Culture  /  Book Review

A Portrait of Japanese America, in the Shadow of the Camps

An essential new volume collects accounts of Japanese incarceration by patriotic idealists, righteous firebrands, and downtrodden cynics alike.
Frank Abe, Floyd Cheung

The bombing at Pearl Harbor put immediate pressure on many young Japanese Americans to figure out where they fit in. Many had grown up with only a tenuous link to Japan, yet they also lived in the shadow of racist policies, like laws prohibiting “alien” ownership of land. Abe and Cheung focus on this moment of fear, offering the perspective of people reckoning with the inflexibility of wartime politics. John Okada, who would go on to publish “No-No Boy,” a dark, tortured portrait of the postwar Japanese American community, in 1957, was a student at the University of Washington in 1941. He wrote an anonymous account for the school newspaper exploring his conflicted feelings. “My dark features are those of the enemy,” he writes, though his “heart is buried deep in occidental soil.” “People will say things, and people will do things, / I know they will, and I must be strong.”

When Milton Eisenhower, brother of the future President, was appointed to oversee the War Relocation Authority, in March, 1942, he knew almost nothing about the Japanese communities he was tasked with incarcerating. He asked Mike Masaoka, the head of the J.A.C.L., for his thoughts. That April, Masaoka provided Eisenhower with eighteen pages of recommendations to promote assimilation and indoctrination within the concentration camps. Masaoka believed that his community had a patriotic duty to abide by Executive Order 9066. Not only that—he felt the camps could be used to produce “Better Americans” through further assimilation. “We do not relish the thought of ‘Little Tokyos’ … for by so doing we are only perpetuating the very things which we hope to eliminate: those mannerisms and thoughts which mark us apart, aside from physical characteristics.” As such, Masaoka hoped that those incarcerated would have “as much intercourse with ‘white’ Americans” as possible. He discouraged the use of Japanese in camp schools, writing that “special stress should be laid on the enunciation and pronunciation of words so that awkward and ‘Oriental’ sounds will be eliminated.”

Still, many instantly condemned the government’s actions. One of the most full-throated reactions came when the journalist James Omura testified in front of the House Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration, in February, 1942. “Has the Gestapo come to America? Have we not risen in righteous anger at Hitler’s mistreatment of the Jews?” Omura asked. “Then, is it not incongruous that citizen Americans of Japanese descent should be similarly mistreated and persecuted?”