History as we know only consists of the conclusions of previous historians and documentation. Whether we accept these conclusions as valid representation of the past is our own choice, and the past holds us responsible to evaluate it justly. This essay explores some of the historiography available thus on the racial prejudices that faced Americans of Japanese origins during the Second World War.
Although the WW II was a vital event to the American history, its repercussions on the American citizens is often swept under the rug of historical radar. The stories of the Japanese -Americans, as told by twenty-first century historians vary in focus and content (Chang 2).
The association between Americans and Japanese began in the late 1941 when Japan initiated an attack on the United States Naval base in Hawaiian island of Oahu forcing the US into the 2nd world war. The Japanese attack cost US 170 airplanes and about 4000 American lives. Following this attack, the then U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order on February 1942 fearing that the Americans of Japanese origin would assist the enemy (Japan).
The order permitted the state agencies to move thousands of Americans of Japanese origin into isolated zones where they became virtually incarcerated. In the same year, the United State’s War Relocation Authority set up relocation centers in six states for Americans of Japanese origin to settle during this period. The most famous of these relocation centers was the Manzanar relocation center which was situated near Lone, California (Wakatsuki 1).
In this historical paper, I will argue that the current stories asserting that racial science and eugenics are not exclusively Nazi anti-Semitic ideology, but rather a more complex transnational and multifaceted context in which these sciences must be considered.
This essay will emphasize on racial discrimination towards Japanese Americans in the United States during the 2nd World War which led to the creation of 442nd Regiment Combat Team (Comprising of Japanese American soldiers). The subject of racial identity is strong because these Japanese fought for America against their native country even after facing racial prejudice in the U.S (Chang 2-3).
Jean Wakatsuki’s account
In her memoir “Farewell to Manzanar “published in the early 70s, Jean Wakatsuki describes the lives OF Japanese Americans in the concentration camps in Manzanar following the presidential order. This memoir was adapted for a movie in the mid 70s. The book and the movie describe the lives of Jean and James’ family (who represent the Americans of Japanese origin) in the Manzanar camp. The story evolves around Jean who is an American Citizen by naturalization and a second -generation Japanese.
The story embarks on December 1941 when the maternal side of Jean’s family was bidding farewell to their husbands who were fishermen heading to the sea. The news that Japan (their native country) had bombed U.S. (their adopted country) came as shock to Jean’s grandma and Grandpa. They rushed home to destroy the Japanese artifacts fearing that that their ties with Japan might cause them trouble (Wakatsuki 3).
As the U.S. became more involved in the 2nd world war, Ko Wakatsuki (Jean’s father) was taken into custody over fake charges of treason for selling oil to his native land. Jean’s family was forced to shift from their home to Terminal Island where their oldest son resided.
Eventually, the President issued an order to relocate Americans of Japanese decent into relocation camps. After numerous attempts of relocating, Jean’s family found themselves in Manzanar relocation camp. At the camp, the family of twelve members was given a barrack which was in a dilapidated condition (Wakatsuki 5).
Ko Wakatsuki soon joined the family, but his false incarceration left him very harsh and overpowered. Once a proud and decent man from a noble family of Samurai, he transformed into a total wreck. Humiliated by his arrest and the current situation, Papa Wakatsuki changed into an alcoholic forgetting his family honor.
Regardless of his noticeable blemish of pride and haughtiness, Ko was a very fine man who had numerous skills. Having left his native country for U.S. in search of the American dream, Ko was totally destroyed by being held captive in a concentration camp (Wakatsuki 23).
The conditions in the camp gradually wore down the family unit. Ko drank excessively and habitually abused his wife. The older children were forced to take jobs within and outside the concentration camp.
The little ones entertained themselves by loitering around the camp unsupervised. Gradually, Wakatsuki family became used to the life in the concentration camp. Two years later, the Americans of Japanese origins were forced to take an oath of allegiance or else be sent back to their native country. The oath was a show of loyalty and willingness to fight the common enemy (Japan). Woody and Ko filled the form reluctantly.
Just after the family had settled very well in the concentration camp when the government had availed the social facilities, the camp was closed down. The majority of the Americans of Japanese decent were left without homes and in abject poverty. They were forced to go back to a society that had lost trust in them and detested them. They had lost everything when they were relocated into the concentration camps and at this moment they owned nothing (Wakatsuki 53).
Jean’s story leaves us with a lot of questions and dilemma on the true American identity. According to the story, Jeanne’s Japanese identity clashes with her American identity since (according to the public perception during that time) Americans and Japanese were completely different people.
This prejudice made it difficult for Jeanne to hold onto the American identity as well as maintain her native culture. At Manzanar, Jeanne was unable to maintain her American identity when she was released from the concentration camp and set free. She was also not able to retain her native (Japanese) identity.
Given that the Japanese were looked down upon by the public, maintaining American and Japanese identity became very difficult for Jeanne. Jeanne saw how the Americans were scared as a result of the 2nd world war and their justification for incarcerating the Japanese in camps. Jean also felt a lot of pain by the manner in which Americans with Japanese roots were being treated (Wakatsuki 3-4).
The non-Japanese played a major role in this story. The people who were ordered to incarcerate the Japanese or put them in the concentration camps were non-Japanese. They also included the guards and soldiers who kept vigil at the concentration camps. Even after the closure of the camp, there were non-Japanese people who had significant impact on Jeanne especially at school.
Her classmates and friend treated and viewed her differently from other American students. Even their parents viewed her very differently and were very suspicious of her. They did not allow Jeanne to join student clubs or befriend their children because she was Japanese. Jeanne became the center of attention because of her Japanese roots. She recalled numerous obnoxious memories from the non-Japanese Americans in her life (Wakatsuki 25).
Jeanne found out that instead of shunning the non-Japanese for forcing them into concentration camps, she became the main victim of detestation. She was hated by the general public because of her Japanese connection and was even associated with her native country. Following the Japanese attacks on the Americans naval bases, she was considered evil and dreadful. The public assumed that she was like Japanese U.S. was fighting and therefore directed all their anger and hatred towards her.
The situation was further worsened by the U.S. propaganda against Japan and its people. They depicted Japanese people as wicked and threateningly vindictive. The images painted by the government made the non-Japanese Americans to hate Japanese people even more. Jeanne established that the non-Japanese Americans presented their bitterness on the Japanese people even after the war came to an end (Wakatsuki 26).
Racism before and after the attack on the Pearl’s Harbor
According to Sahina Robert, attack on Pearl Harbor increased the already prominent racial animosity directed towards the Japanese and other Asian immigrants living in United States. This phenomenon can be traced back to the late 19th century. This animosity and fear was evident in the discriminatory laws against the Americans with Japanese origin (particularly the Issei) who were born in Japan and migrated to America.
Before the 2nd World War, the Issei were denied American citizenship and were not allowed to own land in America. They were also not permitted to marry American citizens or seek employment in some areas. In addition, there was a very strong anti-Japanese sentiment in the West (Asahina 2).
In the early 20th century, the U.S government worked out an agreement with the Japanese government. In this agreement, the Japanese citizens bound for U.S were not to be issued with passports. This accord stemmed from the Anti-Japanese groups in the state of California where there was high level of racial segregation.
Some historians attribute this legal and social prejudice to economic competition between Japan and U.S during that era. Regardless of the fact that Americans-Japanese citizens owned small parcels of land, their success in Agriculture caused fear and bitterness (Asahina 2-3).
The native farmers were too happy to see the Japanese Americans sent to the concentration camps. There was also anxiety among the White Americans at the manner in which the Japanese were gaining popularity and influence in the West Coast.
They felt that the Japanese were so different from other European groups and hence could not be assimilated in their way of life. There was a popular belief among the natives that Japanese Americans practiced strange religion, were educated in their native country and were still fond of their native country (Asahina 4).
Following the attack on the Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, the United States government started to use propaganda. Much of it touched on the racial aspect that encouraged the natives to detest the Japanese natives by comparing them to parasites and beasts rather than focusing on defeating the Japanese military.
Even the American media (during that time) depicted Japanese people as sub-humans. They referred to them as “Nip”, an offensive Japanese slang. Moreover, they depicted Japanese people using various offensive pictorial images such as Apes and demons (Asahina 8).
In the present day, many Americans are very much ashamed with the manner in which the U.S government and the non-Japanese treated Japanese Americans during that time. However, such kind of mistreatment enjoyed widespread popular support during that era because of the abovementioned propaganda. As a matter of fact, many people were complaining that the government was not doing enough to avert the attack. The sending off of Japanese Americans into the concentration camps was greatly influenced by how the general public portrayed them (Asahina 12).
President Roosevelt’s decision was largely influenced by his advisors most notably secretary of war Henry Stimson and General John Dewitt. These two were major proponents of concentration camps and were profound racists. They believed that Japanese were very likely to sponsor terrorism because it was in their blood.
The main reason given for sending the Japanese Americans to the concentration camps was because the government believed that they were still loyal to their native country and could act as spies. This was worsened by the anti-Japanese sentiments after the attack of the Pearl Harbor. The popular pressure forced the United States government to address the matter immediately and with drastic measures (Asahina 18).
Following the attack of the Pearl Harbor, there was a general belief that Americans of Japanese origins living there could have assisted the Japanese government in carrying out the attacks through the provision of intelligence.
This was among the reasons used by the government to send the Japanese Americans into the concentration camps. Regardless of the government’s claim that action was necessary to avert further espionage by the enemy at that time, up to now there is no evidence linking Japanese Americans to support military repression.
The U.S intelligence also investigated the possibility of shore-to-ship signaling from the Japanese Americans. However, they did not found any evidence linking them to acts of terrorism. In addition, numerous communication devices were taken away from Japanese American homes after through search without reasonable cause. Nonetheless, these devices were also found in the homes of many Native Americans (Asahina 20).
During the war and after the incarceration of the Japanese Americans, the American public was shown video footage and pictures that justified the confinement of Japanese Americans in the concentration camps.
American movie theatres showed how the Japanese Americans were very happy in the concentration camps and were enthusiastically waiting for the American victory against the Japanese military. Majority of the media were dominated by Japanese war atrocities against the Chinese and the oppression of the Americans in Philippines. In other words, the media content was full of Japanese brutality, their viciousness and cruelty (Asahina 24).
The military personnel were shown pictures of Japanese people as fanged creatures. They were even required to watch a string of state-produced films entitled “Why We Fight”. These films depicted Japanese people as brutal imperialists who were up to control the world.
The official and the unofficial propaganda used in U.S during that time promoted what historical experts refer to as “executionist” mentality towards the Japanese people. This type of mentality seemed to rationalize the mass killing of Japanese civilian and soldiers. It is worthy to mention that this strategy was used by both sides during the World War II and on the frontlines separating the enemies and non-enemies.
Therefore, just like the American public, the American soldiers also regarded the Japanese people as subhuman and majority of them believed that killing as many Japanese as possible was a justified course to take. The Japanese people were not only discriminated because of their skin color, but were perceived as totally opposite of the American people (Asahina 25-26).
Following the attacks, any leader of the Japanese community living in U.S or anyone suspected of having links with the Japan was incarcerated. The U.S treasury also froze all the accounts of Japanese citizens living in U.S. In addition, there was a compulsory curfew on the Japanese Americans who were subjected to carrying identity cards wherever they went and their homes were searched without any warrants.
When the Japanese Americans were being sent to the concentration camps, they were instructed to carry along only a few of their possessions. Some of the American Japanese were even forced to sell all their assets and businesses for a few bucks or give them up given that they had no other option (Asahina 28).
In the concentration camps, the Japanese Americans were faced with military barracks type of housing located in isolated desert. The camps were under military surveillance and surrounded by barbed wires with guards everywhere. Social amenities were haphazardly availed and were not well built.
These facilities were frail with a lot of cracks. Insects and small but dangerous animals like snakes could find there way into homes. Some of the houses in the concentrations camps were once used as horse stalls before the relocation. The heat from the desert enhanced the unpleasant smell from the old horse manures and attracted a lot of flies (Asahina 30).
The government considered the concentration camps as temporary and therefore did not want to invest significant amount of money on them especially with the rising cost of defense during that time.
Therefore, the concentration camps lacked all kind of supplies, aid workers and some basic facilities. Adding more salts to the already agonizing wound, some families were separated from their loved ones. For instance, those who were suspected to be trouble makers or spies were placed under solitary confinement away from their friends and families (Asahina 31).
Despite of all these atrocities, majority of the Americans including the Japanese Americans believed that the only way to prove their devotion was to voluntarily move to the concentration camps and help the U.S in fighting their enemy, a sentiment that was widely spread through the media.
Japanese Americans in the concentration camps just like other Americans were also involved in the activities that supported the war effort. They were assigned jobs like making military uniforms and parachutes and were paid a little amount for doing these jobs.
Majority of them grew and canned food for their own subsistence use and send some to the troops. Factory and service jobs within the concentration camps were considered as suitable wartime occupation for the loyal Japanese Americans by the U.S government. Most people in the concentration camps joined Japanese American Citizens league to prove their loyalty to the US (Asahina 35).
The biggest contribution of the Japanese Americans came from the highly decorated Nisei Soldiers. Even before the drafting or incarceration of the Japanese Americans, many of Japanese Americans were already willing to serve their country.
More than thirty thousands Nisei soldiers fought in the 2nd world war, irrespective of the fact that many of their families were being held in the concentration camps. Most of these soldiers served in the European campaigns for fear of becoming treacherous if they served in the Pacific. Nonetheless, some of them served as translators and were taught in the U.S Military Intelligence Service Language School.
The Nisei soldiers earned several accolades for their loyalty and service to the country. Examples of Nisei soldiers are 100th battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, with the latter mainly consisting of Nisei coming from the concentration camps. The 100th Battalion served in North Africa and Italy. In addition, they suffered numerous casualties and earned themselves 900Purple Heart decorations (Asahina 45).
The racism against the Japanese Americans was rampant even before the Japanese invasion on the Pearl Harbor. As a matter of fact, it is believed that the racial prejudice was one of the factors that influenced the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The extent of racism that existed between Japan and America was worse than German and American racism which existed in the 1st world war but was not prominent in the 2nd world war.
This was attributed to the fact that majority of Americans had German roots. It is significant to note that President Roosevelt’s order did not exclusively apply to Japanese Americans. The order also applied to German and Italian Americans who were considered as enemies and were forced to move (Asahina 48).
The work of the activists
As the war ensued, a number of U.S officials started to debate on the continued incarceration of the Japanese Americans. This was because the cost of running those camps was becoming too high for the government and the public was still in fear of the subversive acts.
The U.S Government even came up with a questionnaire to test the loyalty of the Japanese Americans in the concentration camps. These questionnaires were also used to screen out the Nisei to be drafted into the armed forces. There was a second questionnaire to test those who were not qualified for armed services.
This questionnaire was used to release the loyal Japanese Americans from the concentration camps provided that they were not going back to the west coast. The government closed down the last camp in 1946 without fully compensating those who had lost their belongings. They were only given around $50 per family or $20 per individual and fare to wherever they were moving to (Asahina 60).
In the mid 40s, the Japanese American Citizen’s League and American Civil Liberties Union sued the government with regard to the executive order 9066. They argued that none of those people taken to the concentration camps had ever taken part in subversive or spying activities.
A number of these cases reached the Supreme Court but the court ruled that the curfew placed on the Japanese Americans during that time was constitutional. The court stated that confinement of the Japanese Americans in the internship camps was not against the law but barred the government from preventing the interns from moving to whatever direction they preferred (Asahina 75).
However, a couple of decades later, the Japanese American Citizens League launched a campaign to secure reparation from the congress for the internment survivors, an official apology from the government and a trust fund for the children of internees. In 1980, a commission was set up by President Carter to investigate the internment and the atrocities committed against the Japanese Americans during the 2nd World War.
The commission’s report, “Justice Denied” established that the confinement of Japanese Americans in the concentration camps was not just and urged the government to apologize to the victims, compensated the survivors 20000 dollars per head, and set up an educational trust fund as demanded by the Japanese American Citizens League to educate American Japanese children (Asahina 80).
The initial redress legislation was not presented in Congress until two years later in 1983, and was not passed until late 1980s due to lack of enough funds in the treasury and the ruling of the Supreme Court in 1946. President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988 and lastly the demands of the commission and Japanese American Citizens League were enforced (Asahina 81-82).
The 442nd Infantry Regiment
The 442nd infantry regiment previously known as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was a military unit composed mainly of Asian Americans particularly Japanese Americans. They fought for U.S in Europe during the 2nd World War. In spite of the fact that many of their families were held up in the concentration camps, this military unit was a force to reckon with.
They fought with exceptional distinction in Italy, Germany and France. This unit became famous and was the most decorated battalion unit in the history of the United States armed forces (Chang 2).
Before the attack on the Pearl’s Harbor, most of the Japanese Americans who fought in the 2nd World War were sons and daughters of the Japanese immigrants born in U.S. Later on (following the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor) they were considered as enemies and were not eligible to serve in the armed forces.
The executive order signed by President Roosevelt gave the military commanders authority to determine at their own discretion the people they deemed fit to serve in the armed forces. Although the President Roosevelt’s order did not particularly refer to the Americans with Japanese origin, it set up a precedent for the confinement of the Japanese Americans in the concentration camps (Chang 2).
In 1942, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt (who was in charge of the Western Defense Command) ordered the relocation of Japanese Americans from their homes in the West Coast to the heavily guarded internment camps. In Hawaii, there was a total clampdown and blackout imposed by the government.
Majority of the Japanese Americans serving in the armed forces were relieved of active services following the order from the war department. On the same note, commanders in charge of United States army in Hawaii also decided to discharge those who were in charge of the territorial guard consisting mostly of the students from the University of Hawaii.
However, there were some soldiers particularly those in 298th and 299th infantry battalion who were retained. The group that was discharged from their duties petitioned to be allowed to help in the war effort. Their petition was granted and they were given various complementary jobs in the military (Chang 3-4).
The army general in Hawaii was getting nervous about the allegiance of the Japanese American soldiers in case of another attack on the U.S soil, and therefore asked the war department to restructure the 298th and 299th and relocate them from the West Coast. The move was granted by the war department and the provisional regiment set sail for training.
They first landed in Oakland, California and two days later were sent to Wisconsin camp. This battalion was later designated as 100th infantry battalion. The group performed excellently in training that the U.S government changed their mind and allowed Japanese Americans back into active armed service. This led to the formation of the Japanese American Combat Unit (Chang 4).
The government started the recruitment of Japanese Americans into the unit but first they had to fill the loyalty questionnaire. Over 75% of those who filled the questionnaire were willing to serve in the U.S armed forces and swore allegiance to the U.S. The U.S war department then enlisted about 1500 volunteers from the west coast and 3000 from the mainland. Over 10,000 men turned out from the Hawaiian island.
However, Japanese Americans from the mainland received the announcement with less enthusiasm since majority of those men who were qualified for the armed service were being held in the concentration camp. This forced the war department to revise the quota and enlisted an additional 2900 from West Coast and a further 1500 from the mainland. Only 1256 from the mainland were willing to join the forces.
Ultimately, the army decided to draft 1500 men from Hawaii and 800 men from the mainland. This led to the formation of the 422nd infantry regimental Combat Team which was announced by President Roosevelt. During the announcement, the president made it known to the public that Americanism was not a matter of race or descent (Chang 4-5).
Racism against the Japanese government started way far before the attack on the Pearl’s Harbor. However, it increased after the attack and completely changed the way the general public viewed the Japanese people. Racial prejudice and hatred was enhanced through official and unofficial propaganda mostly spread by the government and its machineries.
Japanese Americans were subjected to unwarranted sufferings, atrocities and even incarceration in the concentration camps. These facilities were frail with a lot of cracks. Insects and small but dangerous animals like snakes could find their way into homes. Some of the houses in the concentrations camps were once used as horse stalls before the relocation.
The heat from the desert enhanced the unpleasant smell from the old horse manures and attracted a lot of flies In spite of all these problems and racial discrimination, the Japanese American Combat units were willing to fight for their country even though their families were held up in the internment camps. This story highlights the meaning of true Americanism and American identity.
Asahina, Robert. Just Americans: How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad, The Story of the 100th Battalion/442d Regimental Combat Team in World War II. New York: Gotham Books, 2006.
Chang, Thelma. I Can Never Forget: Men of the 100th/442nd. Honolulu: Sigi Productions, 1991.
Wakatsuki, Houston J. Farewell To Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment. New York: Laurel Leaf, 1983.