This is a response to "Was the relocation of West Coast Japanese racist?", which appeared in the Tri-City Herald on January 29, 2017.
Today, January 30th, is the celebration of the birthday of Fred Korematsu, one of the bravest men of his time, who stood up to the U.S. government, and challenged the constitutionality of the Japanese Incarceration, where around 120,000 people of Japanese descent, 2/3 being American citizens, and the majority being women of children, and all of whom were innocent of any crimes of espionage, were stripped of their civil rights and human dignity, and forced into concentration camps for four years, resulting in the loss of many of their homes, livelihoods, and many of their possessions they could not take with them.
Today is a day to reflect on this history, and remind ourselves of why we should be careful not to repeat it. That said, why on earth is the Tri-City Herald publishing an article attempting to defend the Japanese Internment and say that it had nothing to do with racism?
I'm trying to get this written as quickly, but as accurately as possible, so I will pick out the major statements I take issue with.
1. First of all, the title of the article is "Was the relocation of West Coast Japanese racist?"
The term relocation, right from the start, is a way to distort the history. This was by definition an incarceration that did not just involve "relocating" people. They were forced into concentration camps and denied their civil rights. "Relocation" is a dangerous euphemism that ignores the seriousness of this historical travesty.
2. "...The Supreme Court's Korematsu ruling upheld its constitutionality. The specific 1941-42 historical circumstances render facile analogies to present controversies problematic at best."
Technically, the ruling has never been overturned. However, during President Obama's administration in 2011, the Department of Justice filed an official notice stating that the Solicitor General's defense of the internment policy was in error. Constitutional scholars such as Bruce Fein and Noah Feldman have likened it to Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson, rejecting it as any kind of modern legal precedent. Why did the author not mention any of this?
Furthermore, what historical circumstances could possibly render this part of history irrelevant to today's situation? Why are comparisons "problematic"? During the campaign, a spokesman for a pro-Trump super PAC explicitly referenced the Japanese Incarceration as a "precedent" for a Muslim registry. Rounding up and stripping the rights of citizens based on their religion is hardly any different than doing so based on race. The animus at the heart of this is towards people of Middle Eastern descent, evidenced by the hate crimes against non-Muslim Middle Eastern Americans, such as people in the Sikh community.
This brings us to the next, very "problematic" statement.
3. "First, it wasn't "racism," but the naked aggression of Imperial Japan that prompted the American response. Were other Asians, namely the Chinese and Koreans, targeted for racist attacks? Yes -- but by the Japanese who treated them as sub-humans as well as American POWs who were systematically brutalized."
I am appalled that we are using this excuse again. The author is saying that racism had nothing to do with the unlawful incarceration of around 120,000 people whose only crime was looking similar in appearance to the wartime enemy. What do war crimes by the Japanese military have to do with Japanese Americans? Most of them were born and raised in the U.S., and had never even been to Japan. Do I really need to explain this? Apparently, I do to a lot of people, judging by the number of people I have seen expressing similar opinions.
The author starts bringing up all the Japanese war crimes and sex slavery, which none of us are denying. But Japanese Americans are not the Japanese military, and shouldn't be the ones to pay the price for this.
4. The American relocation was managed discreetly. For example, of the 130,000 Japanese in Hawaii, only 1,200 to 1,800 were interned. Some 2,263 Japanese college students left the camps in order to attend college on the East Coast.
How does this make things any better? My family was "discreetly" forced to live in horse stables on a race track in Puyallup. Should they be grateful that this was handled "discreetly"? Should we be grateful they didn't lock up more of us? Is that how low the bar should be set for our government?
5. "Takeo Yoshikawa was a spy who provided Admiral Yamamoto with a detailed, invaluable description of Pearl Harbor."
You neglected to mention that Takeo Yoshikawa was not Japanese American. He was stationed in the U.S. working for the Japanese government, and was never part of the Japanese American community. I can't believe the author would leave out something this important.
6. "In the relocation camps, residents' loyalties were vetted. Among the questions posed were: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States in combat and wherever ordered?" (17 percent said no.) Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any attack by foreign or domestic forces and foreswear any form of obedience to the Japanese Emperor or other foreign power, government or organization?" (20 percent said no.) Eventually, 5,589 Japanese renounced their American citizenship with another 1,327 being repatriated to Japan. The most recalcitrant internees, some of whom beat up pro-American residents, were reassigned to the Tule Lake facility."
This is the infamous loyalty oath that was given to Japanese Americans to get them to "prove" their loyalty. The author tries to make it sound so reasonable, but let's consider those "historical circumstances." They were being stripped of their civil rights and treated without basic human dignity. How would you feel about your country when it treated you like that?
Densho, an organization dedicated to preserving Japanese American history, has a copy of the loyalty oath available for viewing online. Questions 27 and 28 caused a severe amount of confusion among Japanese Americans. Question 27 asked, "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?" Question 28 asked, "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?"
Question 27 made inmates confused as to whether or not answering "yes" meant they were volunteering for the military. Were they supposed to join the military and fight for their country while their families were in concentration camps?
Question 28 is worded like a trick question. Swearing allegiance now seems to imply that they were at some point loyal to the Japanese emperor, which is beyond ridiculous. First generation Japanese Americans were worried that this might be a trick, and if they were deemed disloyal, they worried they might be left stateless, as they were ineligible for citizenship. And above all, why should any of them swear unwavering allegiance to a country that is stripping them of their basic rights?
7. "The most recalcitrant internees, some of whom beat up pro-American residents, were reassigned to the Tule Lake facility."
The author is portraying them as disloyal for not going quietly into the concentration camps, which is an incredibly argument to make. The author also only briefly mentions that they were "reassigned to the Tule Lake facility," which the author neglects to mention was the most brutal of the American concentration camps. Tule Lake was a high security segregation center with a prison to isolate people that the government felt were the most disloyal. At this concentration camp, hundreds of young men resisted answering the questions mentioned above, and were threatened with charges under the Espionage Act, $10,000 fines, and as long as 20 years in prison.
8. "While the vast majority of Japanese Americans were loyal, a significant minority posed a potential threat to American national security."
This is amazing. The argument here seems to be that not signing your loyalty oath means that you constituted a significant security threat to the nation. Japanese Americans fought so hard to try to prove their loyalty, even disavowing those who stood up for their civil rights and did not go quietly to the camps, only acknowledging their bravery decades later. Refusing to swear loyalty to a country that denies you your rights does not make you a national security threat.
Additionally, this word "national security" was used a lot in the context of Japanese Americans, just as it is being used this very day to justify the unconstitutional and inhumane ban on immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim majority countries. The parallels are crystal clear, and should make us take a much harder look at our history of racial discrimination.
9. "While FDR's policy had its shortcomings, it was not racist. Critics of its military justification presume an outcome to the war that was hardly preordained in 1941."
You're wrong. It was racist. It was in every way an incarceration of a minority group "motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime, hysteria, and a failure of political leadership," as the Commission on Wartime Relocations and Internment of Civilians proclaimed forty-two years after Executive Order 9066. This executive order is just as racist as the recent executive orders banning immigrants and refugees from Muslim majority nations, and I will not hesitate to draw every necessary parallel to remind us why we cannot distort or forget our history, lest we repeat it.
Joseph Lachman was born and raised in Seattle, and recently finished his B.A. at Yale University in History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health. He is fourth/fifth generation half-Japanese, and speaks Chinese and Japanese. His current writing focuses primarily on Asian and Asian-American culture, and he is also passionate about civil rights and human rights. Joseph plans to pursue these fields further in law school and beyond.