Across the Blue Pacific

The Japanese Heritage on American Soil

Kaoru Yamamoto, University of Colorado [About | Email]

Volume 15, Issue 1 (Article 6 in 2015). First published in ejcjs on 19 April 2015.


Briefly harking back to the Sakoku period (1635-1854), this article follows the far-flung ventures of the Japanese across the biggest ocean on the planet. The eastward migration since the mid-19th century has left records of many a trial, tribulation, and triumph of the pioneering ones, especially on the soil of the United States. Their story, centring on the Second World War in particular, is closely reviewed, lest the hard lessons of the yesteryear should be forgotten by the present and future carriers of the Japanese heritage on both shores of the Pacific.

Keywords: Japanese Americans, xenophobia, heritage preservation.


Although separated by a vast ocean, Japan and the United States have had many points of contact over the past two centuries. Despite of the advantages of trade and cultural exchange, xenophobic tendencies on the part of both nations have troubled the lives of those who dared to cross the Pacific. This article first traces the history of earlier foreign contacts with Japan back to pre-19th centuries, then focuses on the U.S.-Japan interactions from the 19th century on. It notes the little-known role played by American whaling ships in the opening of Japan in 1854 and climaxes with the impact of the unconstitutional incarceration of the Americans of Japanese heritage during the Second World War.

This cautionary chronicle follows the first influx of Japanese workers to Hawaii and the U.S. mainland in the late 1800s. While the migration was initially beneficial to both parties, by the early 20th century, various U.S. state, then federal, governments began enacting laws to restrict immigration and deny land ownership, plus the opportunity for naturalised citizenship, to Asians already legally on American soil. This paper argues that these laws had set the stage for the fateful presidential Executive Order 9066 and the wholesale rounding up of the West Coast inhabitants of Japanese heritage following the start of the Pacific war in 1941.

This paper presents multiple facets of the subsequent Japanese-American imprisonment experience. These include turmoils, resistance, and legal protests waged by the internees to regain their rights of citizenship, as well as the remarkable loyalty of the second-generation Americans of Japanese heritage, clearly exhibited on the battlegrounds and home-front. Also remembered is the equally remarkable valour, shown by a few Americans of non-Japanese ethnicity, in defending and aiding the alleged “enemy aliens” in and out of prison.

The article closes with reflections on the aftermath of imprisonment. Noticed is the struggle of internees to reconstruct shattered lives and tattered careers, the legal review of the constitutional implications of the incarceration, the formal apologies and partial restitution to the victims, and the identity formation and assimilation processes of the contemporary generations of the Americans of Japanese heritage.

Early History

It would not come as a surprise to anybody that the maritime affairs have always been of major concern to the inhabitants of the archipelago of Japan. For millennia, any outer influences of significance have come by sea, including the profound impact of ancient Chinese civilization. Some of those external contacts were driven by the openly territorial ambitions of foreign powers, while others stemmed from their interests in exploration, trade, proselytization, and so forth. The first variety was exemplified in the foiled invasion attempts in 1274 and 1281 by mighty Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Kahn and the founder of Yuan Dynasty of China (Bowling and Kornicki 1993, 61; Dolan and Worden 1994). The latter category of activities was triggered by some Portuguese traders wandering into the waters off Nagasaki in 1542, soon followed by Jesuit missionaries in 1549. Then, the sole surviving craft of a five-vessel Dutch naval fleet, spotted in the strait of Bungo (between Kyushu and Shikoku) in 1600, was to foretell the long, strong presence of the Netherlands on the Oriental trade stage, following the expulsion of Portuguese in 1639 (Netherland Missions 2010). Even through the two-century closure of the Japanese nation under the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Dutch and Chinese were exempt from the stringent Sakoku restrictions of 1641-1853.

Of course, from early on, Japanese were not merely on the receiving end of the busy marine traffic. Even in the Sengoku era (1467-1568) and through the ensuing centuries, corresponding to the Western “age of commerce”(Reid 1988, 1995), sizable Japanese settlements could be found in such places as Hoi An (in Vietnam with a population of about 500), Ayutthaya (of the Yamada Nagamasa fame with ca.1,000-1,500 in Thailand), Batavia (ca. 300 in present Jakarta, Indonesia), and so on. They served as a base for commercial trade (but sometimes for piracy also!) in the whole Southeast Asia, and also as the refuges for expatriate Japanese Christians and rōnin (unemployed) samurai.

From 1592 to 1635, several hundred Japanese ships, all required to operate exclusively out of Nagasaki and armed with a shuin (red-sealed) permit by the by the Toyotomi/Tokugawa shogunates, engaged in active commercial trades in the southeast Asia (Iwao 1962, 1966, 1987; Nagazumi 2001).

Eastward Ho!: The Harbinger

As a new nation, the United States was a late-comer to the colonial drama of the Far East and, naturally, to the impenetrable Japan. Surprisingly, the ultimate opening of the xenophobic door of the island nation was presaged neither by the July 1846 visit to the Edo (Tokyo) Bay of Commodore Biddle’s two-vessel U.S. fleet(Long 1983; Wainwright 1966), nor by the dramatic, July 1853 appearance of the four-ship squadron of Commodore Perry (Carraway 2006).

The fact is that the mid-19th century was the golden age of the American whaling industry, and the whalers were setting out, mostly from New England, on the very long voyages across the Pacific, ranging from the Arctic down to the coastal waters north of Japan, as well as from Polynesia-Melanesia to New Zealand (Busch 1994; Creighton 1995; Lever 1964). Of course, the risk of shipwrecking was always present, and the hapless survivors who fell in the Japanese hands were typically maltreated and often suffered death.

Now, on January 3 of 1841, none other than Herman Melville boarded a whaling ship out of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, bound for the vicinity of Japan. The fate had it that the monotony of the life on board would end that particular voyage of the young writer on Marquesas Islands (in current French Polynesia). Nevertheless, the ensuing South Pacific experience of Melville was to lead to two of his earlier works, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). A subsequent jaunt to Hawaii, meanwhile, left him with a quite negative impression of the Christian “missionary plague.” While he himself never managed to make it to the closed shore of Japan, he remained fascinated by, and sympathetic to, that inaccessible country, apparently resisting the named European pestilence. “‘So, hurrah for the coast of Japan! Thither the ship was bound,’ Melville wrote wishfully at the end of Omoo…”(Benfey 2005, 2).

In Moby Dick itself, he noted:

For many years past the whale-ship has been the pioneer in ferreting out the remotest and least known parts of the earth. She has explored seas and archipelagoes which had no chart, where no Cooke or Vancouver had ever sailed. If American and European men-of-war now peacefully ride in once savage harbours, let them fire salutes to the honor and glory of the whale ship, which originally showed them the way, and first interpreted between them and the savages… If that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due; for already she is on the threshold.(Melville 1851, Chapter 24: “The Advocate”)

Unbeknownst to Melville, meanwhile, on January 5, 1841 (two days after the writer’s departure from New England), one, Nakahama Manjirō, a 14-year-old boy who was the man of his poor, father-less family, took off from Shikoku on a small fishing boat. Alas, it was caught in a ferocious storm and carried far out to sea, and the crew of the wrecked vessel was stranded on uninhabited Torishima (Bird Island), more than 300 miles from the homeland and half way to Iwo Jima. Fortunately, a half year later, on June 27, they were spotted by an American whaler, John Howland, of Bedford, Massachusetts, under the command of Captain William Whitfield. Of the five fishermen, who could never hope to return home under the punitive Sakoku rules, Captain Whitfield entrusted four to Hawaiian officials and took Manjirō, whom he adopted and called John Mung, back to his home in Fairhaven. Thus, the very first Japanese who headed east to set foot on a far-away continent across the Pacific was the young Manjirō. It was, then, May 6, 1843 (Caraway 2006, 3).

After having received basic schooling, plus additional instructions on mathematics, navigation, and surveying, Manjirō returned to sea, first cruising around Cape Horn to reach California and pan-handling in the gold-rush of 1849 for enough money for a perilous return attempt via Hawaii. Finally leaving Honolulu on December 17, 1851, he managed to reach Okinawa with two of the original crew survivors on a January day of 1852. The Ryūkyū islandswere then under the jurisdiction of the Satsuma-han of Kyushu.

Though immediately arrested and subjected to repeated interrogations by officials of differing levels, they were miraculously spared of life and allowed to return to Shikoku in October 1852 -- after close to 12 years of absence. Then, Manjirō was promptly called by the Lord Yamauchi Yōdō to share his knowledge of the outside world with the samurai of the Tosa-han (Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society 2014, 4).

At the very moment that Melville, in 1851, was predicting that whaling ships would open Japan, Manjiro was arriving on Japanese shores in a whaling boat. And just as Manjiro was enduring lengthy interrogations—during which he made the case for the benefits of American technology and American- style government­­—­Commodore Perry was preparing his armada of Black Ships for the voyage to Japan (Benfey 2005, 4).

The Perry squadron made it to Cape Izu on July 8, 1953, and the letter of President Filmore, addressed “To His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of Japan,” was delivered, mistakenly, to Shogun Tokugawa Iyeyoshi. The Black Ships left the Bay of Edo on July 17, but Perry made a promise of return in the following year for a definite answer for the proposed treaty for full commercial relations between Japan and the United States. Iyeyoshi died barely a month later to be succeeded by his son, Iesada, who summoned Manjirō to Edo in December 1853 for service to the Shogunate (Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society 2014).

Commodore Perry indeed returned on February 13, 1854, with a fleet twice the size of the year before, and the historic treaty of Kanagawa was signed on March 31 between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the U.S. Nevertheless, the road there was not a smooth one for Japan, given serious differences in perspective among several factions, including the Imperial Court itself. Nevertheless, “the downfall of China [in the First Opium War of 1839-42 against Britain] made it apparent to even the strongest supporters of the isolationist policy that the development of trade and diplomatic relations with foreign nations was inevitable.”Thus, in the final analysis, “American intimidation played the main role in Japan’s cooperation with the United States”(Takano 2010, 88).

The 1854 treaty stipulated the establishment of a U.S. consulate in Shimoda after 18 months. “It was this provision that laid the groundwork for the negotiation of full-scale commercial relations between Japan and the outside world” (Dower 2008, 2-3). The two- year negotiation with the Bakufu (i.e., Shogun’s government) by the first U.S. consul general, 8 Townsend Harris, resulted in a commercial treaty of July 29, 1858. Within five years, similar treaties were made with Russia, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and France to open several additional Japanese ports, initiate diplomatic relations, and sign trade agreements all heavily in favor of the Western powers.

Alas, within Japan itself, a civil war was to continue for another decade between the pro-Tokugawa forces and the Royal armies, but the nation finally embarked upon a new era under Emperor Meiji in 1868.

Emigration from New Japan

In May 1868, the very year of the Meiji Restoration, Eugene M. Van Reed, an American businessman, illegally recruited and sent 153 Japanese to Hawaii to work on sugar plantations, plus another 40 to Guam, thus marking the beginning of Japanese labor overseas. Due to the slave-like treatment they received, however, the Meiji government proceeded to prohibit any dekasegi (emigration for temporary work ) for the following two decades. Thus, the next wave was to come in February 1885, when 944 legal migrant workers from Japan arrived in Hawaii (Niiya 1993). In that year, the Japanese and Hawaiian governments “concluded the Immigration Convention under which approximately 29,000 Japanese traveled to Hawaii for the next nine years… under three-year contracts (Azuma, n.d.).In the late 1880s, given the limited arable land (only about 14 percent) and the rapidly increasing population (approaching the annual rate of 1.5 percent), the Japanese government turned, as a solution for economic problems, to sending the peasant-class workers overseas, mostly to the west coast of the U.S. and Hawaii (Yoshida 1909).

Meanwhile, beginning in the 1850s, migration, both legal and illegal, of Chinese subjects to North America steadily increased as a source of cheap labor in the gold mines, prostitution, agriculture, garment industry, railroad building, etc. The mounting resentments on the part of the native workers and business owners resulted in a couple of restrictive legislations and anti-Chinese riots in the 1870-80s, finally leading up to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which put a first broad curtailment on immigration in the American history (Daniels 2004; U.S. Department of State 2013, “Milestones: 1866-1898”).

Repeating the Chinese experience, Japanese immigration became a political issue in the United States during the 20th century. For instance, in 1905, the Asiatic Exclusion League was formed in San Francisco and, the next year, the city’s Board of Education enacted a measure to send Japanese students to segregated Chinese schools. The ensuing crisis was resolved by the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of 1907-08, in which “the U.S. Government agreed to pressure the San Francisco authorities to withdraw the measure, while the Japanese government promised to restrict the immigration of laborers to the United States (U.S. Department of State 2013, “Milestones: 1899-1913”).

Nevertheless, in 1913, the Alien Land Law was enacted in California, and made even more stringent in 1920. It prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” (including everyone, save the whites and the persons of African descent) from owning land or property. Similar prohibition clauses, already found in the original, 1899 constitution of Washington State, were successively enacted in 14 other states (Lyon 2013).

In November 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court reached an unanimous decision in the “Takao Ozawa v. United States” case, denying the appellant admission as a citizen of the United States. Drawing upon “all of the naturalisation acts from 1790 to 1906,” the court declared that “the privilege of naturalisation was confined to white persons… (with the addition in 1870 of those of African nativity and descent),” definitively excluding “the brown or yellow races of Asia” (Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178 [1922]).

Anti-Japanese agitations on the U.S. west coast (Daniels 1968) eventually led to the total termination of Japanese immigration to the United States with the enactment of the1924 Immigration Act, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act. That legislation was based upon a quota system, favoring individuals from the British Isles and Western Europe over those from Southern and Eastern Europe.

The 1924 Immigration Act also included a provision excluding from entry an alien who by virtue of race or nationality was ineligible for citizenship. Existing nationality laws dating from 1790 to 1870 excluded people of Asian lineage from naturalising. As a result, the 1924 Act meant that even Asians not previously prevented from immigrating—the Japanese in particular— would no longer be admitted to the United States… [I]t appeared that the U.S. Congress had decided that preserving the racial composition of the country is more important 11 than promoting good ties with the Japanese empire.(U.S. Department of State 2013, “Milestones: 1921-1936”) Meanwhile, in Canada, where a smaller scale of Japanese emigration (ca. one-tenth of the U.S.-bound) had been going on for three decades in the face of an equally fierce native resistance, a quota of only 400 male immigrants per year was put in effect in the aftermath of the 1907 anti-Asian riot in Vancouver. In 1928, the number was further reduced to mere 150, including both sexes (Sugimoto 1979; DiscoverNikkei 2005).

Thus rather completely shut out of North America (Daniels 1968; Wilson and Hosokawa 1982), the Japanese emigration turned thereafter to South America (mainly Brazil), the Philippines, and Guam (Sasaki 2008). Within the United States itself, the “growing tensions between the American-born Nisei (the second generation) and their Issei (the first generation) parents, who were ineligible to citizenship, became the 1924 Act’s less visible side effects” (Imai 2013, 3), adding an unfortunate, complicating factor in the face of the gathering, ugly storm.

The Infamy of America

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, the Second World War spread into the Pacific. The United States declared war against Japan the next day and, on December 11, against Germany and Italy (three years late!). Shortly thereafter, a wholesale uprooting of the West Coast inhabitants of Japanese heritage was triggered by Executive Order 9066 of February 19, 1942. Thus, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorised the War Department to exclude certain civilian populations from the areas to be designated for military security reasons (Thomas and Nishimoto 1946; Thomas 1952; Daniels 1981). The subsequent Executive Order 9102, signed on March 18, 1942, allowed the establishment of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), a federal civilian agency for the purpose of relocation and supervision of the excluded population, who were rounded up by the U.S. Army’s Western Defense Command under Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt. Further, the Department of War, “with the approval of President Roosevelt and the concurrence of the Department of Justice, secured the passage by… the perfunctory… Congress of an act providing for enforcement in the federal courts” (tenBroek, Barnhart, and Matson 1970, 113). This was Public Law 503, signed by the President on March 20, 1942 (Weglyn 1976; Robinson 2001; Hayashi 2004). People of Japanese ancestry living in the West Coast states were now classified as “enemy aliens” and subjected to exclusion treatment. This group numbered close to 120,000, including 30,000 children, and was approximately equal to the whole population of Tampa (Florida) or Baton Rouge (Louisiana) in 1950, while exceeding that of Phoenix (Arizona). Of those 120,000, about 2,000 were promptly arrested by the FBI after December 7, 1941, as suspected enemy agents—community leaders, religious teachers, businessmen, editors of Japanese language publications, instructors of Japanese language, and the like. Many of them were Issei, denied of the privilege of naturalisation, yet typically the heads of the family and kin group and the leaders of the community. In the meantime, “two-thirds” of all those forcefully evicted and incarcerated were “United States citizens” (tenBroek, Barnhart, and Matson 1970, 99), according to Amendment XIV, Section 1 of the Constitution.

In contrast, the 160,000 people of Japanese heritage in Hawaii - approximately one- third of the total population there - were not subjected to mass evacuation or internment (Lind 1947; tenBroek, Barnhart, and Matson 1970, 135; Robinson 2009). Strangely, people of Italian or German ancestry on the mainland were not subjected to a comparable punitive treatment (tenBroek, Barnhart, and Matson 1970, 112, 116, 120; U.S. Department of Justice 2001).

In any case,

Toward the end of May 1942, [the Japanese] evacuees began to be transferred from… temporary assembly centres to thirteen permanent concentration camps—generally called by more decorous name of “relocation centres”—where they would be held prisoner until a few months before the end of the war… Thus began the bitterest national shame of the Second World War for the sweet land of liberty: the mass incarceration, on racial grounds alone, on false evidence of military necessity, and in contempt of their supposedly inalienable rights, of an entire class of American citizens—along with others who were not citizens in the country of their choice only because that country had long denied people of their race the right to naturalise.(Hersey 1988, 9)

These people, who thus underwent an alleged “‘evacuation,’ falsely implying rescue [in] the mollifying and obfuscating… official discourse,” actually suffered a violent “eviction from their homes and expulsion from the [familiar] area…” (Howard 2008, 14). They were then corralled into “the detention camps,” again euphemistically called “the relocation centres.” These were “located in deserts and swamps, the most desolate, hostile areas of the country” (Gesensway and Roseman 1987, 44), with the larger ten located in California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, and Arkansas (Gordon and Okihiro 2006, 70). “What the American Civil Liberties Union called ‘the greatest deprivation of civil rights by government in this country since slavery’”(Irons 1983, 349) became reality.

An inmate in the Rohwer (AK) camp succinctly captured the utter confusion, frustration, and anger of those who were so incarcerated in the following words.

They called it a relocation camp, but it was a concentration camp. There was barbed wire. They told us the machine guns were to protect us, but the machine guns were pointing toward us… [T]hey said we had to prove ourselves. I felt why should we prove ourselves? The government has to prove itself to us first.(Gesensway and Roseman 1987, 84)

Some indeed took the Government to court: for example, Kiyoshi Hirabayashi (Hirabayashi v. United States., 320 U.S. 81 [1943]), Minoru Yasui (Yasui v. United States, 320 U.S. 115 [1943]), and Fred Korematsu (Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 [1944]). “Divide and conquer, however, was the court’s motto,” and even the U.S. Supreme Court “indulged in tactics of division, delay, and evasion” to skirt the full constitutional issues involved. Thus, it clearly “failed to disapprove the [exclusion] program” (tenBroek, Barnhart, and Matson 1970, 213, 214).

Camp turmoil

Not surprisingly, frictions developed between the incarcerated ones and the camp administration “that knew little about the people it was managing” (James 1987, 93). In November 1942, a seven-day general strike was staged by the internees of the Poston (AZ) camp, triggered by a beating incident of a suspected FBI informer and the subsequent handling of the two inmates who were accused, arrested, and jailed without any formal charges. Fortunately, some key concessions by the administration managed to bring the crisis to a relatively constructive end (Leighton 1945).However, a similar “uprising” of the inmates of the Manzanar (CA) camp in December 1942, involving an attack on another, accused FBI collaborator, ended in the killing of three and wounding of about ten inmates (Hansen and Hacker 1974; Ueno, Embrey, and Mitson 1986; Armor and Wright 1988). The daily acts of resistance and labor disputes, starting in November 1942, at the Jerome (AZ) camp, resulted in “a series of confrontations spanning over a year,” while being totally ignored by the national press (Howard 2008, 177). Far north, in the Heart Mountain (WY) camp, a “Fair Play Committee” of the inmates, formed in March 1944, led a protest against continued incarceration, contesting the thwarting of rights and resisting the army draft of Japanese Americans. Altogether, 85 induction resisters were indicted with a three-year prison term (Abe 2000).

Avowal of loyalty

In the meantime, all evacuees of 17 years of age and older were subjected to “a procedure of political confession… [namely,] the testing of loyalty by… officials in early 1943” (James 1987, 80).In a lengthy form of registration, two key “yes-no” 16 items were embedded, one having to do with the willingness to bear arms in the U.S. Armed Services, and the other with the swearing of unqualified allegiance to the United States. Those who opted to answer “yes-yes” were rewarded with minor camp conveniences and privileges, but others who hesitated, qualified, or refused answers, or gave straight negative responses were seen as alleged or suspected disloyals.

Naturally, “the issue of loyalty did not make sense to many Nisei citizens, incarcerated in the land of their birth” (James 1987, 85). Nevertheless,

throughout all ten camps, officials were shocked when many Japanese Americans—roughly 11 percent… resisted answering the questions, responded in the negative, or qualified their responses in unacceptable ways. Especially surprising [to them] was the fact that “no” answers were highest among young Nisei eligible for the draft.(ibid., 84)

One can easily imagine the consternation of the camp administrators when some of the allegedly “unacceptable” responses to the loyalty questions, such as the following, were reviewed:

“Yes, if my civil rights are restored to me.”

“Yes, if they give us our constitutional rights.”

“Yes, provided I am treated as a full-fledged American citizen.”

“Yes, if treated like any other American citizen.” (Howard 2008, 201)

“In the end, the indiscriminate incarceration of 120,000… would result in roughly 15 to 20 percent being labeled disloyal” (ibid.). Many were then sent to Tule Lake (CA) “segregation centre,” where the resentment and rebellion were particularly pronounced. The inmate population there approached 19,000 towards the end of 1944 (U.S. Department of Interior 1946, 168-69).

Under the stress of disorientation, humiliation, helplessness, despair, and anger, the collective, family, and individual lives were severely tested and torn asunder in the dingy, crowded, tarpaper barracks with little privacy, and many were irreparably damaged and disintegrated (Kitagawa 1974; Tateishi 1984; Nagata 1993; Smith 1995; Gordon and Okihiro 2006). One of the consequences was that, through the year 1944, more than 20,000 applicants were on file, seeking repatriation to Japan. Also, during the four months following the official abandonment of the mass exclusion on December 17, 1944, 6,000 were on record applying for the renunciation of U.S. citizenship. “All in all, some eight thousand persons of Japanese descent left for Japan between V-J day and mid-1946” (tenBroek, Barnhart, and Matson 1970, 181). In the uncertain, turbulent days and years, many of the men and women nevertheless chose to volunteer for military service under the plan devised by the War Department in early 1943. The all-Nisei (i.e., all U.S. citizen) 442nd Regimental Combat Team, who fought in the European theater from June of 1944, was legendary. In life (the most highly decorated for its size in the U.S. military history) and death (the highest rates of casualty) on the battlegrounds in Italy and France, these soldiers were to embody the long- standing cultural values of their heritage: honor, valour, and loyalty (Duus 1987; Crost 1994; Asahina 2006). Certainly not to be forgotten in that connection is the 100thInfantry Battalion (of Nisei volunteers) of the Hawaii National Guard that fought in North Africa and 18 Italy since June 1943, and was later incorporated into the 442nd in June 1944. In addition, there were those who served in the covert Military Intelligence Service, mostly in the Pacific theater (Harrington 1979; McNaughton 2006).

“But not only men served, of course. Nisei women volunteered for the WACs [Women’s Army Corps], as army nurses [Cadet Nurse Corps], and for the Red Cross. They, too, served with great distinction. They, too, suffered casualties…” (Armor and Wright 1988; also see Hirose 1993; Holm and Bellafaire, 1998; Moore 2003).

In all, more than 33,000 Nisei served in the American army in World War II, a remarkably high number, since the total population of Nisei, both on the mainland and in Hawaii, was just 278,000. No similar group in the United States demonstrated greater dedication, skill, or sacrifice in the war effort than this one. (Armor and Wright 1988, 151)

The significance of the voluntary deeds and sacrifices of all these men and women was nicely captured in a brief accolade of President Harry S. Truman when he welcomed home the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Unit on July 15, 1946: “You fought the enemy abroad and prejudice at home, and you won!” (Odo 2014, 3).

The End of the Impoundment

On December 17, 1944, the U.S. government at last ended, with Public Proclamation No. 21, the mass imprisonment of the resident aliens and American citizens of Japanese ancestry, whose loyalty was granted. However, President Roosevelt was against “the return of large numbers of Japanese to the West Coast” (tenBroek, Barnhart, and Matson 1970, 172), and the inmates were thus urged to disperse themselves in the Midwest, East, or South, and try to reconstruct their shattered lives.

Understandably, most evacuees, especially the Issei, resisted to vacate the camps. Even if they could or would move back west, “their stored goods had been stolen or sold; their land had been seized for unpaid taxes; strangers had taken possession of their former homes. They [also] faced vicious racist hostility” (Hersey 1988, 61). About the future, even the younger generations showed much ambivalence, the attitude “closely intertwined with the contradiction of teaching an incarcerated population about democracy” (James 1987, 113).

Indeed, even those who headed east found that the century-old “racial stigma would not wash away easily”(ibid., 124) in a country where

a memorandum by the WRA [War Relocation Authority] solicitor at the end of 1943 had tallied anti-Japanese legislation and ordinances in twenty states, among them prohibitions against Japanese Americans buying land (including citizens), intermarriage bans, restrictions on the right to transact business, bans on licenses, nullification of inheritance rights, exclusions from civil service, voting restrictions, and exclusionary clauses in standard real estate contracts. (ibid., 134)

In April 1952, the Supreme Court of California belatedly struck down the long-standing 1913 and 1920 California Alien Land Law. In June of the same year, the new Immigration and Naturalisation Act, also known as the McCarran-Walter Act, was enacted to supersede the 1924 Immigration Act. However, the new legislation kept the National Origins Quota System of old, thus continuing to treat countries of the Western Hemisphere quite favorably. It, at least, broke down the “Asiatic Barred Zone” in principle, but the quota actually allotted there was still quite small. For example, the entry was allowed for only 185 Japanese immigrants per year. On the other hand, the 1952 Act finally made legal the naturalisation of Asians (U.S. Department of State 2013, “Milestones: 1945-1952”). Nevertheless, a major change to the quota system itself would not come until the enactment of the Immigration Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act (U.S. Congress 1965; Keely 1971) under President Lyndon Johnson.

The long shadow

In the meantime, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), established in 1929 and unsuccessfully fought the exclusion and detention orders, was working anew against the 1950 Internal Security Act, enacted in the atmosphere of the Cold War fright of Communism. The fact was that

[the Act’s] Title II authorised the President, in case of invasion, insurrection or declaration of war, to order detention without trial of persons suspected of being spies or saboteurs. In effect, Title II codified the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II and made the same kind of treatment a possibility for all citizens in a future emergency.(Hosokawa 1982, 295)

Two decades would elapse before the Congress passes the repeal bill, which was finally signed in September 1971 by President Richard Nixon (Hosokawa 1982., 323).

Meanwhile, the fateful Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt “on February 19, 1942, to authorise the Evacuation, had never been rescinded”(ibid., p. 339). Thus, it took the efforts on the part of many Japanese American representatives and their friends to persuade President Gerald Ford to issue an official confirmation of the end of all the authority conferred by said Order. The date of that proclamation was February 19, 1976.

Another item on the JACL’s docket was to seek redress for the loss of rights and property by those forcefully removed and incarcerated in their homeland. Beginning its effort early in the 1970s, the advocacy group followed the suggestion of the Japanese-American members of the U.S. Congress to urge first the formation of an independent, fact-finding commission as the preparatory step for later legislative efforts (Ikeda 2004). Again, the process was a long, tortuous one (Irons 1989; Maki, Kitano, and Berthold 1999; Murray 2008), but, in the summer of 1980 - almost four decades after the ominous Civilian Exclusion Order

Congress established a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians with a mandate to “review the facts and circumstances surrounding Executive Order 9066,” and to make recommendations for “appropriate remedies.”(Hersey 1988, 63)

Nine commissioners were appointed, three by President Jimmy Carter, and three each by the Senate and the House. Two years later, in December 1982, their report was submitted. “Entitled Personal Justice Denied, this document unsparingly peeled back, for all to see, the complex layers of national guilt”(Ibid.). The terse closing statements of the document said much.

The promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it… were not driven by analysis of military conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership… A grave injustice was done to American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry…(U.S. Congress 1982, “Summary,” 18).

As a result, starting in 1984, a series of bills were introduced for amends to the victims, but it took four more years before a Senate bill managed to muster enough favorable votes to create the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (Daniels, Taylor, Kitano, and Arrington 1991; Hatamiya 1993). On August 10 of that year, “President Ronald Reagan finally signed the nation’s belated act of contrition” (Hersey 1988, 66). On October 9. 1990, an official letter of apology, signed by President George H. W. Bush, was presented to the fast-dwindling number of survivors with an accompanying, symbolic redress payment of $20,000 each (Hohri 1988; E. Yamamoto and Ebesugawa 2006).

Out of the ashes

At the end of the devastating war-time experience, those of Japanese heritage—the citizens and permanent residents alike—whose lives had been so brutally 23 sundered, had to start all over again with so little. In fact, the Congressional Commission report estimated that “the Nisei lost property valued at between $810 million and $2 billion (in current dollars) due to the forced evacuation....” and “placed the value of total loss of property and income in 1942-45 as high as $6.2 billion (in current dollars)” (Hersey 1988, 81).

An independent study found that a postwar influx of the former camp prisoners into self-employed contract gardening resulted in the real income loss of about 20 percent between 1941 and 1946 (Broom and Riemer 1949). Yet another, detailed research, based on the 1970 Census data, found that “the labor market withdrawal, induced by the imprisonment, reduced the annual earnings of males as much as nine to thirteen percent twenty-five years afterward” (Chin 2004, 2). Even more critically than any economic recovery, their pride and honor had to be restored, their sundered families and communities rebuilt, the in-group schisms mended, the trust of out-groups regained, and the fundamental faith in the United States itself regenerated.1 All that they have managed to accomplish through deeds of integrity and quality, sustained by the traditional quiet determination, patience, industry,and cooperative spirit (Ishida 1974; Kashima 1980; Fugita and D. O’Brien, 1991).

Never to Be Forgotten

The enormous significance of the blatant discriminatory act against the particular minority group was recognised very soon after the end of the war, when it was characterised as “the most drastic invasion of the rights of citizens of the United States by their government that has thus far occurred in the history of our nation”(Corwin 1947, 91). Most considered examinations of the legal implications of the entire episode agree with this assessment. For instance, a detailed, 1970 study gave the following capsule description of what had transpired.

Citizens, on a mass basis, were allowed to be uprooted, removed and imprisoned by the military without trial, without attribution of guilt, without the institutional or individual procedural guarantees of Article Three and Amendments Five and Six, and without regard to the individual guarantees of Amendments One, Four, Five, and others. The military actions were taken upon a mere suspicion of disloyalty arising from racial affinity with the enemy, and was applied discriminatorily to one race only(tenBroek, Barnhart, and Matson 1970, 259).

Thus, the scholars found it easy to assign “the responsibility for this flagrant breach of the nation’s constitutional and moral ideals” (ibid., 327).

Responsibility rests, finally, with the courts, and especially with the Supreme Court of the United States. In many ways the failure of the Supreme Court was the greatest failure of all… The Japanese American episode culminated in a constitutional sanctification of these deprivations by the highest court in the land—a court dedicated to justice, defense of the Constitution, determination of the powers and limitations of government, and protection of the rights of men… In this way did the United States Supreme Court strike a blow at the liberties of us all.(tenBroek, Barnhart, and Matson 332, 334)

Indeed, it was one of the darkest hours in the soul of the whole American nation. Yet, fortunately, among the scourging crowds, there were rare individuals and groups of integrity and perspective. Their deeds of compassion enabled the unfairly victimised people to bear the unbearable and endure the unendurable.

A sane voice in the wilderness

First, there was a remarkable, solitary political figure, who embodied the meaning of true principle and courage to risk his own career in the defense of the victimised (K. Yamamoto 2014).

When, in the beginning phase of the mass removal of the alleged “enemy aliens,” the head of the newly created War Relocation Authority, Dr. Milton Eisenhower, sought the cooperation of the governors of the 14 western states, all of them, but one, refused outright to accommodate any such evacuees in their states. In no uncertain terms, they fully expressed their own mistrust, fear, and hatred of those “Japs,” vouching a swift end of any and all such enemy aliens who dare to cross the borders of their respective states.

The only sober voice heard was from one, Ralph L. Carr, the governor of Colorado. He consistently argued that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights of the United States should be for all people at all times. Objecting to Executive Order 9066 from the beginning, and insisting that one “cannot test the degree of a man’s affection for his fellows or his devotion to his country by the birthplace of his grandfather” (Schrager 2008, 90), he stood by his totally unpopular decision to help in the challenge of urgent mass displacement. Thus, for the duration, Colorado was to hold close to 7,600 prisoners in the Granada camp, also known as Amache, in the southeastern edge of the state—the land of dust, wind, cacti, rattlesnakes and, needless to say, snow.

For his principled, humanitarian stance in the face of the mass hysteria all around, Governor Carr was bitterly maligned as a “Jap lover,” and his bright political future was permanently closed on the national stage. Nevertheless,

Carr’s belief in Japanese Americans [proved] accurate. There were no examples of sabotage committed by anyone of Japanese ancestry living in the United States during the war (ibid., 315).

Alas, a heart attack was to cut short his life at age 63 during the 1950 campaign to regain the governorship. Thereafter, even his name was obliterated from the memory of both the general public and the political circuit of the nation.

However, the Americans of Japanese heritage have never forgotten their debt to this exceptional public figure. While he was still alive, the JACL, at its 1946 Denver convention, presented to him a gold watch “with the inscription, ‘In grateful appreciation for your courageous stand for Democratic American principle’“ (Schrager 2008, 315). The group’s deep appreciation continued to be expressed over the years in various forms. In 1976, for instance, the Japanese American community placed a bust of the governor in Sakura Square in downtown Denver to memorialize him (Hosokawa 2005, 98).

Belatedly, “in 1996 the Colorado legislature passed a resolution honoring Carr for his ‘efforts to protect Americans of Japanese descent during World War II’”(ibid.)and, in May 2013, a new Ralph L. Carr Justice Centre was dedicated in Denver “as a Symbol of the Rule of Law” (Cordova 2013).

The “Friends” as true friends

During the dark, uncertain period of resettlement immediately following the official end of incarceration, many young Nisei took the guiding hands of the Religious Society of Friends (the so-called Quakers) and the American Friends Service Committee (Austin 2012). With their support, and under the direction of such leaders as John Nason (Austin 2013), Robert O’Brien, and Allan Austin, the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council was established in the spring of 1942 to raise the necessary funds and to persuade the U.S. institutions of higher education to admit the Americans of Japanese heritage (Austin 2004). “Some colleges right away refused to participate,” while “colleges wishing to accept the Nisei students at times encountered a fusillade of local protest”(James 1987, 116, 122). Many high school teachers were even advising the potential applicants not to go to college - some from race prejudice, but others from what they perceived to be realism.

They will tell you that it is a mistake for a Japanese American to think in terms of a college education since he is destined to be only a manual labourer anyway.(James 1987, 126-27)

In the face of all sorts of resistance and difficulties, including the understandable mistrust of their own, deeply-hurt Issei parents, more than 4,000 students of Japanese heritage went on to study at 600 colleges. Those “College Nisei”(O’Brien 1949) wrestled with the dual challenge of helping others to come to know the Japanese-Americans and, simultaneously, of enhancing their own understanding and appreciation of who they themselves are.

The Legacy

No one can deny that what the people of Japanese heritage, the lawful residents and citizens alike, had to experience during those turbulent years in the “land of the free” far from their ancestral home across the Pacific, was ugly and deeply hurtful. Some may thus feel that such an ancient event should be erased from memory as soon as possible, while others may argue that no further look is necessary since “everyone knows what happened.” That, however, would be a great mistake. Everything has a past, and that past is the invaluable laboratory of human experience.

The past is in truth the live, active force that sustains our today… The past is not yonder, at the date when it happened, but here, in [us]… We are forced to concern with our past… because it is all [we have] (Ortega y Gasset 1941, 223, 230).

It is thus the responsibility of each generation to keep its own experience open and alive so as to share the lived reality with the succeeding ones. In the instances like the victimised community of Japanese heritage, who suffered much humiliation, confusion, loss, deprivation, grief, and anger, that sharing allows the following ones to transcend the lived reality of suffering. Referring to the theme of Connerton (1989), Kleinman notes that the “key memories of trauma—collective and individual—are not to be erased but to be worked with, even commemorated. Indeed, commemoration of collective trauma is one of the means by which societies remember” (1995, 180).

Ironically, one of the long-standing features of the old Japanese culture, quite helpful to the battered community in its painful reconstruction process, had been long recognised even by the oppressors. A case in point: a special Joint Congressional Commission, formed in 1907 under the chairmanship of Senator William Dillingham, extensively studied the nation’s immigrant situation. Its conclusions and recommendations, contained in the final report of 41 volumes, were to lead to the legislations of severe immigration restriction in the 1920s, including the Emergency Quota Act (1921) and the Johnson-Reed Act (1924).

When the Dillingham Commission reported to Congress in 1911 on the recent waves of immigrants to the United States, it was struck by “the ambition and eagerness of this [Japanese] race to learn Western civilization.” No immigrant group except Jews, had shown such “great desire to learn the English language.” (James 1987, 10)

In fact, the Issei’s comparatively high education level,cooperative-sharing orientation, and industriousness had helped them in succeeding, particularly on the pre-WWII West Coast, in self-employed, small-scale agriculture, even in the face of many legal restrictions and the openly hostile American labor unions (Spickard 2009).Accordingly, “education was important to the Nisei… this commitment to education was part of what they brought with them” (Armor and Wright 1981, 107) even into the concentration camps.

While the Issei’s “unquestioned expectation” for the social ascension of thenext generation was a source of considerable conflict for the latter, the evidence clearly suggests that the Nisei succeeded in growing up to share a lot of goals with the majority American middle class, while retaining much of the heritage ethnic values (Caudill and de Vos 1956). Thus, one uniqueness of the postwar development among Japanese Americans rests in their augmented structural assimilation, reflected in increased mixed-ethnic marriages, residential integration, participation in mainstream community activities, affiliation with Western religions, and so forth (Fugita and D. O’brien 1991).

Now, the record shows that, between 1868 and 1941, a total of 338,459 Japanese people emigrated to the United States. Postwar, between 1945 and 1989, the number dropped to 134,842 (Japanese American National Museum 2005). The decade of 1990 saw only 57,979, and that of 2000-10 had 127,427. Comparative figures for the 1990-2010 added up to about 3.6 million and 4 million from Mexico, 610,000 and 827,000 fromChina/ Hongkong /Taiwan, 506,000 and 856,000 from India, 436,000 and 542,000 from the Philippines, 446,000 and 281,000 from Vietnam, and 250,000 and 345,000 from South 31 Korea (Camarota 2012, Table 4).

Thus, the Americans of Japanese lineage remain comparatively few, being about 1.3 million as of 2012, or mere 0.4 per cent of the total U.S. population (U.S. Department of Commerce 2012, Table 6). It is, nevertheless, a proud, responsible group of competence, as reflected in the fact, among others, that more than 46 percent of those 25 years or older had a bachelor’s degree or higher, in contrast with the 2010 US national share of 28 percent (Pew Research Centre 2012, “Characteristics of U.S. Japanese Adults, 2010”). Here, again, the emigrants were carrying on the tradition of the old country, which boasted the comparative figure of 44.8 percent in the same year for the age range of 25-64 - one of the highest rates in the world (OECD Factbook 2013, “Educatioal Attainment”).

Even the Sansei (third generation), “who are not usually dependent economically on their ethnic community, generally feel responsible for supporting ethnic solidarity” (Fugita and D. O’Brien 1991, 6). Thus, in the postwar America, those of the Japanese lineage, mostly Nisei and Sansei, have managed to adapt themselves to the mainstream culture ofEuropean-tenet, while sustaining their unique ethnic legacy. While various studies confirm the continuing trend of assimilation and pluralism in the Sansei group (Kitano and Kikumura 1976; Connor 1977; Levine and Rhodes 1981; Montero 1981), none has so far indicated “that Japanese Americans are losing all cultural distinctiveness and identification” (Woodrum 1981, 168). This marked feature is unique among all the ethnic minorities in the United States.

At the same time, it is an essentialassetfor the present and future of the particular group, since the “racial subordination persists, even among highly educated, professional Japanese Americans”(Woodrum 1981, 157). Indeed, “despite impressive qualifications, few Japanese-Americans have reached the highest levels of management” (Gale Group 2008), even as this small community has been regarded as one of the most successful American minority groups. Unfortunately, the prevalent “myth of the model minority”(Endo and Della-Piana 1981; Chou and Feagin 2010) hides multiple faces of racism against Asian Americans in general. It thus appears that “an underlining notion of foreignness tied together the model minority and yellow peril images” (Saito 1997, 94).

Hence, the challenges facing the émigrés remain formidable. Nevertheless,

paradoxically, the Japanese in Japan and Japanese Americans possess a greater sense of peoplehood and homogeneity than many other groups, yet their cultural traditions permit considerable latitude with respect to adapting the attitudes and behavioural characteristics of other peoples (Fugita and D. O’Brien 1991, 165).

The hurdles for those of Japanese heritage are obviously still there on American soil. Yet, given their unique qualities, further accomplishments are certainly within their reach. For that venture of worth, collaborative among the Nisei, Sansei and, increasingly, Yonsei (the fourth generation), plus the new Issei, the blue Pacific will continue to beckon the adventurers from the Land of the Rising Sun.


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[1] While the present article focuses on the people of Japanese heritage in the United States, what is not to be overlooked is the parallel WWII experience of emigrants to Canada. For details, consult such sources as Emanuel La Violette (1948), Miki and Kobayashi (1991), Taylor (2004), and Bangarth (2007).

Further information

Further information of relevance may be obtained from the following sources.

Edward N. Barnhart, comp., 1958.

Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement:
Catalog of Material in the General Library.
Berkeley, CA: University of California
General Library Berkeley

Japanese American National Museum

369 East First Street, Los Angeles, California 90012

Japanese American Citizen’s League

1765 Sutter Street, San Francisco, California 94115

National Museum of American History of Smithsonian Institution

1400 Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20013

Karen Origel and Anne Woo-Sam, comps. 2000.

The World War II Japanese American Incarceration:
An Annotated Bibliography of the Materials
Available in the California State Archives

About the Author

Kaoru Yamamoto is Professor Emeritus in educational psychology, at the University of Colorado, Denver, U.S.A.

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