanity, their dignity as people. Because they were treated as subhuman, treated like cattle: rounded up, given tags with numbers instead of names, put into cattle trucks to be assembled in horse stalls, or race tracks and fairgrounds, then to be dumped in horse stalls that still reeked of manure.”

In December, 1944, the Supreme Court ruled that the government could not indefinitely detain a citizen who was “concededly loyal” to the United States, leading the way for the Roosevelt Administration to rescind Executive Order 9066 and allow for Japanese Americans to leave the camps. Each person was given twenty-five dollars and a train ticket to go wherever they wanted to go. Settling nearby was rarely an option. The Wyoming legislature, fearful that Japanese Americans from neighboring states who’d been incarcerated at the Heart Mountain camp would eventually want to settle in the region, passed a law that would “prevent Asiatic aliens from buying or owning property” in the state. Returning to the West Coast, Japanese Americans faced discrimination in the job and housing markets.

Few of the writers in “The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration” expected to be read decades later, if at all. Some were merely keeping records for themselves. After the war, there was little hurry to revisit this moment of victimhood; the few who wanted to share their experiences with a broader readership found there was no real market for books about such a dark chapter of American history. Instead of dwelling on their plight, many Japanese Americans sought to reintegrate themselves into the mainstream. Once seen as an alien threat, they were now embraced as exemplary Americans. In 1966, the sociologist William Petersen wrote in the New York Times of the unusual “success story” of this community. “Barely more than twenty years after the end of the wartime camps, this is a minority that has risen above even prejudiced criticism. By any criterion of good citizenship that we choose, the Japanese Americans are better than any other group in our society, including native-born whites.”

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