Xenophobia and the Internment of Japanese-Americans
In a previous discussion on cultural sensitivity, and the protection of borders, I initiated a discussion on the dual role of our responsibility to the concerns of our citizens on the one hand, and an equal responsibility to the concerns of non-citizens on the other, which is only complicated by discussing illegal immigration.
I will have to admit that the analysis of illegal immigration is far more complicated and requires more detail than I can offer in my analysis of the globalization of Americana. It is important, however, that we — both those on the right and those on the left — learn not to speak past each other and truly hear the concerns of our fellow citizens.
There is a very real danger in the illegal access of millions into the United States, both economically and physically. Similarly, there must be alternatives with which the United States government can restructure its trade agreements, specifically the North American Free Trade Agreement, for the betterment of the Mexican laborers and its government, which would likely lessen the desirability to flee Mexico for the United States.
It is important that we not forget the mistakes of our past in creating our future, for the problems rooted in xenophobia have spawned some of the darkest days in America’s recent history. Our problem with xenophobia is far deeper than our current dilemmas with illegal immigration and has led to some of the greatest abuses of political power in American history.
The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II serves as the prima facie case of the dangers in assuming xenophobic ideals. It is a testament to the naysayer that our country has itself fallen victim to the powerful stigmatization with which American citizens were robbed of their rights.
The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese allegiance with Nazi Germany during the Second World War has tarnished the history of both countries. But we, too, have tarnished our history, and not only in the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which, according to some may be justifiable. In a sense of mass panic and fear, we allowed xenophobia to undermine the rights of American citizens and interned fellow Americans based on the fear that they may be Axis sympathizers.
The fear that xenophobia can excite among the masses transcends the mere concept of foreign and native. One is certainly justified in asking, “What does it mean to be native?”
Xenophobia does not operate, at its most insidious levels, as easily identifiable slogans of hatred or prejudice. It operates more insidiously in our culture on the level of wit and comedy. It is the racist joke that we’ve all told. It is the derogatory names with which we identify fellow Americans; it is, as I will argue in the next section, the very idea of a hyphenated American.
The idea that there were Japanese-Americans does not speak to the shared sense of being American, it speaks to the difference and the origin of being Japanese. In that distinction, during the Second World War, being a Japanese-American essentially meant being an Axis sympathizer, which our government could not tolerate.
I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to have been a taxpaying American citizen, albeit a Japanese-American during the Second World War, and to have my family forcibly interned by my own government. The only threat presented to the government and the American way of life was the threat of being Japanese-American. In actuality, however, Americans viewed Japanese-Americans as Japanese – and not only as Japanese, but Japanese Axis sympathizers.
The error in this logic is that it generalizes to all on the basis of some, which is patently unfair. One cannot suggest that because a member of an ethnic group, for example, exhibits certain characteristics, that all members of that ethnic group exhibit the same characteristic. This is just false.
It is probably true that there were subversive Japanese-Americans within the United States, probably even seeking to overthrow the government, but even if that were true, it would not and it cannot justify the internment of all Japanese-Americans. The motivation for their internment was solely xenophobic, and as such it was without justification.
Though the idea of xenophobia may seem like an issue that only concerns academics, it is through rigorous conceptual analysis, debate, and points and counterpoints that awareness can be attained. The point, then, of any successful academic, at least within the humanities, is not to present the definitive facts of the matter, which thereby terminates all objections and discussion. The point of an academic is to raise social awareness. Thus, if I am to wear the label of an academic, let it be in my ability to raise social awareness.
As a society, then, we cannot allow ourselves to become so consumed with fear, no matter how pressing that realization is, to the point that we generalize our fears to all members of a community that share similar beliefs, features, or religious or political affiliations. Our fears, if and when they are realized, should be specifically directed to that threat and that threat alone.
When that threat has been mitigated, one ought to treat each person as an end in themselves; that is, as autonomous human beings. Recognizing the individuality of each person will always be of more benefit than generalizing one’s fears throughout a group.
Finally, then, the internment of Japanese-Americans not only demonstrates the problems with xenophobia, but also the fundamental problem with describing Americans in terms of their hyphenation. This point, however, will be addressed in the next section.