Susan H. Kamei: Captives in Our Own Country: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II


A citizen of American origin, Aiko didn’t think she had any reason to worry. She thought she would be protected by the US Constitution. She, along with my grandparents and parents, would soon find out how wrong she was. My father, then a 14-year-old freshman at Huntington Beach Union High School, later recalled, “People couldn’t or didn’t want to distinguish between Americans who had Japanese parents and Japanese people. .

The attack on Pearl Harbor intensified anti-Japanese sentiments that had existed since the arrival of the first wave of immigrants from Japan in the 1880s. Amid decades of discriminatory policies, the Japanese-American community was vulnerable because a dismayed and angry nation regarded anyone who looked like the enemy to be the enemy.

Even before the attack, senior officials in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration and military leaders assumed that the Issei, or first generation immigrants, as well as the Nisei, their US-born children, would be disloyal to US interests in the event of war, despite intelligence reports that refuted these claims. Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, who would lead Western Defense Command during the war, said publicly, “A Jap is a Jap, regardless of whether he is a US citizen or not.

Paul Webb, then director of Los Angeles High, determined that Aiko and the 14 other Nisei seniors would not graduate because “your people bombed Pearl Harbor.”

In January 1942, Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron was among the West Coast mayors leading a racist chorus to expel Japanese residents who lived in their area. Officials from the League of California Cities, heads of major industries – especially defense contractors and large agricultural companies – and journalists joined us.

US Representative Leland M. Ford, whose district included Santa Monica, was the first congressman to push for the mass incarceration of “all Japanese, whether citizens or not.” He even argued that they could prove that they were genuinely loyal and “patriotic” by voluntarily taking themselves into custody.

On February 19, 1942, just over 10 weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, initiating the incarceration of approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent – two-thirds of whom were citizens. Americans Nisei – as “military necessity. Soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets removed men, women and children from their homes in California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona.

On short notice, they had to give up their businesses, farms, jobs, studies and even their pets. They were only allowed to take what they could take. They had to sell, store or give up the rest of their belongings. My father’s farming family had to give up several acres of celery ready for harvest. My father, Hiroshi Kamei, called it “my family’s greatest economic loss”.

That spring, Americans of Japanese descent were sent to temporary detention centers euphemistically called “assembly centers,” including one at the Santa Anita Racecourse in Arcadia. After my mother, then 14-year-old Tami Kurose, and her parents arrived there, they felt lucky that they were assigned to barracks and not horse stalls that reeked of manure.

Later that summer, Japanese Americans were moved to one of 10 newly constructed sites, in desolate locations, under the jurisdiction of the War Relocation Authority. When Aiko realized how isolated the Manzanar prison camp was in the Sierra Nevada, she said she thought, “This is where they are going to shoot us.” She feared that “no one would know the difference” if the government killed them all there.

Aiko, my parents and their families, as well as the other imprisoned Japanese Americans, would remain behind barbed wire, enduring harsh conditions, for the duration of the war. Even as the war drew to a close in 1944, FDR refused to allow the so-called camps to be closed until he was re-elected in November.

For decades after the war, those who had been incarcerated focused on rebuilding their lives and suppressed their feelings about their wrongful imprisonment. My father recalled being “too busy” trying to recover from the devastating impact of incarceration to be bitter. In the late 1960s, while living in New York City, Aiko became involved in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, which questioned the actions of the government. Inspired by the activism of others, she became motivated to investigate the causes of incarceration.

Using research techniques she developed and in collaboration with lawyer and law professor Peter Irons, Aiko began browsing through thousands of documents at the National Archives in the late 1970s. She would play a role crucial in documenting government misconduct, including never having a factual basis to suspect Japanese Americans of disloyalty, knowingly perpetuating lies to justify incarceration, and covering up attempts by ministry officials of Justice to speak the truth.

The evidence formed the basis of the 1983 Personal Justice Denied report, the official government study of the imprisonment of people of Japanese descent during World War II. He concluded that Decree 9066 was not justified by military necessity, but was the result of racial prejudice, warlike hysteria and a failure of political leadership. His recommendations – a formal apology to those who had been incarcerated and symbolic reparations for those who were still alive – were not made until 1988, when the Civil Liberties Act was passed.

In 1989, Los Angeles High sought to make amends, awarding Aiko and her classmates Nisei the degrees they were denied in 1942. For her role in the development, the Japanese American National Museum honored Aiko for her award of excellence at her conference in April 2018. gala, recognizing her service to democracy. Three months later, she died at the age of 93.

Today, as violence against Asian Americans has escalated in what the California Attorney General has called “an epidemic of hate,” the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack is cause for anxiety. among those of us who are viewed with suspicion or who are overlooked. as “quite American” because of our heritage and how we look. President George W. Bush once said of incarceration: “Sometimes we lose our soul as a nation. The notion of “all equal before God” sometimes disappears. “

For former incarcerates and their descendants, the annual celebrations of the Pearl Harbor attack evoke complex feelings. They joined in honoring those who lost their lives in the December 7 attack and in honoring the soldiers of Nisei who valiantly demonstrated the loyalty of Japanese Americans in combat. But every December 7 for the rest of his life, my father, who died at age 79 in 2007, braced for the anti-Japanese backlash that invariably occurred around every birthday. He was always anxious to see that date come and go.

Susan H. Kamei is a lecturer in the Department of History at USC Dornsife. She is the author of When Can We Go Back to America? Voices of Japanese American incarceration during WWII.

© 2021 Los Angeles Times
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


Comments are closed.