-by Franklin Ng
America's Concentration Camps
"For the Sake of Our Japanese Brethren": Assimilation, Nationalism, and Protestantism Among the Japanese of Los Angeles, 1895-1942
By Brian Masaru Hayashi
Stanford University Press
217 pp.; $35
Democracy on Trial: The Japanese American Evacuation and Relocation in World War II
By Page Smith
Simon & Schuster
476 pp.; $27.50
Inside an American Concentration Camp: Japanese American Resistance at Poston, Arizona
By Richard Nishimoto
Edited by Lane Ryo Hirabayashi
University of Arizona Press
262 pp.; $45, hardcover; $19.95, paper
Breaking the Silence: The Redress Movement in Seattle
By Yasuko I. Takezawa
Cornell University Press
248 pp.; $37.50, hardcover; $14.95, paper Whispered Silences
For another valuable perspective on the internment, see Whispered Silences: Japanese Americans and World War II, with text by Gary Y. Okihiro and photographs by Joan Myers (University of Washington Press, 249 pp.; $60, hardcover; $29.95, paper). Myers undertook a personal odyssey, visiting the desolate sites of all ten of the wra camps in which Japanese Americans were held during the war. Her haunting photos of the camps as they are today--and of objects left behind there--evoke the suffering of the internees with stark beauty. Okihiro (a leading scholar in the field of Asian American studies) contributes a superb essay that draws heavily on the memories of those who were in the camps while placing their experience in historical context.
On Sunday evening, December 7, 1941, the college group from Saint James Episcopal Church in Los Angeles (a Caucasian congregation) met as planned with the college group from Saint Mary's Church (a Japanese congregation). Earlier that day, when news came of the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, some members at Saint James wanted to cancel the meeting, but the majority thought otherwise, and the gathering took place: a Vespers service, dinner, and an address by the presiding bishop of the Los Angeles diocese. When the Japanese students from Saint Mary's returned home, some of them learned that, while they were out, their fathers had been arrested by the FBI.
In the first five days after Pearl Harbor, 1,370 Japanese aliens on the West Coast were arrested, generally because they had ties with Japanese cultural and religious organizations. But they were only a few among the 16,000 suspected subversives who were arrested at the outset of the war, many of them Germans and Italians (and many subsequently released). Church leaders and government officials--including President Franklin Roosevelt--spoke of the need to respect the civil rights of all Americans, including those of Japanese ancestry, and for a short time that sentiment prevailed. By February of 1942, however, only two months after Pearl Harbor, plans were being laid for the removal and incarceration of nearly 120,000 Japanese from the West Coast, and on February 19, Roosevelt signed the executive order that set those plans in motion.
About the brute fact of these events--the bare outline of internment and, many years later, redress--there can be no disagreement; but everything else is up for grabs, subject to contesting interpretations, beginning at the basic level of terminology. Why did the internment take place? What was its impact on the Japanese American community? And if, in the internment and its aftermath, democracy was on trial, what was the verdict? From sharply different angles, four recently published books provide an opportunity to consider these questions.
Wrong country, wrong state, wrong time
In the 1990 Census, Japanese Americans, with a population of 847,562, ranked third among Asian/Pacific Islander groups in the United States. As the descendants of immigrants from Asia, they--along with other Asian Americans--challenge the notion that the American mosaic is derived exclusively from Europe and Africa. Japanese Americans are distinctive as the only Asian American group that is primarily American born. All the other major groups--Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Asian Indians, and Southeast Asians--are predominantly foreign born. While these other groups have experienced rapid growth through immigration as a result of the landmark Immigration Act of 1965, Japanese immigration has been at low levels. Thus Japanese Americans will soon be surpassed in numbers by groups that, in 1960--when the Japanese constituted by far the largest Asian American population--were tiny by comparison.
It requires a stretch of historical imagination to connect today's Japanese American community--affluent and educated well above the national average--with the community cruelly displaced during World War II, and even more so with the first generation of Japanese immigrants, the "issei," who began coming to the United States in the 1890s.
Harry Kitano, a scholar of the Japanese American experience, said of that first generation that they came to the wrong country and the wrong state at the wrong time. Overwhelmingly, the early Japanese immigrants came to California, with some moving north to Oregon and Washington. They came at a time when, after several decades of Chinese immigration, nativist passions were running high, and the negative stereotypes promoted by the anti-Chinese movement were easily transferred to the Japanese.
After a brief period of extensive immigration from Japan, Congress enacted a series of laws intended to curb further immigration, culminating in the highly restrictive Immigration Act of 1924. At the same time, in California and elsewhere, farmers who felt threatened by competition from hard-working issei families, in concert with the ideologues of the anti-Japanese movement, won passage of alien land laws (intended to prevent aliens from owning the land they worked). Finally, in Takao Ozawa v. United States (1922), a case that challenged the legality of denying Japanese immigrants the right to become naturalized citizens, the Supreme Court closed the door on the issei, ruling that Asians were "non-whites" and, lacking the exception granted to people of African descent, were thus ineligible for naturalization.
Thus, unlike immigrants from Poland or Italy, Germany or Ireland, Norway or Mexico, the issei were excluded by law from full participation in American civic life. Their American-born children, the nisei, however, were U.S. citizens. This difference in status accentuated the cultural difference that always exists between immigrants and their American-born children. It also encouraged the issei to maintain close ties with their homeland.
Japanese Immigrant Nationalism
Brian Masaru Hayashi, in "For the Sake of Our Japanese Brethren," explores the sensitive question of Japanese nationalism among Japanese Americans in the period before World War II. (The topic is sensitive because some commentators believe that to acknowledge any significant degree of pro-Japanese sentiment would be to concede that the internment was justified.) In a carefully documented study based on extensive research in Japanese-language sources, Hayashi looks at Japanese American Protestants in Los Angeles and finds that they exhibited nationalistic fervor and identified with Japan in the 1930s. Hayashi's book thus challenges the received view, that Protestants constituted "the vanguard of cultural assimilation within the Japanese American community."
Not the least of the virtues of Hayashi's study is its pioneering look at the early Japanese American Christian community. In 1930 the Japanese population in the continental United States was 138,834, roughly 20,000 of whom were Protestants. Hayashi's study focuses on three Los Angeles churches representative of that group: the Los Angeles Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church (now Centenary United Methodist Church), the Los Angeles Japanese Union Church (now the Union Church of Los Angeles), and the Los Angeles Holiness Church. All three churches, despite differences in emphasis, were strongly evangelical:
The members and pastors of the three churches held complete confidence in the Bible, were preoccupied with the gospel message, and sought to persuade other Japanese Americans to adopt the faith and thereby gain virtue in this earthly life and eternal life in the hereafter. All three churches conducted weekly Bible studies, and all three labored to spread the message of the gospel to others, especially to their fellow Japanese.
Moreover, Hayashi observes, the churches "emphasized certain aspects of evangelical Christianity, of an American sort that had a close relationship with American cultural values in general."
At first glance, then, Hayashi's findings regarding Japanese nationalism are surprising, for one might well expect that membership in Christian churches should have hastened acculturation and assimilation into American life. And, indeed, into the 1920s, that appeared to be the direction for many Japanese American Christians. But the Immigration Act of 1924 and the Court's ruling in the Ozawa case reversed this course. Rebuffed by these actions, many of the issei began to take greater interest and pride in their homeland. At the same time, Japanese officials, led by Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, encouraged this development.
Matsuoka has not received the attention that he should from Asian American scholars. As one who had actually lived and studied (at the University of Oregon) in the United States in his youth, he did not look down upon Japanese Americans, as many of his peers did. Rather, he understood their experiences and struggles, and he cultivated closer ties and better relations with the issei and nisei generations of Japanese in America.
Furthermore, Hayashi points out that several aspects of Japanese Protestant Christianity facilitated political and cultural identification with Japan. First, the headquarters for the Methodist and Presbyterian denominations cut back on monetary support for the Japanese ethnic churches. As a result, Japanese Protestant churches found themselves more and more dependent upon the Japanese American community to sustain them financially. When they sought contributions, the churches also found it necessary to be linked with the concerns and sentiments of the immigrant community. And in the 1930s, this translated into pride and support for the military successes of Japan in China.
Second, the Japanese American version of evangelical Protestantism did not require believers to discard traditional Japanese values. The themes of mission, social work, and respect for government strengthened ties with the homeland. When disasters struck Japan, Japanese American Christians responded generously. They endorsed the slogan Doho no tame ni ("For the sake of our Japanese brethren"). Protestant evangelical morality and commitment also resonated well with seishin: the Japanese term comprising the values of such traits as loyalty, purity, filial piety, virtue, and honesty, in contrast to individualism, decadence, and materialism. Protestant beliefs and seishin fused together were compatible with allegiance to Japan. Thus Hayashi's discovery of immigrant nationalism in the Japanese community complements other studies by Jerrold Takahashi, Yuji Ichioka, and John Stephan.
On reflection, this evidence of Japanese nationalism is not at all surprising. After all, other immigrant groups, such as the Irish, Armenians, Germans, Italians, Koreans, and Chinese, have shown strong identification with their ancestral homelands. Consistent with this theme, among the nisei there was a group known as the kibei, who were sent for a time by their parents to live and study in Japan. During the 1930s, Japanese Americans prepared and sent thousands of imonbukuro, or care packages, to Japanese soldiers fighting in Manchuria and later in China. They donated imonkin, or comfort money, for the families of Japanese soldiers who had been wounded or killed. Japanese vessels visiting ports such as Honolulu or Los Angeles were greeted warmly, and the fujinkai, or women's associations, arranged hospitality programs for the Japanese naval personnel. Japanese American newspapers, like the Rafu Shimpo and Kashu Mainichi in Los Angeles, gave coverage that sided with Japan against China. In its annual poetry contest in 1938, the Rafu Shimpo even published senryu, or satirical poems, that were critical of the Chinese. In all this, the response of Japanese American Protestants might be likened to the fervent patriotism characteristic of American evangelicalism.1
The Decision For Internment
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, the loyalty of the Japanese American community understandably became a crucial issue. In the upper echelons of the federal government, there now occurred a struggle between the officials of the War Department and the Justice Department. Secretary of War Henry Stimson and his staff felt that circumstances merited the removal of the Japanese on the West Coast. It did not help that Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox had been harping on the theme that subversion in Hawaii had been responsible for the success of the Japanese military. As he explained, "I think the most effective fifth column of the entire war was done in Hawaii with the possible exception of Norway."
Opposing this position was Francis Biddle, the attorney general of the United States. Biddle was concerned about infringing on the constitutional rights of Japanese Americans and did not feel any evacuation was necessary. Moreover, his associate, J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the fbi, did not feel that there was any evidence of subversive activity by the Japanese. But there were others sharing the sentiments of Stimson and Knox who proved to be more influential. These included the West Coast Commander General John L. DeWitt, who was worried about the security of the Pacific Coast and wanted to separate out the disloyal Japanese. They also included Provost Marshal General Allen Gullion and his aide Karl R. Bendetsen of the Aliens Division, who doubted the loyalty of the Japanese.
Actually, a number of federal agencies had already investigated the allegiance of the Japanese. For example, Lt. Cdr. Kenneth D. Ringle of Naval Intelligence, who was fluent in Japanese, had been studying the Japanese American community. He was convinced in 1941 that most of the Japanese were loyal to the United States. Curtis B. Munson, who prepared a report for the White House in November 1941, had also been examining the Japanese community. He believed that, on the whole, the Japanese were not a threat. Hoover and the FBI had chased down rumors about Japanese subversion but could find no evidence to substantiate those claims. And Gen. Mark Clark and Adm. Harold Stark, in surveying the situation, believed that there was no need to impose special measures against the Japanese.
But Stimson was determined to pursue the issue with the President. And when Franklin Roosevelt was confronted with the matter, he decided to defer to the War Department. On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which eventually opened the door for the Japanese American internment, saying only, "Be as reasonable as you can."
In Democracy on Trial, the distinguished historian Page Smith (who died shortly after this book was published) suggests that the internment decision was one that nobody wanted to make. Somewhat by a process of trial and error, the United States fell into the situation of ordering the removal of the Japanese. Smith faults Biddle for being too rigid and doctrinaire in his support of civil rights for the Japanese. By refusing to allow mass searches of individual homes and neighborhoods, Biddle forced DeWitt to press for the more drastic measure of total removal to ensure security.
Smith takes this stance because he believes that military considerations dictated the need to evacuate the Japanese. He endorses the idea that, in wartime, "worst-case scenarios" must be taken into account: "It is certainly better policy to overestimate than to underestimate enemy capabilities," he notes. "Pearl Harbor is a vivid reminder of the principle."
Taking note of the expressions of nationalistic sentiment in the prewar Japanese community, Smith argues that the military had to be concerned about security for their army and navy installations. He declares that if no one could say that subversive activities would take place, "it was equally the case that no one could guarantee that they wouldn't." Smith tries to look at events in 1941 and 1942 "from the ground," from the perspective of the actors at that time. He finds it difficult to quarrel with the logic of General DeWitt's opinion that the Pacific Coast was the home to potential enemies.
Smith believes that DeWitt did not have the luxury to err regarding the security of California and the nation. The general's decision was made according to military, not racial, considerations. He feels that public officials involved in the mass removal and incarceration made their decision after "wise and prudent" deliberations in a "responsible" and "reluctant" way. As Smith puts it, "the evacuation issue was a very small item in a global war that put the so-called free world at the risk of its life." Smith thus accepts the argument that evacuation was based on military necessity--even if later events proved it was not necessary--and feels that the Japanese American internment was a small price to pay.
In holding to this interpretation, Smith goes against the flow of most who have written about the internment. Whereas most authors have found fault with DeWitt, Smith rehabilitates the general's reputation. Yet, one wonders if Smith has not tried too hard to view events from the perspective of DeWitt and those who favored the internment. In so doing, he has deferred to history and legitimated what happened. One could argue that the internment was not really necessary. After all, Hawaii--the site of the Japanese attack and actually closer to the Pacific theater of war--did not witness the mass removal of its 160,000 Japanese residents. Moreover, Smith tends to see the Japanese Americans as tragic pawns. While he decries what happened to them, he nonetheless implies that the end justified the means. For Smith, history is filled with tragedy, and the fate of the Japanese Americans was another replaying of that theme. For Hayashi, however, the "mass internment was an injustice, however many Japanese Americans there were who sympathized with Japan." Hayashi contrasts the treatment of Japanese Americans with that of German Americans and Italian Americans, who were not subjected to mass incarceration.
American Concentration Camps?
In the months following the signing of Executive Order 9066, the Japanese community from the West Coast, two-thirds of them American citizens, were removed from their homes to assembly centers, and then to ten war relocation centers situated in seven different states. The War Relocation Authority (WRA), a civilian agency, had the responsibility of administering the ten camps. The relocation centers were artificial communities hastily erected to house anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000 internees. Barbed-wire fences and sentry towers were posted around the camps. Within these sites, the residents tried to eke out as normal a life as was possible under these circumstances. Children attended school, and adults were afforded opportunities for work. Inevitably, the artificial environment took its toll; in the midst of doubt and uncertainty, many inhabitants experienced stress, tension, and conflict.
How should one refer to the WRA camps? That may seem like a trivial question, the sort of thing academics squabble over amid general indifference. But the issue is important, for the argument over how to name the camps reflects a larger argument about the meaning of the internment in American history. One could, of course, adopt the government's own terminology: "relocation centers" or "relocation camps." Others, however, feel that these terms are euphemisms that hide the tragedy of what really happened. Men, women, and children, two-thirds of them American citizens, without charges placed against them, and without the right of a trial by jury, were indiscriminately placed into sites of mass incarceration. Their only deficiency was their identity as Japanese persons in America.
Roger Daniels, who has written widely on Japanese Americans, claims that these WRA camps were "concentration camps." He recognizes that they were different in character from the death camps of the Nazi Holocaust, but he staunchly defends the use of the label. He reasons in the following manner: First, the historical records show that President Roosevelt and other officials made use of the term "concentration camps" in referring to the WRA sites. Second, most dictionaries define "concentration camps" as places where political prisoners, prisoners of war, and others are held captive. Third, the term itself has its origins well before World War II. It dates back to Spanish Gen. Valeriano Weyler's reconcentration policy in Cuba before the Spanish-American War of 1898. It is also linked with the British term for camps established for civilian prisoners during the Boer War in South Africa from 1899-1902.
Nevertheless, some writers still shy away from using the term "concentration camps" and instead employ the term "internment camps." Daniels, however, argues that this label should be reserved for the detention camps that were devised for aliens. There were Japanese alien internment camps at sites such as Crystal City, Texas, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, that were different in kind from the ten WRA camps. These alien internment camps were administered by the Justice Department rather than the WRA.
Page Smith also enters into this debate about appropriate terminology. He rejects the designation "concentration camps," which summons up "the image of a fearsome Nazi-like death camp arrangement." In Smith's judgment, such associations are dramatically at odds with the actual experience of the Japanese American internees. The WRA camps, he argues, resembled communities such as villages, towns, or small cities. Indeed, he sees them as " 'forcing grounds' of democratic principles," where, for better or worse, the internees had "learned, willy-nilly, the tactics of democratic politics and in this sense none of them were as they had been before."
In the scholarly community, the increasing trend is to use the term "concentration camps" for the WRA camps and the label "internment camps" for the alien detention sites. As an example, one could cite the volume Japanese American History: An A-to-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present (1993), edited by Brian Niiya for the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. With the exception of Smith, all of the authors reviewed here--Hayashi, Lane Hirabayashi, and Yasuko Takezawa--accept these terminological distinctions. At the same time, the tendency is to accept usage of the phrase "the Japanese American internment" to describe the mass removal and incarceration of the Japanese Americans.
By using, again and again, the term "concentration camps" to refer to the WRA camps, scholars contend that they are getting at the truth behind America's self-congratulatory national mythology. But it is fair to ask if this term really respects the specific nature of the Japanese American experience during World War II. Is the implicit analogy with Hitler's death camps helpful, leading to a deeper understanding of the internment, or is it, in fact, misleading?
Popular Resistance In The Camps
Consider the title of the third book under review here: Inside an American Concentration Camp, a collection of several reports by Richard Nishimoto, compiled and edited by Lane Ryo Hirabayashi. This provocative title was supplied by the editor, who has thus framed the pieces in a context not imagined by the author.2 Nishimoto (1904-56) was born in Japan and was a graduate of Stanford University. During the years from 1943 to 1948, he was employed as a researcher for the Japanese Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS). Directed by Dorothy Swaine Thomas, JERS was an effort by the University of California to document the life of the Japanese Americans in the wra camps. One publication that resulted and that became a standard reference source was The Spoilage: Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement (1946) with Thomas and Nishimoto as coauthors.
As a resident of Poston--the largest of the ten WRA camps--who was fluent in Japanese, Nishimoto was seen as a valuable field researcher for JERS. He wrote numerous reports detailing the camp life that he observed and documented the many reactions of the Japanese who were confined in the desert near Parker, Arizona. It was a place so hot during the summers that residents only half-jokingly referred to it as "Poston, Toastin', and Roastin'." Staying with the other inhabitants, Nishimoto noted the difficulties of camp administrators in getting cooperation from camp residents in work activities such as firebreaking. He also discussed the refusal on the part of Japanese residents to leave WRA camps near the end of the war.
For Lane Hirabayashi, these reports are documented descriptions of popular resistance on the part of camp residents. Many accounts of the Japanese American internment depict the camp residents as the victims of a wartime decision. Once they were within these communities, they had little recourse but to bide their time. But Hirabayashi believes that the camp residents were more than passive victims. Indeed, he argues, they resisted in many ways. Through the frequent airing of complaints, noncompliance with camp directives, labor slowdowns, strikes, protests, and even occasional riots, the Japanese internees indicated that they were dissatisfied with the conditions in their camp and with their confinement generally.
This resistance even extended to a refusal on the part of many to leave the camps. By 1944, the tide of the war had clearly turned against Japan. The WRA took the position that all of the camps, except for Tule Lake, should be closed down in 1945. But there was popular resistance. Nishimoto noted that representatives from some of the camps opposed this idea at an All-Center Conference held in Salt Lake City, Utah, in February of 1945. At this conference, camp representatives showed an unwillingness to leave unless certain demands were met. They wanted assistance, financial help, and various assurances. While this reluctance to leave might be viewed as bizarre and quixotic behavior, Hirabayashi says it is quite understandable. The internees' refusal was really an attempt to take control of their lives. They wanted to indicate that they could not simply be dictated to by the WRA without any prior consultation.
Hirabayashi acknowledges that his interpretation of popular resistance is not necessarily a view that Nishimoto himself would have endorsed. Brian Hayashi would probably add that Hirabayashi does not give enough attention to Japanese nationalistic sentiment as a motive for this confrontational behavior. (For example, some residents saw themselves as subjects of Japan and refused to cooperate with camp authorities.) And Page Smith would argue that Hirabayashi has set up a false dichotomy, as if the internees were forced to choose between passive compliance and "popular resistance." In fact, Smith would contend, the overwhelming majority of the internees chose neither of these alternatives. They were far from being passive, nor did they engage in resistance; rather, they got on with their lives: In time the centers became small cosmoses. They had all the agencies and instrumentalities, as we say, of any community. And some uniquely their own. They had religious services, social organizations, hospitals with doctors, nurses, operating rooms (the residents of one center, dissatisfied with their chief of medicine, petitioned the administration to have him fired), cooperative stores, small business ventures such as barber shops, tobacco stores, internal economies, and . . . largely unsuccessful attempts at modest war-related industries. They had schools, recreational facilities, social programs, transportation and communication systems, construction crews, paid workers, labor boards.
Nevertheless, Hirabayashi does present an interesting perspective. He has suggested a potentially useful method of looking at the camp experience from the level of residents rather than that of officials at the time.
Internment And Japanese American Identity
The imminent defeat of Japan had become obvious by early 1945, and there was no longer any need to maintain the camps. The WRA rejected the recommendations of the representatives made at the All-Center Conference. All ten of the WRA camps were closed by March of 1946. The internees were resettled in their former West Coast homes or in other communities. Although there was some hostility directed at Japanese Americans, its intensity and pervasiveness eventually diminished. Many issei never recovered from the ordeal of the internment and the often substantial material losses they had suffered--the human cost was incalculable--but others, especially among the nisei, were eventually able to join the ranks of the middle class and share in America's postwar economic growth.
Over time, the consensus view of the Japanese American internment has altered radically. An event that was hardly even acknowledged in American history texts during the first postwar decades is now presented in books and films at many different levels, ranging from middle-school texts and stories for young readers to an enormous scholarly literature and a vast archive of primary sources. ("All in all," Page Smith writes in a note on sources, "I think it safe to say that no event in history has been so thoroughly recorded.") Many now see the mass removal and incarceration as a grave injustice to Japanese Americans. In this sense, they might well differ with Smith's judgment that military necessity justified the evacuation.
With the Civil Rights Act of 1988, the U.S. government officially apologized for the internment of the Japanese and authorized payment of $20,000 to each survivor of the camps. Passed by a large margin in both houses of Congress and signed with great fanfare by President Ronald Reagan, the 1988 legislation provided dramatic evidence of the change in public sentiment.
How did this transformation come about? This is in part the subject of Yasuko I. Takezawa's Breaking the Silence. In the immediate postwar years, Japanese Americans were preoccupied with rebuilding their lives. But by the early 1970s and 1980s, the community was embarked on a campaign for redress: to secure recognition from the U.S. government that the civil rights of citizens of Japanese ancestry had been violated during wartime. The redress campaign also served as an opportunity to educate the general public about the history and experience of Japanese Americans.
Takezawa, a Japanese scholar who has lived in the United States, locates the roots of the redress campaign in 1972, in Seattle. Conveniently, she was a graduate student at the University of Washington and was in an advantageous position to observe and to record some of the progress of this movement. From her perspective, the nisei were generally reluctant to discuss the internment episode. Perhaps it was the shame or the pain of the memory. In any event, in the years following the war, many nisei sought to blend in and to merge with the larger society. As a result, their children, the sansei, or third generation, seemed to be acculturating rapidly. They appeared to be indifferent to their cultural heritage and demonstrated no interest in the internment experience. Indeed, assimilation and a high rate of marriage outside their own ethnic group raised fears among Japanese Americans (comparable to those expressed by many American Jews) that the very survival of the Japanese American community might be in doubt.
But suddenly, in the 1970s, many sansei expressed a desire to learn more about the wartime internment. Why the abrupt change? Certainly the civil-rights movement and the increasing emphasis on ethnic identity helped to promote a heightened sense of ethnic and political consciousness among Asian Americans. In the quest to discover more about Japanese American identity and history, the sansei learned about the relocation experience of their parents and grandparents.
Japanese American activists in Seattle, many of them of the third generation, helped to mobilize support for redress. Many leaders of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), such as Bill Hosokawa and Mike Masaoka, were initially reluctant to join the cause. They feared a backlash. Nevertheless, through the use of the media, videotapes, plays, and the reenactment of Day of Remembrance commemorations to focus attention on the internment, the Seattle activists were able to win a wider base of national support for redress.
A crucial stage was reached when the U.S. government agreed to establish a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) in 1981. Holding hearings across the nation, the commission gathered testimony that led to a final report in 1983. The commission concluded that the Japanese American internment was due to "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership." It recommended a formal government apology, the establishment of an educational fund, and individual payments of $20,000. From these findings, both houses of Congress sponsored bills that finally passed and became the Civil Rights Act of 1988.
In this campaign for redress, sansei played a major role. But just as important, they were given an opportunity to enter into a dialogue with their nisei parents. There was reconciliation and mutual discovery across the two generations. The result of this communication was to instill among the sansei a sense of pride in their ethnic heritage and to strengthen intergenerational ties. The redress movement also enhanced their sense of community and made them more aware of minority concerns and a broader Asian American identity.
In short, Takezawa finds that the wartime internment experience helped to reconstruct and define Japanese American identity. She is aware that ethnicity can be expressed differently over time, and that ethnic identity is constantly being constructed or reconstructed; others might say ethnicity is a cultural invention. A consciousness of history--in this case, the redress movement growing out of knowledge about the internment--is helping to shape and to nurture a sense of ethnic identity among the sansei. The sansei are experiencing both assimilation and an enhanced sense of ethnic awareness; the two developments are not incompatible. At the same time, Takezawa notices that the reinterpretation of the Japanese American internment has become tantamount to a legend. It is a legend of setbacks and success, injustice and vindication, suffering and triumph. It is a very American story.
Franklin Ng is professor of anthropology at California State University, Fresno. He is the editor of the six-volume Asian American Encyclopedia (Marshall Cavendish).
Copyright(c) 1996 by Christianity Today, Inc/BOOKS & CULTURE, journal
November/December 1996, Vol. 2, No. 6, Page 30