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Monday, Oct. 9, 2000
Confronting a legacy of shame
By FIONA WEBSTER
WHAT DID THE INTERNMENT OF JAPANESE AMERICANS MEAN?, edited by Alice Yang Murray. Boston, Mass.: Bedford/St. Martins, 2000, 163 pp., $13.50 (paper).
This book is part of a series called "Historians At Work." Aimed at the undergraduate student, the series is designed to introduce students to a historical issue and provoke thought and discussion through the study of several scholarly interpretations or perspectives on the subject. Although it is primarily intended as an educational tool, the series is also of value and interest for the general reader.
This volume introduces the controversy surrounding the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Contributing authors ask what internment meant, why the policy was adopted and how internees reacted to their incarceration.
In the context of a world at war, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor "rekindled the embers of anti-Japanese sentiment." In its wake, advocates of internment encouraged, and found a receptive and enthusiastic supporter in, the commander of the Western Defense Command, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt.
Although reports from Naval Intelligence, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Army General Staff dismissed any threat of sabotage, espionage or invasion posed by Japanese Americans, DeWitt was impressed by the warnings of politicians and army officials. Accordingly, in February 1942, he sent a memo to U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson recommending the removal of all immigrants and citizens of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast.
Sadly, Washington accepted DeWitt's recommendations, and ignored the advice of its own intelligence specialists.
It was not until 1990 that the U.S. government acknowledged the injustice of internment. In October of that year, a wheelchair-bound 107-year-old, Mamoru Eto, was the first person to be awarded $20,000 as a redress payment.
Then President George Bush issued a statement that accompanied all redress payments. In it, he said, "We can never fully right all the wrongs of the past, but we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II."
Historical research has played a major role in the government's recognition of the injustice of internment, and three of the authors represented in this collection (Roger Daniels, Peter Irons and Michi Weglyn) were important activists in the redress movements of the 1970s and 1980s.
Each testified before the government and spoke to Japanese-American community groups to try to mobilize support for redress. They challenged America's "heroic image" during World War II by denouncing the rationale for internment and describing the suffering of internees before and after the war.
Importantly, each of these scholars has consistently argued, with the support of a variety of government sources, that the internment of Japanese Americans was not merely a tragic mistake triggered by wartime hysteria, but was a direct result of racism, greed and political expediency.
As the editor notes, "The decision to remove and confine people from the West Coast solely on the basis of their Japanese ancestry . . . reflected a long history of anti-Japanese hostility fueled by economic competition and racial stereotypes."
The publication of this interpretation of history has changed and challenged official memories of the internment program.
It has also had a profound impact on the lives of former internees. Many of them repressed their own memories of the war and continued to blame themselves for their incarceration. The shift in official interpretation that these scholars forced unleashed these memories. As a result, many internees begin to share and recount their own painful experiences.
In his essay, Roger Daniels condemns the way military and government officials fabricated a "military necessity" rationale for internment. Throughout his academic career, he has insisted that Japanese Americans were confined not in internment camps, but "concentration camps," and that individuals were confined solely on the basis of ancestry without charge or trial. The evidence Daniels has uncovered in his research into internment has played a major role in winning redress for the former internees.
Peter Irons reviews the wartime case that Gordon Hirabayashi waged against the United States government, during which Hirabayashi publicly, and unsuccessfully, challenged the government's military curfew and exclusion orders. Irons uncovered evidence that caused him to urge Hirabayashi and others to reopen their cases in the 1980s.
In Weglyn's selection, we get an internee's personal response to internment. Although she supported the policy of internment during the war, believing it "was the only way to prove our loyalty to a country which we loved with the same depth of feeling that children in Japan were then being brought up to love their proud island nation," she reconsidered her views 25 years later in the wake of evidence of government racism and misconduct. She became a leading activist in the Japanese-American community, and fought for the forgotten victims of internment.
The editor of the volume, Alice Yang Murray, has also included essays by two other scholars that provide further evidence of the relationship between history, politics and scholarship. Both illustrate how a critical re-examination of wartime sources and the collection of recent oral history can shed new important light on the diversity of Japanese-American experiences in the internment camps.
Gary Okihiro's essay reinterprets protest within the internment camps, arguing that Japanese Americans had a vital and resilient tradition of resisting oppression.
Valerie Matsumoto demonstrates how oral-history sources can enrich internment historiography. The redress movement has been critical in encouraging Japanese Americans to speak about the war before the government, to write memoirs, and to recount their oral histories to researchers.
The structure of this book may be off-putting for readers who are not new students of this aspect of American history. For those eager to learn more about the issue, however, it serves as an excellent starting point.
It sets the context for current historical research and provokes thought about questions of historical interpretation and perspective that underlie all memories of historical events.
Fiona Webster is a freelance writer based in Tokyo.