Home / Globalizing Americana: Part 15 – Xenophobia and the Internment of Japanese-Americans

Globalizing Americana: Part 15 – Xenophobia and the Internment of Japanese-Americans

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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.

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About Jason J. Campbell

  • Interesting. I’m part Japanese and can tell you the fear and loathing lingered way beyond WWII. However, I don’t fault human nature for circling the wagons. I believe it’s an instinctive reaction that our cave dwelling ancestors found necessary for survival. It’s probably how Hitler got the Nazi party going, subversively.

  • Perhaps you did not know but German Americans and Italian Americans were also interned in the United States during World War II.

    So what do you say to this aspect of World World War II?

    How does this change your theory?

  • Thanks for the heads up CrystalCity. Yeah I was aware of the internment of German and Italian Americans during WWII but the ratio to Japanese-Americans was almost 10/1 so I focused on them. It doesn’t change the analysis. Actually, I take that back, it makes it that much worse if you think of the total collective internment. The point of the piece is to show how civil liberties and rights can be stripped based on xenophobia, which includes German and Italian Americans, so in that regard I probably should have addressed their internment as well. Thanks for the link also. I’ll be sure to save it in my data. Peace.

  • History Student

    It is well-documented that the evacuation was motivated, not by racism, but by information obtained by the U.S. from pre-war decoded Japanese diplomatic messages “MAGIC” and other intelligence revealed the existence of espionage and the potential for sabotage involving then-unidentified resident Japanese aliens and Japanese-Americans living within the West Coast Japanese community.

    The U.S. Congress immediately passed legislation providing enforcement provisions for FDR’s Executive Order, unanimously in both the House and Senate, provided under Article 1, Section 9 of the United States Constitution.

    Only persons of Japanese ancestry (alien and citizen) residing in the West Coast military zones were affected by the evacuation order. Those living elsewhere were not affected at all.

    It is not true that Japanese-Americans were “interned. Only Japanese nationals (enemy aliens) arrested and given individual hearings were interned. Such persons were held for deportation in Department of Justice camps. Those evacuated were not interned. They were first given an opportunity to voluntarily move to areas outside the military zones. Those unable or unwilling to do so were sent to Relocation Centers operated by the War Relocation Authority.

    At the time, the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) officially supported the government’s evacuation order and urged all enemy alien Japanese and Japanese Americans to cooperate and assist the government in their own self interest.

    It is misleading and in error to state that those affected by the evacuation orders were all “Japanese-Americans.” Approximately two-thirds of the ADULTS among those evacuated were Japanese nationals–enemy aliens. The vast majority of evacuated Japanese-Americans (U.S. citizens) were children at the time. Their average age was only 15 years. In addition, over 90% of Japanese-Americans over age 17 were also citizens of Japan (dual citizens)under Japanese law. Thousands had been educated in Japan. Some having returned to the U.S. holding reserve rank in the Japanese armed forces.

    During the war, more than 33,000 evacuees voluntarily left the relocation centers to accept outside employment. An additional 4300 left to attend colleges.

    In a questionaire, over 26% of Japanese-Americans of military age at the time said they would refuse to swear an unqualified oath of allegiance to the United States.

    According to War Relocation Authority records, 13,000 applications renouncing their U.S. citizenship and requesting expatriation to Japan were filed by or on behalf of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Over 5,000 had been processed by the end of the war.

    After loyalty screening, eighteen thousand Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans were segregated at a special center for disloyals at Tule Lake California where regular military “Banzai” drills in support of Emperor Hirohito were held.

    The Supreme Court of the United States upheld the Consitutionality of the evacuation/relocation in Korematsu v. U.S., 1944 term. In summing up for the 6-3 majority, Justice Black wrote:
    “There was evidence of disloyalty on the part of some, the military authorities considered that the need for action was great, and time was short. We cannot –by availing ourselves of the calm perspective of hindsight — now say that at the time these actions were unjustified.” That decision has never been reversed and stands to this day.

    It should be noted that the relocation centers had many amenities. Accredited schools, their own newspapers, stores, churches, hospitals, all sorts of sports and recreational facilities. They also had the highest percapita wartime birth rates for any U.S.community.

    More history for you to consider regarding the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians:

    Consider that of the nine commission members, six were biased in favor of reparations. Ishmail Gromoff and William Marutani, relocatees themselves, sat in judgment of their own cases. Arthur Goldberg and Joan Bernstein made sympathetic, pro-reparation statements publicly before hearings even began. Arthur Fleming had worked closely with the JACL (he was a keynote speaker at its Portland convention in the ’70s). Robert Drinan was a co-sponsor of the bill establishing the commission.

    Consider that notices of when and where hearings were to be held were not made known to the general, non-Japanese public.

    Consider that witnesses who gave testimony were not sworn to tell the truth.

    Consider that witnesses who were pro-reparation were carefully coached in their testimony in “mock hearings” beforehand.

    Consider that witnesses against reparation were harassed and drowned out by foot-stomping Japanese claques, that the commission members themselves ridiculed and badgered these same witnesses.

    Consider that not one historian was asked to testify before the commission, that intelligence reports and position papers contrary to reparations were deliberately ignored.

    Consider that as a result of the above, the United States Department of Justice objected strongly to the findings of the commission.

    Lastly while we’ve all been educated on the doctrines associated with the rise of Nazism, I would be curious to know if courses are provided teaching the history of the doctrines of Japanese militarism, a belief system similar and equally as insidious as Nazism?

    Any clasess on the kokutai? Hakko Ichiu? Any reading of Kokutai no Hongi? Shimin to Michi? The role of Nichiren Buddhism and Japanese “Language Schools” in teaching these doctines of Japanese racial superiorty to ethnic Japanese colonies throughout the word prior to Pearl Harbor?

    Those of you learning this history at your public schools and universities should understand you are being taught an extemely biased and partial version of what really happened and why. I would urge you to go beyond the politically correct version of this history as propagated by the Japanese-American reparations movement.

  • History Student,

    Thanks for sharing your comments. Somethings I will certainly look into like, kokutai, Hakko Ichiu, Kokutai no Hongi, Shimin to Michi as I’m not familiar with these concepts, but based on the context of your points I’m assuming they are various conceptions of Japanese elitism. I will definitely investigate these claims further.
    Regarding your claim that, “It is not true that Japanese-Americans were interned” that point is false, See:

    Monroe Leigh, “Hohri v. United States. 782 F.2d 227” in The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Jul., 1986), pp. 648-651


    Aimee Chin “Long-Run Labor Market Effects of Japanese American Internment during World War II on Working-Age Male Internees” in Journal of Labor Economics, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 491-525

    Regarding your claim that, “the evacuation was motivated, not by racism, but by information obtained by the U.S. from pre-war decoded Japanese diplomatic messages…” I agree that it was not motivated by racism, as xenophobia and racism are not interchangeable. Their forced evacuation was motivated by xenophobia, being my central argument.

    Finally, I would caution of any attempt to justify the internment of Japanese, Italian and German Americans during WWII, as such accounts seem to condone or excuse the reality of its happening. The degree to which it happened isn’t of any importance here, _that_ it happened is the point of my analysis on xenophobia. Were it to happen to only 15 Japanese-Americans or even just 1 Japanese-American during WWII, irrespective of Nazism or various conceptions of Japanese elitism the act of interning citizens is reprehensible given the context of the analysis.

    So yes, I agree that one should be cautious in accounting for historical facts. And I agree that there may be analogous conception of Japanese elitism that may have influenced other’s perceptions, but what I cannot acknowledge is that Japanese-Americans were not interned, nor can I condone or accommodate any claim which would seek to justify their internment based on their affiliation with Nazism.

  • History Student

    Thanks for your response, Jason. My goal is to have a civil and stimulating debate regarding your comments and the history of the evacuation in general.

    In my view this history is not just American history. This is Japanese history. In that respect critical analysis of the beliefs of some Japanese who happened to be living in other part of the world other than Japan in a time of intense Japanese ultranationalism needs to be scrutinized.

    I say “some” Japanese, because certainly not all held these ultranationalistic feelings. Those living in Japan during the Showa era were imprisoned by the “Thought Police” for the duration of the war if they spoke out against it.

    In the continental United States even fewer held such feelings of ultranationalism. Official Ringle docs state the percentage at 25%. Military leaders had decided 25% of the ethnic Japanese population of the west coast with fanatical loyalty to Japan was unacceptable, time was of the essence regarding the security of the the west coast combat zones as a whole – therefore all ethnic Japanese must be removed from the combat zones.

    You write that you cannot acknowledge that Japanese-Americans were interned, but the internment had nothing to do with the evacuation.

    Internment camps were run by the Department of Justice and held only enemy aliens who had been deemed security risks and their U.S. citizen family members who were allowed at their choice to stay with them. Internees included 10,995 Germans, 16, 849 Japanese (5,589 who voluntarily renounced U.S. citizenship and became enemy aliens), 3,278 Italians, 52 Hungarians, 25 Romanians, 5 Bulgarians, and 161 classified as “other”.

    Only a small fraction of enemy aliens were interned. Japanese citizens with families were sent to Crystal City, Texas and lived side-by-side with German and Italian families. Single men were sent to internment camps in other states. Not all enemy aliens were placed in internment camps, and no American citizen was forcefully placed in an internment camp. If you were interned it was determined that you, a spouse or parent was an enemy alien and a security risk.

    It should be noted that all 16,849 Japanese enemy-aliens including the 5,589 that renounced American citizenship were eligible for an apology from the United States and a $20,000 reparations payment while the Germans, Italians, Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians received nothing. I was living in Japan when the American government was seeking out these “renunciants” to give them $20,000 and an apology. The Japanese media had a field day and it was a fiasco.

    Lastly if you believe the evacuation was based on Xenophobia, please remember in early 1942 the Empire of Japan had suceeded on the largest conquest in world history (in terms of square miles). From Pearl Harbor to The Philippines the United States had lost considerable control of it’s power – the Japanese media in the United States had supported Japanese ultranationalism since the Manchurian Incident of 1931 – Japanese “language schools” had been indoctrinating young nisei in Japanese ultranationalism – and as I mentioned in my initial post the adults who actually led their communities were not Americans they were Japanese.

    I would be happy to discuss specifics should you be interested, but I cannot believe America’s military and political leaders at the time didn’t have more to worry about and a better way to use scarce resources than a “xenophobic pogrom” against ethnic Japanese unless the security threats were real.

  • History Student,

    You are a very fair and competitive debater, so for that I am greatly appreciative. There are a number of points that I must grant:

    1. The fact that Germans, Italians, Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians received nothing is reprehensible. So I agree this is horrible.

    2. Your point of the threat of ultranationalism is an excellent point and I’ll most certainly write about the meaning of that concept at another time.

    3. Your point that it is also Japanese history is irrefutable something that bears heavily in both of our arguments, and I’ll grant that as well.

    4. Lastly, I’ll even grant your description of the west coast as a combat zone, which required extreme governmental interaction.

    These 4 point were well made and for the inherent brevity in blog comments well supported.

    Granting all four of these point, I would still argue that the basis of their internment was xenophobia. Returning to your point of ultranationalism, if it is, at the time, a recognized fact that Japan had mobilized it military forces with Germany and Italy, and it is also know that the US had as you’ve stated, ” lost considerable control of it’s power,” then why wouldn’t one draw the conclusion that xenophobia arose as a direct consequence of the expansion of Japanese power and the recession of American power? Generally stated, it like saying, “their taking over our country,” which is exactly what xenophobia is. So even if it is true that there were ultranational Japanese loyalist in the U.S. the response to this threat was just wrong.

    Furthermore, you stated, “If you were interned it was determined that you, a spouse or parent was an enemy alien and a security risk.” The point that the condition for internment rested upon the notion of an “enemy alien” is itself dubious. But in fairness to our debate I’ll grant that point. Even if that point is granted, however, the assessment or method with which one determines what constitutes an enemy alien cannot be ad hoc. Surely you have to acknowledge that California residents probably never heard of the term and even if they were asked, as American citizens if their loyalties lay with Japan, then their response to that question is protected under their freedom of speech as American citizens. I’d have to side with Noam Chomsky here agree that Freedom of speech precisely protects that speech you are most threatened by. Legally, were that to be true it is the clearest case of mass entrapment to date, which is clearly false.

    The fact is, It wasn’t some big conspiracy. Both Japanese and American government is comprised of people just like you and me and Homer Simpson, a lot more Homer Simpsons than probably you and me. Nevertheless, they were fearful of Japanese expansion for all the reasons you named and overreacted. When you or I overreact we do it on a small scale. When government overreacts the scale is much larger. If you think of xenophobia in this example as government overreaction it might not seem so spooky.


  • Dan

    Jason, it seems to me that judging an “overreaction” is a subjective thing. Shouldn’t it be weighed against the benefit of the action? If enemy espionage was thwarted, and only 16,000 were inconvenienced, some would call that success.

    If xenophopia were to have caused an overreaction to a stricter scrutiny of certain arab men enrolled in crop duster training it might have led to some unpleasant name calling, but possibly could have been successful.

    It seems to be a matter of degree. But when does xenophobia cease to be irrational, and become a instinctive, logical, survival management tool?

  • Dan that’s the million dollar question, which is, can a certain level of fear actually be helpful? Ah…I gotta think about that one for awhile. I guess my first impulse it to say that we should be animals governed by reason more so than emotion, though emotion shouldn’t be undermined. I don’t know. Beyond the pejorative nature of the word ‘xenophobe’ is there some good in fearing something unknown? I guess my only response for now is to say it’s a slippery slope. When does that fear turn to aggression. Not to bring up right-left politics but when is the Bush doctrine really justifiable. It’s dangerous. I sense your skepticism is in the right place but I may not be the guy to argue for the justification of acting out of fear, though I’m sure someone can. Also ‘overreaction’ was probably a poor choice of words, so I’ll concede that, but you get the point gov. reaction is an exponential reaction if compared to the individual’s action. I’ll have to give some serious thought to your question though. It’ll bug me for the rest of the night…but that’s cool. peace.

  • bliffle

    Excellent thread.

  • Angela Holt

    I am an African-American. I sometimes wonder; if something happened here in America where we had to leave, would all these other countries let us come there to live like we allow them to come here and live, and give us government benefits, insurance and housing or would they forget our generosity towards them and turn us away? The descendants of the Japanese prisoners of war got $2000 each, but the descendants of the African slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule to which we did not get!

  • The “well-documented” pro-internment guest has posted the same boilerplate verbiage all over the internet even after his arguments have been destroyed by every informed person with the spare time of which this gentleman evidently has a great deal. It gets tiring explaining the roundness of the earth over and over but briefly I’ll just say that pointing out how many of the ethnic Japanese on the west coast were “enemy aliens” has nothing to do with being dangerous and everything to do with the Alien Enemy Act combined with the blatantly racist anti-Asian exclusion laws which meant ANY immigrant Japanese was ineligible for citizenship and automatically became an “enemy alien” when the U.S. declared war on Japan.

    The rest of the pro-internment innuendoes he purports to justifying the uprooting of an entire community are equally specious and ignorant. Shooting down the Commission on Wartime Relocation is a straw man internment revisionists like to waste people’s time & webspace with. Another distraction, telling us the camps had many “amenities” to make up for losing your freedom and any property and security you’d worked to build up to that point doesn’t change the very fundamental injustice of the “internment,” which FDR himself called “concentration camps.” No, ethnic Japanese weren’t the only community interned. But they were the only WW2 “enemy race” (in the words of General DeWitt) removed from their homes, citizen and alien alike, solely because of their ancestry. It’s important to clear up any misconceptions arising in condemnation of the camps but as a descendant of WW2 incarcerees I find it annoying when people get so offended by “politically correct” distortions they’ve read or imagined, and then they themselves throw a lot of sloppy arguments around and confuse the issue even more.

  • I think I may have pushed the limit of the civilized comment policy of this site in my last post. There were some heated online debates in the aftermath of the Michelle Malkin book involving the same person and some of my exasperation carried over finding the same boilerplate posted here. If the host finds my comment too heated I’d be grateful for the chance to edit & repost, thanks.