A Response To Letters Defending The Japanese Internment In The LA Times

Don't let people distort this history or it could be repeated again. Guest Post by Joseph Shoji Lachman.

This is a response to "Were the stories about Japanese internment during World War II unbalanced? Two letter writers think so" in the LA Times. Here is a reminder of something else they published many years ago:

A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched—so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents—grows up to be a Japanese, not an American. — Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1942 (Source)

I had hoped we had learned a lesson and moved past this kind of hateful rhetoric, but it seems history is trying to repeat itself.

On December 7th, the U.S. commemorated the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, a truly horrific tragedy that will live on in American memory forever. In our household, we also remember December 6th. Two years ago on that day my grandmother, Margaret Shoji, passed away. My only regret was that I never talked to her about her experiences during the Internment, when our family and 120,000 other people of Japanese descent were denied basic rights, and forced into the internment camps. This was a civil rights travesty and one of the most shameful episodes of American history. But we all know that, don't we?

Apparently, we are supposed to have an "open debate" about the Internment, including justifications and rationalizations of what happened. I was surprised to see a "rational" defense of the Internment appearing in the LA Times in 2016, but I decided to respond as best I could below.

1. "I see that writer Carolina A. Miranda has attached herself to the ‘I feel-good' contingent that feels sorry for the Japanese here in World War II ['Relevant Journey,' Nov. 27]. But this is just another anti-U.S. remake of history."

Steve Hawes, the first author, dismisses a previous article on the Internment, and says that to feel sorry for the Japanese and Japanese-Americans living in the U.S. during World War II is "anti-U.S." I would counter by arguing that blindly loving your country without acknowledging its mistakes is a dangerous breed of nationalism that encourages civil rights disasters like the Japanese Internment.

2. "Remember, this was war for the life of our country. The Japanese had a clear way to land invading forces in California but lost their chance because they did not realize it."

Regardless of the historical accuracy of this statement, what does this have to do with Japanese Americans and how does this in any way justify locking up 120,000 civilians, many of whom were American citizens who had never even been to Japan? In fact, the majority of people interned were women and children. How does this justify denying my family their civil rights?

3. "Japanese have an extremely strong attachment to family, and even more so back then. First ― generation and, to a lesser extent, Japanese here would have been expected to follow the wishes of their elders in Japan. Some, most or almost all might have refused, but the threat was there."

This has no historical basis in fact. There are no documented cases of Japanese American espionage, and yet you are implying that at least some Japanese Americans would both receive orders from their families to commit acts of espionage and execute them, something that never happened. And again, THIS DOES NOT JUSTIFY DENYING 120,000 PEOPLE BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS AND DIGNITY.

4. "Had the Japanese been left on the streets of our city they would have been subject to hostility, injury and death at the hands of other citizens whose emotions ran high."

This is a classic "rational" defense of the Japanese Internment. It was for our own good. It doesn't work for a few reasons. The guards were pointing their guns inward, not outward.

One Jap became mildly insane and was placed in the Fort Sill Army Hospital. [He]… attempted an escape on May 13, 1942 at 7:30am. He climbed the first fence, ran down the runway between the fencing, one hundred feet and started to climb the second, when he was shot and killed by two shots, one entering the back of his head. The guard had given him several verbal warnings.

— FBI Report of the death of Ichiro Shimoda, a gardener from Los Angeles who had been taken from his family on December 7, 1941 (Source)

Yes, people were killed for trying to escape an unjustified imprisonment.

Why should a solution to bigotry in our society be to lock up those who are the victims of that bigotry?

Also, don't forget the economic aspect. Homes, property and businesses were stolen during the Internment. My great-grandfather's home was stolen during the internment, and my other relatives lost much of their property because they only allowed you to take what you could carry with you.

5. "The U.S. government needed to concentrate on the war effort, not keep track of every reported espionage claim leveled against the Japanese. By the way, there were also internments for U.S. Germans though not as extensive as the Japanese."

That still doesn't justify the Internment. The government needed to fight the hysteria and paranoia, not fuel it by punishing its victims. A much smaller scale internment of people of German descent in the U.S. also does not diminish the suffering of Japanese Americans.

6. "Virtually everyone in the U.S. was assigned jobs to help the war effort. The Japanese were assigned the job of staying out of the way and not causing complications. Millions of Americans were assigned far worse jobs. Hundreds of thousands were wounded or died."

A job implies being compensated for voluntary labor. This was an imprisonment and denial of human rights, NOT A "JOB." We were spat on and locked up for looking like the enemy. War casualties do not invalidate or justify the suffering of Japanese Americans. No person's suffering invalidates another's.

I am also disappointed that this author ignored the 442nd Regiment, the unit composed of Japanese American men who fought for rights they themselves could not enjoy. They were one of the most highly decorated units in U.S. military history and suffered over 4000 casualties fighting for their country.

7. "The interned Japanese were housed, fed, protected and cared for. Many who now complain would not even be alive if the internment had not been done."

This is another persistent "rational" response, and has also been applied to slavery. Slaves were fed, protected, and cared for, but does that argument work? Being housed and fed is poor compensation for the loss of basic human rights and dignity. We have every right to denounce the Internment.

Being housed and fed is poor compensation for the loss of basic human rights and dignity. We have every right to denounce the Internment.

8. "I salute the Japanese for doing the part they were assigned during the war as I salute all those that sacrificed for the war effort. I have zero respect for those trying to rewrite history just to make themselves feel good."

This part is particularly concerning. THIS IS NOT DOING OUR PART. BEING IMPRISONED IS NOT BEING "ASSIGNED" A "JOB." Our families were humiliated and denied civil rights because of our ancestry. Talking about an unpleasant part of history is necessary so that we will avoid repeating these mistakes, especially with the rampant bigotry towards people of Middle Eastern descent (not just Muslims) today.

Now let's move on to Dick Venn's letter. This one is shorter, but I will still take time to engage with the content.

1. "Maybe a little bit of balance in Miranda's article would have been appropriate. You need to read "Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan" by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard to get the balance."

The book is not relevant to the Internment. That is about Japan. This is about the rights of people in the U.S., many of whom were U.S. citizens, born and raised in the U.S. These people are not Japan, and so this book is not necessary for balance.

2. "As the U.S. was putting families into the internment housing and feeding them, the Japanese were slaughtering Filipinos by the tens of thousands and U.S. soldiers after hideous torture."

I said this before, but I will repeat it. One person's suffering does not invalidate another's. Just because they provided food and housing did not mean that slavery wasn't really that bad. Providing food and housing is not fair compensation for basic human rights and dignity. Just because the U.S. internment doesn't look so bad compared to the Japanese treatment of POWs does not mean that we should feel any better about the Internment.

3. "War is evil, but I would have much rather been interned by the U.S. in California than by the Japanese in their captured lands."

That is technically true. But the comparison is not meaningful, since we should not be forced to choose between them. My family shouldn't be told to be grateful they were interned by the U.S. as the lesser of two evils. Both are evil.

I have really done my best to be civil when engaging with these arguments, but on the inside, I am angry. I am angry not just because the Internment happened, but because we are trying to re-frame this event, and make it look as though it really was not that bad. This is a way of distorting history that makes people more receptive to ideas like a Muslim registry. We cannot normalize or rationalize something as shameful as the Japanese Internment, and it amazes me that I must write this in the year 2016, when I thought we had acknowledged and moved on from this mistake. Don't just let people say things like this. Don't let it become normalized. Don't let people distort this history, or it could be repeated again.

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.

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