The other day of infamy


A TRAGEDY OF DEMOCRACY: Japanese Confinement in North America, by Greg Robinson, Columbia University Press, 371 pp., $29.95 (hardcover)

The facts are well known. In the spring of 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, some 112,000 Japanese American citizens living on the Pacific Coast of the United States were rounded up, placed in holding centers, then interned in camps located in often geographically and climatically inhospitable parts of the interior. The majority would remain there under confinement for the duration of the war.

Although inmates were never subjected to physical brutalities, the incident is regarded by many today as one of the worst civil rights abuses of the last century. It was also, given that the country was ostensibly engaged in a war of liberation, a touch ironic.

The writer helpfully provides much needed historical detail on the Japanese diaspora, less well documented than the Chinese one, but considerable in scale. Robinson outlines its dimensions and reach, which, besides the emigrations to the West Coast of North America, saw settlements in Australia, New Zealand, Peru, the Philippines and even New Caledonia.

It is immensely important to know the racial climate in the decades before the camps were set up. Working as laborers, domestic staff, in canneries and on fishing boats, some Japanese Americans were able to open restaurants, small shops and boarding houses; a few managed to enter the professional class as newspaper editors, ministers and teachers.

By the 1930s, Japanese Americans were an established, albeit still discriminated against, strata of U.S. society. In an age that held to the idea of a kind of racial pre-ordainment, in which white supremacy was an assumption rather than a slur, the success of Japanese Americans, their refusal to keep to their assigned station in life, incensed Caucasian Americans of all ages and class.

The author traces the early, prewar signs of suspicion and discrimination against Japanese Americans and their eventual designation as “enemy aliens” in the minds of the authorities and the American public, steps that arguably began as early as 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Acts. Laws were passed forbidding white women to be employed in the services of Asians, agitation begun among white farmers to prevent Asians from owning land, and a host of other measures ensued, all designed to send a “powerful message to Japanese Americans that they were unwanted.”

Despite the actions of Japanese Americans in the moments after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which saw Nisei soldiers dash to their posts and fire at the enemy and Japanese-American Red Cross workers caring for the wounded and the dead, among whom many of their ranks were numbered, their fate was sealed on that day. A measure of the random and ill-conceived injustice was that, included among those rounded up, were subjects who had as little as one-sixteenth Japanese blood.

Japanese Americans were not without their supporters among white Americans of influence. Samuel Wilder King, a congressional delegate from Hawaii, represented their cause in Washington, stating in one address, “Frankly, my sympathies are with these young Americans. They take their citizenship seriously, and they accept their obligations and duties as citizens conscientiously.” As usually happens when a fierce nationalism takes hold of an entire population, the voices of reason are drowned out.

Others were less magnanimous with their remarks. One columnist, the long forgotten Harry McLemore, spoke for many white people when he wrote that he supported the immediate removal of all West Coast Japanese Americans to the deep interior, adding “I don’t mean a nice part of the interior, either. Herd ’em up, pack ’em off and give ’em the inside room of the badlands. Let ’em be inched, hurt, hungry, and up against it. Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.” It was not America’s finest hour.

By all accounts, conditions at the centers were abominable, with fairground livestock pens and racetrack horse stalls quickly painted up and cobbled together as single rooms for entire families. A mattress cover and straw for inmates to make their own beds was issued on arrival. Food supplies were poor, and sanitation low enough for epidemics to pose a constant threat.

Punishing losses mounted as scavengers descended on members of the Japanese community, scooping up land and belongings for scandalously low sums. Warehouses where goods were stored were broken into and pillaged during the war, while property entrusted to the care of white American friends was often damaged or never returned.

During a recent U.S. congressional hearing on radicalization in the American Muslim community, Congressman Mike Honda of California, who spent part of his childhood in an internment camp, said, “We know from history that you don’t solve problems by victimizing one group.”

Extreme vigilance is required to ensure that such things do not happen again. The short taper of history is easily relit.