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How to remember the wartime Japanese-American incarceration

Seventy-five years ago — on Feb. 19, 1942 — President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, a catalyst behind the forced removal and mass incarceration of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans. America was at war with Japan.

Yuichiro Onishi
Yuichiro Onishi

By the order of the president, Roosevelt delegated his authority to the secretary of war and military commanders to round up and detain all people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast. These orders were applied to lawfully resident immigrants, commonly referred to as Issei, and their U.S.-born children, Nisei. Rendered as “enemy aliens,” they were sent to remote areas to be imprisoned in 10 concentration camps administered by the federal agency called the War Relocation Authority. It was justified as a “military necessity.”

It took away everything

What ensued was the suspension of the rule of law. They became “prisoners without trial,” as the eminent historian Roger Daniels puts it. Two-thirds of those incarcerated were U.S. citizens. The reach of state power exceeded the bounds of the law. It took away everything from them — their rights, economic resources, basic human needs, and above all personhood. Japanese-Americans experienced total exclusion.

But Issei and Nisei never committed any acts of espionage or sabotage. In fact, the intelligence reports, written by the Department of Justice and the Office of Naval Intelligence, both submitted to Roosevelt prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, reiterated their loyalty to the United States. They did not constitute a national security threat. In other words, there was no “military necessity.”

However, the government knowingly suppressed the evidence of Japanese-American loyalty. In the end, Executive Order 9066, followed by Public Law 503, a congressional statute passed on March 21, 1942, made it a federal offense to defy military-directed orders. When Japanese-American cases contesting the legality of Executive Order 9066 reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943-44, the majority opinions in Hirabayashi v. United States and Korematsu v. United States ruled state-sanctioned racism constitutional. This history represents a tragedy of democracy, all too familiar in a country built by race and racism.

Placing this history in the present

But how do we remember this sordid history — as we anticipate Feb. 19, which Japanese-Americans call the Day of Remembrance — in the aftermath of the unveiling of Trump’s triptych: three executive orders that are anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim? His promises during the campaign to build a wall, deport immigrants, and bar refugees and Muslims from entering the United States became a political reality without congressional approval during the first week of his first 100 days.

In these new times, we will do well to remember that a very small group of advisers close to the president can do much damage. The road to Executive Order 9066 is a case in point. Ultimately, three military bureaucrats — Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, and Army Colonel Karl Bendetsen in the Office of the Provost Marshal General — played a key role in drafting and shaping the executive order. The Department of Justice challenged these top military officials and appealed for Japanese-Americans’ civil liberties. But Attorney General Francis Biddle maintained deference toward the Department of War. With Executive Order 9066 signed, the U.S. Constitution, in essence, turned into, to borrow from McCloy’s own chilling words, “just a scrap of paper” for Japanese-Americans. So thorough was anti-Asian racism.

Today, we are witnessing something similar. It is an instance of “boring from within” involving Stephen Bannon, the White House’s chief strategist and adviser. Numerous news outlets have identified him as one of the operatives behind the swift and disastrous rollout of the immigration ban. And now a person regarded as the opinion-setter of the alt-right movement has a seat at the table of the National Security Council (NSC). Another executive order issued a day after the immigration ban went into effect appointed him as an integral member of this core group. This coming unity of immigration and national security decisions, with Bannon as an interlocutor within the NSC, and most troublingly, without the presence of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence, is a dangerous development.

Knowing our current affairs as monumental in nature, thousands of people are hitting the streets daily against the president of the United States. The solidarity among mayors of sanctuary cities appears steadfast. So do the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups of attorneys standing up to the authoritarian tendency. Most recently, Washington state filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration, which was joined by other states, including Minnesota. U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle and the three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit all rebuked the immigration ban by deciding a stay of the order was appropriate. Today’s groundswells for justice are potent, unlike — it is worth noting — 75 years ago, where coordinated collective opposition to Executive Order 9066 was nonexistent.

At this critical juncture of the rising tide of dissent, Google set out to impart an important lesson drawn from wartime Japanese-American history. In its signature “Google doodle,” seen by millions, the company honored the birthday of Fred Korematsu on Jan. 30, now officially recognized as “Fred Korematsu Day” in several states. During the wartime years, Korematsu, Minoru Yasui, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Mitsuye Endo were dissidents. They defied the executive order to uphold their rights as U.S. citizens.

Recasting this history to advance justice

Historical education that ferments critical consciousness must go on, but it also has to go beyond a mere hagiography. The formation of #ImmigrationSyllabus is an exemplar in this regard. Spearheaded by a group of immigration historians associated with the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, this collective has just put out, online, a course syllabus that recasts our nation’s immigration history. What appears appalling in these times becomes less so when one surveys #ImmigrationSyllabus.

Over the course of U.S. immigration history, from settlement and slavery to the present, the boundaries of “what America is” and “what America is not” have been drawn and redrawn many times through combinations of (1) exclusionary and discriminatory laws and policies concerning citizenship and immigration; (2) the creation of a migratory character of labor markets and racially specific labor management practice, which in turn rendered certain people at once the deportable and the disposable, if not outright chattel and dispossessed; (3) America’s conduct and entanglements abroad, and (4) centuries of struggles around justice and multiracial democracy. #ImmigrationSyllabus seeks to establish breadth and depth at a time when information is tethered to Twitter character counts. More than ever, amid the current administration’s proclivity to warp reason, we need groundedness in the history of race and ethnicity. #ImmigrationSyllabus is a vitally important starting point.

In the same vain, as we observe the Day of Remembrance the wartime Japanese-American incarceration needs recasting as well, but not necessarily because remembering this past becomes a mirror of what is potentially possible in Trump’s America. That makes everything all too dire; it is crippling to err on the side of a doomsday scenario. An alternative framing demands unlocking this history in proximity to the indigenous claims of sovereignty and the political demand that is still unmet, racial justice.

Consider, for instance, remembrances on the part of, on one hand, Japanese-Americans incarcerated in Poston and Gila River camps in Arizona and, on the other, Chemehuevi and Mojave peoples of the Colorado River Indian community and Akimel O’otham and Maricopa peoples of the Gila River Indian community, on which the government built these two camps. If we put one layer of historical wrongs on top of the long history of settler colonialism and the dispossession of indigenous peoples, what might the Day of Remembrance look like?

Imagine, also, a scene of reunion between a high-school-age Japanese-American uprooted from her multiracial urban milieu in Los Angeles and now locked up behind barbed wire and watchtowers and her African-American classmate and friend standing on the other side of barbed wire, visiting her from the segregated section of the city in which she and her family and neighbors reside. The experience of confinement appears shared, yet different and unresolved. An episode like this, which appears in the work of Scott Kurashige, and other ties between African-Americans and Asian-Americans, which are often vexed, can make the Day of Remembrance become conversation-changing.

In the age of the Native struggle at Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, immigrant-rights activism, and all the solidarity projects around these vectors of resistance, the annals of state-sanctioned violence has resonance across various groups, although not in the same way. This is what it means to mobilize history against delusions, mystifications, and the proliferation of all the lies and evasions emanating from the current administration. It tends toward, one would hope, reckoning with colonial and racial pasts, but only if we, as a starter, acknowledge that this country’s history is not white and never has been.

Yuichiro Onishi is a scholar of critical race studies, teaching in the Department of African American & African Studies and the Program in Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Trained as a historian, he writes about the relationship between race and social movements in America and beyond, particularly in the context of the African American-led freedom struggle and cross-racial coalition building. He is the author of “Transpacific Antiracism: Twentieth-Century Afro-Asian Solidarity in Black America, Japan, and Okinawa,” published by NYU Press in 2013. 


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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Nick Foreman on 02/17/2017 - 09:49 pm.

    Thank you for your comment

    Which is so accurate for what happened to American citizens in WW2. The disgrace to Japanese citizens and the loss of their property is beyond reality. Now we deal with a pathetic president who wants to treat immigrants the same way. What a piece of trash.

  2. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 02/18/2017 - 08:01 am.

    “We have found the enemy and he is us” Pogo

    Thank you for one powerful piece plus numerous references to inform a, too often, most uninformed public of what we did to others, which was/is essentially ourselves; all citizens but with some singled out and no dissent heard in the streets? That is what we allowed to happen…and no visible protest in those times?

    I learned much of incarceration and resettlement away from the coasts…all done so quietly almost: you could barely hear injustice drop; nor dissent called out in protest or with any defense for those American citizens?

    I listened as a very young child to my parents dissent around the kitchen table expressing citizen injustice for some, our community neighbors, on what was happening. I remember a life time citizen of Minot North Dakota and the Half- page loyalty pledge this Japanese-American business man, owner of a fine main street cafe finding it necessary to place a half page ad in the local daily news…pledging his loyalty to a quasi- dictator nation at the time? That was a grave injustice in a society that demanded such a need…sad indeed too, for those who never questioned although some condemned the feds actions but not loud enough?

    Now ‘refugees’ become the scapegoats of an administration which is displaying madness in its abuse of power and congress sat and now again sits on its hands?

    Who next?

    When they hire hundreds more employees in the containment, internment camps in Arizona etc. as was reported recently…for whom; who next will be ‘reclassified’ when protest; we who protest the Donald empire all become potential refugees from a democracy that has lost its soul. So who next when even Identity Cards will be a necessary to qualify our citizenship and right to freely, travel and so much more maybe…when those rights should be a ‘given’ in a free society? Next a tattoo, a star on the lapel?

    So quickly we ignore, forget the injustice when our name and serial number is not on the list?

  3. Submitted by Misty Martin on 02/18/2017 - 10:15 am.

    Day of Remembrance . . . How very sad!

    I was born in 1960, and unfortunately, I do not remember studying much about Executive Order 9066, but I read about it on my own (remember, you did not have the internet in the 60’s and 70’s when I was growing up, lol) and I also remember seeing a made-for-television movie about this sad occurrence in U. S. history. My mother, now dead, remembered President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a Savior who was responsible for ending the Great Depression (in her own opinion of course). So she would not have criticized President Roosevelt in issuing such an order, which, sadly, altered the lives of so many good U. S. citizens of Japanese-American descent and their families.

    But Mr. Onishi is so right! This country’s history is not white, and never has been. Let us not forget this country’s first inhabitants, the Native Americans, and how mistreated they were and still are, in my opinion, anyway.

    I LOVE this country, BUT . . . I believe this country has a lot to answer for – what we did to the Native Americans, the slavery we condoned before and during the Civil War – the injustices still done to Black Americans during the fight for civil rights in the 1960’s and even today in the actions and hearts of too many (remember the horrible comments made about Michelle Obama only recently by some women residing in WV through social media?) and of course, the injustice implemented against Japanese-Americans through Executive Order 9066. And isn’t it morbidly interesting that while we would later learn and be abhorred about the treatment of Jewish people (and others) by the Nazi Regime during World War II – we, as Americans, could turn so readily on our own – Japanese-American citizens living and working peacefully among us, and in effect, place them in “concentration camps” of a sort? Maybe without all of the torture and the mass murdering (no gas chambers or crematoriums, or mass shootings), but . . . not without the loss of freedom, honor and pride, among other important liberties that being a citizen of the United States of America should secure.

    I would have hoped that as a nation, we might have learned something about the dangers of bigotry and hatred throughout the historical events described in the above paragraph, but instead many Americans (Christians included) voted for a President who seems to be biased against women, those suffering from physical disabilities, immigrants and anyone else who doesn’t fit into what he deems as being “deserving” of respect.

    Now, we as a nation, can only hope to stem the tide of what was set in motion this past November 8, 2016. May God help us.

  4. Submitted by David Frenkel on 02/18/2017 - 10:42 am.


    My father, a German immigrant, was a graduate student at CalTech during WWII and made numerous visits to the Manzanar camp in CA to work with Japanese-Americans whose expertise in farming was used to help develop synthetic rubber for war efforts.
    My father maintained contact with several of the Japanese-Amercans from the camp after the war and was disgusted with the CA agricultural industry that used the war as an excuse to steal the land of Japanese-American farmers.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/18/2017 - 12:01 pm.

    Great article and great association

    Problem is, the folks that should be reading and understanding this aren’t, there are no silver bullets here, there for its easier for them to be afraid of the Trump created boogie man, and silver bullets “build a wall” “deport” “law and order” etc. than to understand its complicated and easy for history to repeat itself, just blame someone else for all your problems, sad to say, that’s all the lexicon they can muster together.

  6. Submitted by Nancy Peterson on 02/18/2017 - 02:17 pm.

    Our history is not (only) white

    “Only if we…acknowledge that this country’s history is not white and never has been.”

    That is the central reality that so many cannot accept. Making America great again means going back to when white people could just ignore the roles of people of color…their contributions, their continuing lack of social and economic justice, etc.

    It’s important to remember that even as our government sets out to victimize immigrants, we still have not reversed centuries of victimizing Native Americans and African Americans, and we have not acknowledged what was done to Japanese Americans during WWII.

    I have been reading parts of #ImmigrationSylabus and have found it enlightening and useful. I wish it could be made more accessible to readers who don’t have access to academic journals.

  7. Submitted by Cristopher Anderson on 02/21/2017 - 12:37 am.

    VISIBLE TARGET available online

    I alert you to our 1984 documentary now available to view and download
    online, and now regrettably made relevant again…

    Visible Target<>

    Independent public television documentary about the WWII Japanese-American
    Evacuation and Internment from the first community evacuated under wartime
    orders, Bainbridge Island, WA…

    Much is in the news recently about the Trump administration’s
    interest in a national registry for Muslim immigrants,
    citing the Supreme Court’s infamous 1944 Japanese-American internment
    decision, Korematsu v. United States as a precedent. John de Graaf and I
    produced VISIBLE TARGET, an independent public television documentary
    about the WWII Japanese-American Evacuation and Internment from the first
    community evacuated under wartime orders, Bainbridge Island, WA. Completed
    in 1984, broadcast locally in Seattle in 1985, broadcast nationally on PBS
    in 1986, “A thoughtful, often moving, lesson in American history” –
    NYTimes (…/movies/visible-target-on-nisei-internment.html), in
    educational distribution for many years. It was shown in Congress prior to
    enactment of legislation signed by President Reagan to award reparation
    payments to former internees. Includes Walt and Milly Woodward, publishers
    of the local BAINBRIDGE REVIEW, who protested the evacuation at the time
    as being unconstitutional, and other historical characters fictionalized
    in the novel and feature film, SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS. This is from the
    fact-based world. A key advisor on our project was the late scholar Dr.
    Roger Daniels. Produced in association with KCTS/9 Seattle and University
    Community Video, Minneapolis, with the financial support of the Japan
    Foundation, the Washington Commission for the Humanities and the many
    individual contributors to the Bainbridge Documentary Project. Chicago
    International Film Festival – Gold Plaque; Athens Video Festival – Athens
    Award; American Film Festival – Red Ribbon.

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