The Ghost of Japanese Internment

Trump's calls for a Muslim registry have reignited memories of the World War II–era incarceration of Japanese Americans.

Mess line at the Manzanar Relocation Center, CA, 1943. Ansel Adams / Library of Congress

It is 1942 and two school girls wearing plaid overcoats and holding matching paper lunch bags are pledging allegiance to the United States flag at San Francisco’s Raphael Weill Public School. The girl on the right looks directly at the camera, smiling, proud. The girl on the left gazes up at the flag, worried and scared, her raised eyebrows grazing the edge of her shiny black bangs. President Franklin Roosevelt has just signed the executive order to forcibly imprison all those with Japanese ancestry in the western United States.

The girls’ different responses to the flag embody all the turbulent and unresolved history of the World War II–era incarceration of Japanese Americans. After decades of Asian-American activism for reparations and redress, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act formally apologized for this illegal crime of wartime hysteria and racism. This is the girl on the right: proudly claiming her equal part in the nation. And yet, with every new extension of US military power and every newly identified brown or black-skinned enemy, internment is resurrected and retroactively justified. This is the girl on the left, worried and skeptical of a country where her life is always precarious, her rights never fully protected.

San Francisco, CA, April 1942. Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress

The girl on the left has recent cause to worry. Just after the presidential election, Carl Higbie, a prominent supporter of Trump, argued that the renewal of the Bush-era registry of immigrants from “terrorist” countries was a good idea because of the historical “precedent” set by the World War II–era incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans.

Higbie’s comment was vehemently condemned by thousands of scholars of US history and Asian-American history, but others found the idea palatable. The Los Angeles Times published readers’ letters in response to an earlier story on the internment camps; some readers argued that “the threat” from the Japanese “was there.” A man from Sunland, CA reasoned that “virtually everyone in the U. S. was assigned jobs to help the war effort. The Japanese were assigned the job of staying out of the way and not causing complications.”

The LA Times’s decision to publish the pro-incarceration letters prompted an outpouring of protest and an apology from Editor-in-chief Davan Maharaj for failing to achieve the Times’s standards of “civil, intelligent, fact-based” discourse.

Apologies are important but they are only the beginning of reckoning, not the end. Japanese-American “internment” was the incarceration without legal charge of nearly 120,000 people (two-thirds of whom were citizens, and the rest barred from becoming so) into concentration camps by presidential executive order, justified by baseless fears that anyone with Japanese ethnicity would potentially aid the wartime enemy.

Its recent resurrection is not just a problem of historical forgetting, but indicates the extent that anti-Asian racism has been made normal in US culture — so normal, in fact, that it can easily accommodate new groups. In This Muslim American Life, Moustafa Bayoumi asks, “What happens when ordinary life becomes grounds for suspicion without a hint of wrongdoing . . . and when the everyday affairs of American Muslim life can so easily be transformed into nefarious intent?” The two girls in the photograph could certainly answer.

And while it is today’s conservatives and right-wing extremists arguing that wartime incarceration is a useful “precedent,” it was New Deal liberals who were the architects and proponents of the camps. Aided by decades of anti-Asian fears, government and military officials believed wartime imprisonment to be normal, routine, prudent, and humane. America’s concentration camps were no such thing.

The Obvious Thought

As early as 1936, during the Japanese imperial expansion into the Pacific, President Franklin Roosevelt had written to the military’s Joint Board chief advocating the “obvious thought” of creating a “special list” of Japanese citizens and non-citizens in Hawaii so they might be “placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble.” Roosevelt’s suggestion flew in the face of more than a decade of government surveillance that saw little possibility of Japanese-American communities allying with imperial Japan. Regardless, the president’s fears were “obvious” to him because of a much longer history of racial exclusion that had made Asian people seem foreign to the United States.

The idea that Japanese Americans were a conglomerated, suspicious element within the body politic thus had a long history before World War II. Just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the “special list” FDR had referred to allowed FBI special agents, military police, and local law enforcement to apprehend over two thousand people in Hawaii and on the West Coast in just two days. Many of those who were apprehended were leaders of Japanese-American community institutions; they were newspaper publishers, teachers, and ministers.

Seattle Christian minister Daisuke Kitagawa remembered that “the whole community was thoroughly panic-stricken; every male lived in anticipation of arrest by the FBI, and every household endured each day in fear and trembling.” The idea behind these mass arrests — and the concentration camps that followed — was to destroy Japanese-American communities through assimilation, dispersal, and dislocation. The head of the War Relocation Authority, Dillon Meyer, argued that forced relocation could solve “a serious racial problem by having them scattered throughout the United States.”

Citizenship status mattered very little against the fevered imaginings of American racism, and racial fears trumped constitutional scruples. Weighing the proposal for a mass evacuation in his diary just after the Pearl Harbor attack, Secretary of War Henry Stimson concluded that Japanese “racial characteristics are such that we cannot understand or trust even the citizen Japanese. This latter is the fact but I am afraid it will make a tremendous hole in our constitutional system to apply it.” As the Los Angeles Times put it, “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched — so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents — grows up to be a Japanese, not an American.”

Most Nisei, American-born children of the first-generation Issei immigrants, disagreed. As a young woman in California, Yuri Kochiyama later recalled, “Everything changed for me on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed . . . I was so red, white and blue, I couldn’t believe this was happening to us. Americans would never do a thing like this to us.” Finding their American citizenship to be suddenly conditional was a jarring revelation. For Akiko Kurose, a teenager growing up in Seattle’s multiracial Central District, “the war came as a great shock” for “never did it occur to us that we would be considered anything other than great Americans.” Out of their wartime experience of incarceration, Kochiyama and Kurose would go on to dedicate their lives to fighting systemic racism, wartime violence, and injustice.

The initial detentions after the Pearl Harbor attack were an ominous indicator of what was to come. A barrage of restrictions followed: first came “prohibited” and “restricted” zones for “any person of Japanese ancestry” across Western swaths of the United States and a curfew for “enemy aliens.” On March 24, 1942, the first exclusion order commanded the removal of Japanese and Japanese-American residents of Washington’s Bainbridge Island, just off the coast of Seattle.

Bill Hosokawa recalled “each of the fifty-four families carrying only the meager items authorized by the Army” assembled at the ferry dock. Observers remember the evacuees’ silence as they boarded the ferry. The Bainbridge Review reported that the evacuees’ Caucasian friends gathered at the dock “and wept unashamed as their Japanese neighbors obediently boarded the ferry Keholoken for their last ride from the Island for a long time.”

The islanders’ silence spoke volumes, for people were being forced to abandon whole lives of work and community for a tenuous future. The Bainbridge order became the precedent for wide-scale evacuation orders in California and large parts of Washington, Oregon, and Arizona. People were given a week to put their affairs in order, close their businesses, and store or sell their possessions. Though some families were able to turn their homes and farms over to friends or neighbors, many more had to let farms go to seed or sell their assets for a fraction of their worth.

A Nisei volunteer in California remembered “the women cried awful . . . Some of them smashed their stuff, broke it up, right before the buyers’ eyes because they offered such ridiculous prices.” People were only allowed to take what they could carry in their two hands: Kurose remembers her mother buying her a dime-store suitcase and filling it with some clothes, a few books, and — in an attempt at keeping up normal routines — her clarinet.

People were registered, numbered, and tagged like pieces of luggage (107351A for the father, 107351B for the mother, children C through F, and so on) before being sent on train or bus to an “assembly center,” usually at fairgrounds or horse-racing tracks. Kurose’s family arrived at Puyallup Fairgrounds outside of Seattle — hastily rechristened “Camp Harmony” — where they were housed in animal stalls that still smelled of horse, surrounded by barbed wire, and surveilled by armed guards in the watchtower. At Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, outside of San Francisco, those arriving walked through two lines of troops with rifles and fixed bayonets. As Tanforan had no medical facilities, one pregnant woman who was refused permission to visit a hospital gave birth in a horse stall.

After several weeks in these preliminary detention centers, Japanese Americans were relocated to one of ten permanent camps: Tule Lake and Manzanar in California, Minidoka in Idaho, Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Poston and Gila River in Arizona, Topaz in Utah, Granada in Colorado, and Rohwer and Jerome in Arkansas. Kurose’s family was put on a “dirty old train” and taken to Minidoka, where she would remain through her high-school graduation.

Turlock Assembly Center, CA, May 1942. Dorothea Lange / National Archives

A defining feature of the camps was their desolateness, their remoteness. Located in the high mountain deserts of the Rockies and the Sierras or swamplands of the Mississippi Delta, the camps were inhospitable for people used to the temperate climates of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, freezing in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer. Arriving on shuttered trains, Japanese Americans found themselves hundreds of miles away from major cities and isolated from public view. At Manzanar, ringed by the beautiful and harsh Sierra range, Haruko Niwa remembered “the first morning in Manzanar, when I woke up and saw what Manzanar looked like, I just cried.”

These camps were prisons. Barbed wire encircled the camps and armed sentries ensured that no one could leave. The threat of violence kept inmates under permanent siege: sixty-three-year-old bachelor James Hatsuaki Wakasa was shot by military police while taking a sunset walk on Sunday evening; Soichi James Okamoto was killed at close range by Private Bernard Goe, enraged that Okamoto had stopped his construction truck at Tule Lake’s main gate and asked for permission to pass. In total, four people were killed at the camps and more wounded by the sentries. But harder to count are the many more who curtailed their evening walks, or learned the self-censure of living under the continual watch of armed white sentries.

Guard towers, tar-papered barracks, and mess halls formed the new outlines of Japanese-American lives. The camps were designed to destroy personal dignity and family life. Privacy was nonexistent. Whole families were housed in cramped rooms, and toilets and showers had no partitions. Meal times were in shifts, and the food (beans, canned wieners, and the like) seemed particularly planned to be unappetizing and disheartening to Japanese palates. Kurose found that “the warm interaction with the family was missing, because we used to spend so much time together talking, and joking, and singing and all that. You don’t have that kind of opportunity in a barrack with six cots lined up and your meals are at a mess hall.”

There was little to do, and those accustomed to working now found themselves only waiting. The arbitrary nature and uncertain timeline of imprisonment rendered futures precarious. “We thought we would be able to leave shortly,” Kochiyama remembered. “All this was so unbelievable. A year before we would never have thought anything like this could have happened to us — not in this country.” Californian Sadae Takizawa recalled, “It was hell. Everybody felt lonely and anxious about the future . . . Deep down we felt anger: It was a melancholy, complex feeling.” Her husband Osuke Takizawa added:

We couldn’t do anything about the orders from the US government. I just lived from day to day without any purpose. I felt empty . . . I frittered away every day. I don’t remember anything much . . . I just felt vacant.

Amid the despair and the anger, Japanese Americans resisted with spirit and ingenuity. Prohibited from having cameras, professional photographer Toyo Miyatake smuggled a ground glass lens into Manzanar and fashioned his own, disguised as a lunchbox. Bill Manbo used Kodachrome color film in his contraband camera, and his photographs show the bright colors of kimonos, of shirtwaist dresses, of children’s red plaid shirts against the bleakness of Heart Mountain’s Wyoming plains.

Their pictures reveal scenes of deprivation, of despair, of boredom, but also of laughter and dancing and celebration despite the odds. Gardeners grew flowers and landscaped the arid desert soil; carpenters fashioned furniture out of wood and walls and shelves for the barracks; and prisoners poked ironic fun at their condition, naming their barracks “Dusty Inn” and “Waldorf Astoria” and holding fly-catching contests in the stalls.

Over and over, people refused the binary terms and faulty logic of their incarceration. In an effort to identify the “disloyal” Japanese from the “loyal,” in 1943 all internees were forced to take a questionnaire that included a loyalty oath forswearing allegiance to the Japanese emperor and proclaiming allegiance to the United States. For Issei parents excluded from citizenship, this meant declaring themselves stateless persons by renouncing the only citizenship they could claim. Internees talked back on their forms, refusing to confine their protest in the government’s “yes” or “no” box. One demanded, “I would like to know your definition of a loyal American citizen. Japanese or not.” Others were angrier: “Will you tell us where is liberty and justice for us to fight for?”

Filling out a government form is not a usual way to speak truth to power, but it was one of the many and varied forms of questioning, refusal, and protest leveraged by the incarcerated. When the military announced in 1944 that Nisei men were now eligible for the draft — initially they were classified as 4-C enemy aliens — a loud and angry protest movement grew in the camps.

At Heart Mountain, Kiyoshi Okamoto, Frank Emi, and Paul Nakadate formed the Fair Play Committee, a membership organization of draft-age men who refused to serve until full civil rights were restored to Japanese Americans. “We . . . are not afraid to go to war — we are not afraid to risk our lives for our country,” they wrote. But

without any charges filed against us, without any evidence of wrongdoing on our part, one hundred and ten thousand innocent people were kicked out of their homes, literally uprooted from where they have lived for the greater part of their lives, and herded like dangerous criminals into concentration camps with barb wire fencing and military police guarding it.

The Fair Play idea spread to other camps, and over three hundred men refused draft induction. Sixty-three resisters from Heart Mountain were convicted and sentenced to several years in federal prison.

Tule Lake was one of several camps that became segregation centers for twelve thousand “troublemakers” and “disloyals” who had answered “no” on the questionnaire. Within the prison camp was another prison, an internal stockade called “Area B” where prisoners were kept for months without charge or trial in unheated tents under armed guard. Just after Christmas in 1943, all 199 men held in Area B protested their confinement in this no-man’s-land: “As of Supper, December 31, 1943, We the undersigned voluntarily vowed to undergo hunger strike until such time as everyone here in the stockade is released back to the Colony simultaneously and unconditionally.”

Inside the internal isolation center, the Constitution did not apply and brutality reigned. In 1943 and 1944, months of heightened tensions, inmate work stoppages, and peaceful efforts by inmates to negotiate better living and working conditions, administrative fears of an armed insurrection boiled over into the use of full-scale military force. On November 4, 1943, after inmates sought to stop a truck taking provisions to strikebreakers, army forces were called in and presumed ringleaders were rounded up and tortured. Tule Lake surgeon John T. Mason recalled that an interrogator hit a

Japanese with a piece of baseball bat which he had in his hand. The blow knocked the Japanese down, but not out. [Interrogator 2] also proceeded to beat the Japanese with his fists, and during the whole time they were accusing this Japanese of calling various Caucasians “Sons of Bitches” . . . Finally someone mentioned to [Interrogator 3] that it was “open season” for Japanese, and asked him if he would like to try his hand. [Interrogator 3] replied “It’s like shooting ducks.”

Later depositions found that some of the men beaten required months of later hospitalization, and “the mentality of one was impaired permanently as the result of the beating he had received.” An inmate with a contraband camera recorded these events, and the blurry photographs show grinning white guards, smoking and proudly smiling, dragging Japanese American men — disheveled, with shirts torn off — by the arms across a stockade yard.

Men at Tule Lake, March 1944. Carl Mydans / Life magazine

Tagged, numbered, relocated, housed in military barracks, living under the watchful eyes of armed guards, sorted into groups of “loyal” and “disloyal,” cleared for leave or barred from leave — the concentration camp system was designed to bureaucratize and streamline the imprisonment of Japanese-American people. In bureaucracy comes rationalization, as government agencies are devised, paperwork is filed, and incarceration becomes the new normal. To make the camps seem as mundane as possible, officials sought to set up social clubs, allowed for camp newspapers and sports teams, and went to great efforts to maintain that mass internment was not an indictment of all Japanese, just a way of sorting the “disloyals” from the “loyals.”

To War Relocation Authority (WRA) director Meyer, the camps were “self-governing communities,” “wayside stations,” and “temporary havens,” or at the very least “relocation centers,” “assembly stations,” or “internment camps” (running away with his own euphemisms, Meyer once referred to Dachau as a “German internment camp”).

In fact, to the US government, this was indeed a normal procedure, and many of the administrators involved, as historian Richard Drinnon has documented, were master “people keepers.” The War Relocation Authority, the new agency designed to oversee people’s removal to the camps, was staffed by Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents used to dislocating and managing populations. Its director Dillon Meyer would go on to direct the BIA’s infamous “termination” policy from 1950 to 1953, which forcibly removed Native people from reservations into urban ghettos.

The two Arizona camps — Poston and Gila River — were on Indian reservation land, and officials at Poston were repeatedly asked by Japanese-American inmates “if they would be ‘kept’ all the rest of their lives on ‘reservations like Indians.’” Judging internment against the forced removal of Native Americans in the 1800s, WRA anthropologists found their own project to be a “a magnificent tour de force, as different and superior in technique and administrative management from the transfer of Indians as the oxcart differs from the latest bomber.”

Reflecting on her time in America’s concentration camps, Yuri Kochiyama argued that it is with this longer history that we must continue to reckon:

Historically, Americans have always been putting people behind walls. First there were the American Indians who were put on reservations, Africans in slavery, their lives on the plantation, Chicanos doing migratory work . . . and even too, the Chinese when they worked on the railroad camps where they were almost isolated, dispossessed people — disempowered . . . This whole period of what the Japanese went through is important. If we can see the connections of how often this happens in history, we can stem the tide of these things happening again by speaking out against them.

Amid renewed calls for the internment of Muslim Americans, Kochiyama’s call to understand Japanese-American incarceration as part of the longer sweep of US colonization, labor management, and race-making is a necessary, though daunting, charge. But it is this challenge that the girl on the left compels us to undertake, nearly seventy-five years later: her life and her rights, and the future of us all, will always be precarious until we do.