The Japanese-American Experience during World War II

(photo: not mine)

With the overuse of the term “mass incarceration” and the hyper-reactionary discussions currently causing polemic conversations nation-wide, it is refreshing to re-think what it means to be incarcerated. On Thursday, June 25th, 2015, the Japan Society presented INFAMY: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II, lectured by Richard Reeves followed by a discussion with moderator, Japanese-American journalist Fred Katayama. Katayama began his introduction of Richard Reeves by first informing the small group gathered for the event of his two reasons for accepting the invitation to moderate. The reasons were (1) personal; he is the son of incarcerated prisoners and (2) Richard Reeves is a historian of the present.

In the early 1940s, Franklin D. Roosevelt created concentration camps for Japanese-Americans out of fear and discrimination. We often think, as Americans, that atrocities that happen in foreign nations, because of their brutality and often lack of rational reasoning and logic, cannot happen here. Nevertheless, it did. The strategic and structural decisions that led to the rounding up of and consequent termination of the Jews, are mirrored in the way Japanese-Americans experienced their incarceration in American-built concentration camps. Similarly to Mao Tse-Tung’s brutal regime, the military under the ruling of Roosevelt, incarcerated the intellectuals first, doctors, lawyers, teachers, priests etc. By the end, less than five percent of the Japanese-American populace escaped incarceration under wretched conditions.

A reason for this racial incarceration stems from competition. Japanese-American were progressing economically. In addition, agriculture was a booming in California and the Japanese-Americans were the ones responsible for this growth. It is only possible to treat another human being morally reprehensible after you have deemed him or her inhumane and have stripped them of their innate humanness. You must first begin the process of seeing them and treating them as less than before you can start/continue vile acts upon their bodies. For example, before the Japanese-American were herded and taken to concentration camps located on race tracks, stables, and in county fairs and treated like animals that are housed in these sites, they were first seen as ones to be feared, savages, irrational creatures etc. This all happens systematically and strategically. This trope is effective and has been effective throughout history. It is not the first time it was done against immigrant groups who are hated and criminalized. The propaganda that labelled Japanese-American men as “brown men to rape white women” was also used to aid in the lynching of African-American men in the South. The protection of women is a trope previously utilized by men to inflict violence upon other men. This trope does nothing for the men of colour who are incarcerated and killed nor does it do anything for the women it claims to protect, rather, it gives patriarchal power and hegemony to the men who guise behind this archaic claim. Women’s bodies are utilized as markers of success and progress – from savagery and barbaric villages to first world capitalist states (Rousseau). The bodies of women are used as time markers, which illustrate how far a nation has come, based on the rights and privileges allotted to women, nations are made visible or invisible, hence rape is such an effective tool of control and silencing. The experience of the Japanese-American during WWII left traumatic emotional and mental scars that far outweigh the physical displacement experienced. The strategic act of freezing the bank accounts of Japanese-Americans meant they could not pay their mortgages, which means that they will lose their homes. Anyone with one drop of Japanese blood were now seen as a threat and no longer considered a citizen of the United States but an alien – simultaneously, they were told that they were being placed in concentration camps for their own security and safety. It was not until they arrived and realized that the guns and tanks were pointed inward, that the severity of it situation became realized. Reeves made note that the Italians and German POWs that were incarcerated in the United States during that epoch were living under better conditions than the Japanese-American in the camps.

During the question and answer section of the event, Katayama asked Reeves, “Why did you write this book?” He responded: “I don’t want to see this happen again – we can round up Muslims tomorrow.” The essence of Reeves book and lecture, for me, emphasizes the need for story-telling (Birnbaum) and counter-memory (Foucault). As Katayama mentioned, his father was ashamed of his experiences in the concentration camps and he failed to speak about it until Katayama was older, and asked him. This happens to many parents who have undergone traumatic experiences where their humanity were threatened and they were seen as animals to be herded and killed. Reeves highlighted that it took the Black Civil Rights epoch to come about before Japanese-American narratives appeared because young Japanese-Americans started asking questions of their parents, “where were you when all of this was happening?”

Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) says that we replace one passion with another. Is the same true for immigrant groups – as Americans, do we incarcerate one immigrant group after another? Do the physiognomies of one group replace the other? Can we say that incarceration is a form of cultural genocide? What happens to the progeny after such traumatic experiences? What is lost? What is transferred/transmitted? In Motorcycle Diaries (2003), Che Guevara during his travels around South and Central America says, “What do we leave behind when we cross each frontier? Each moment seems split in two; melancholy for what was left behind and the excitement of entering a new land.” What happens when boundaries are crossed? When humans perform inhumane acts, what do we lose as a collective – what has the American public given up in the name of national security? When we dehumanize bodies for political and economic gain, are we ever the same or do we lose a piece of our collective soul? What is lost when one is incarcerated? As many murderers will tell you, once you kill someone you are never the same – is the same true for incarcerated bodies? Are you ever the same once released? What are the effects of incarceration on the mind, body, and soul? These are questions Richard Reeves book will leave you pondering.

It is fitting to insert Gabriel Peri here, a journalist who was incarcerated by the Nazi occupied France during WWII. He was executed for being an intellectual who fought for freedom of speech and who fought against the oppression of one nation upon another, in Toward Singing Tomorrows: The Last Testament of Gabriel Peri (1946), he says, I was convinced that a people which oppresses another people is neither a free nor a happy people. That was the reason for my attitude in 1923. Nor, it seems to me, has the reason lost any of its validity today” (29). Peri continues later down the page, “In October 1924, I became foreign editor of the Paris l’Humanite. I retained that post until August 25, 1939. Two men were my masters, in the true sense of the term. That is, they did not offer themselves as models for me to copy; they imparted to me, in the words of Marcel Proust, ‘certain secrets of greatness.’ They were my advisers and intimate guides. Marcel Cachin has always shown the warmest affection for me, and Paul Vailliant-Couturier (editors of l’Humanite), until his death, considered me a younger brother. I cherished my two comrades because of their feeling for life and their taste for things of beauty. For them I learned to look upon my profession as a journalist in its true light. The late Adrien Hebrard used to say that our profession consists of knowing and making known. I was fascinated by a kind of life in which, perhaps more than in any other, it was impossible to be satisfied with what one already knew. One had to bite constantly into the hard rock of knowledge; one had to learn and keep on learning. I considered my profession a kind of religion, which I practiced every night as I wrote my daily article on foreign affairs” (30). In light of the Supreme Court’s historic decision on gay marriage, it is clear that with education and compassion, history can be rewritten. When asked, “What can be done to ensure this doesn’t happen again?” Reeves, responded: education. If re-education and education, as Richard Reeves suggests, is the key to combat racism, bigotry and the unequal treatment of others domestically and internationally, but where do we start?  Maybe we can start by listening to Peri, who said that he “…was convinced that the strength of a nation lives above all in the conviction in the hearts of its citizens that they are not the guardians of special privileges but the defenders of the rights, freedoms, and social gains which are inalienably theirs” (34).

It is no secret that the incarceration of the Japanese-American and other groups that were incarcerated prior and after, are all for the same reason: eugenics. Roosevelt believed in eugenics and so did Hitler – the goal was the same though the methodologies differ in the execution. I will conclude by asking you: What is your civic duty to ensure other forms of incarceration, experienced by Japanese-American, never happen again? What is your civic duty as Americans living in the ‘land of the free and home of the brave’? Or, you can do like I do and ask yourself: What would Gil Grissom do!?


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