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Susan H. Kamei’s new book, When Can We Go Back to America?, is a near-definitive study of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. I interviewed her recently about the book. Here’s our conversation:
Cart: What was the catalyst for your book?
Kamei: Because of my background volunteering in the legislative campaign that secured redress for the incarcerated Japanese Americans, I had the opportunity to propose and now teach an undergraduate history course at the University of Southern California on the incarceration experience and its relevance to constitutional and social issues today. The materials I have developed to teach that course formed the basis for the book.
As I surveyed the scholarship and curated materials for the course, I realized there was not one reference book that pulled together the entire trajectory of the incarceration and its enduring consequences. As important as it is to share the information about the WWII incarceration itself, I thought that needed to be placed in the context of the discrimination that the first-generation pioneers faced when they first started to arrive here from Japan and the pre-WWII anti-Japanese climate, through the struggles the incarcerees had in rebuilding their lives after the war, their quest for acknowledgement of the wrongfulness of the government’s wartime actions, and the importance of acting in allyship with other communities that face similar threats to their civil liberties on the pretense of protecting national security interests. I knew it was an incredible opportunity to produce a book with a publisher such as Simon & Schuster to reach a mainstream audience as well as the education community.
Cart: Doing your research must have been an adventure.
Kamei: An adventure, indeed! In order to construct an accurate historical narrative interwoven with first-person quotes and stories accompanied by detailed biographies of the voices quoted, I drew upon primary sources that included archived government records (such as transcripts of congressional hearings, interagency correspondence, and the Congressional Record), transcripts of oral histories, and articles in newspapers and other media. Fortunately, so much of these materials have been digitized, and whenever possible, I provided the URLs in the chapter sources and bibliography for the primary sources that are digitally available.
In addition, I reviewed the material contained in previously published books on subtopics to determine the relevant secondary sources. (The online bibliography contains a total of 987 discrete primary and secondary sources.) In checking the citations in leading secondary sources, I discovered in a few cases that sources had been incorrectly cited, either to wrong sources or that the source did not support the textual reference. In these cases, I identified the correct source and/or a primary source as the citation. For some events, multiple secondary sources presented conflicting or contradictory versions; in these situations, I conducted further research to reconcile the accounts or to make a call as to which account seemed to be the most accurate.
As you might imagine, compiling the biographies of those who were quoted—the “voices”—was a research project unto itself. For many of the contributor voices, this meant identifying surviving family members and getting in touch with them. Relatives helped verify the accuracy of previously published information on their family member’s life. They also usually provided additional detail that brought color to the contributor biographies, helping the readers feel they are getting to know a real person.
I did make a trip to the National Archives in Washington, DC to view the War Relocation Authority files of my parents, my father’s siblings, and my grandparents, as these files have not been scanned and have to be accessed in person. That was an amazing experience, and there are a few details from those records that made their way into the book.
Cart: Tell me about executive Order 9066 and its fallout.
Kamei: Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, was drafted by U.S. Army attorneys who successfully outmaneuvered Justice Department attorneys, who objected to a mass removal on constitutional grounds. EO 9066 gave the military the ability to identify persons who should be excluded from areas designated as military zones, on the premise that their removal was necessary to protect against potential sabotage or espionage by people presumed to be disloyal to U.S. interests. EO 9066 also gave the military the ability to designate the exclusion areas, which became defined as the west coast of Washington, Oregon, California, and a part of Arizona, and also delegated to the Army the jurisdiction to carry out the forced removal and then to detain the removed persons. Congress made it a crime to not comply with the military orders.
The orders issued pursuant to EO 9066 were applied to both first-generation Issei who were aliens (legally precluded from naturalization) as well as their children, the second-generation, American-born Nisei, who were classified as “non-aliens” to avoid acknowledging that the Nisei were U.S. citizens by birth. As a result, approximately 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were Nisei Americans, were forcibly removed from their homes, livelihoods, and educations under duress and on short notice and imprisoned for the duration of the war behind barbed wire and under armed guard, without charges being brought against them individually.
The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the government’s imposition of a curfew and of the exclusion and detention actions in the wartime criminal conviction cases of Yasui, Hirabayashi, and Korematsu. Although the criminal convictions of these three individuals were vacated in the 1980s, the wartime Supreme Court decisions have not been expressly overturned.
Cart: What’s the significance of the title?
Kamei: The title comes from a story that circulated among the incarcerees in the detention camps. It’s said that a Nisei child was so startled to be in an environment in camp surrounded by all Japanese faces that she assumed her family had taken her to Japan. She looked up at her mother and said something along the lines of “I don’t like it here. I want to go home. When can we go back to America?”
For the incarcerees, this story had a symbolic meaning. When the events of WWII unfolded, the Nisei could not believe that this unconscionable experience was happening to them as citizens of the U.S,—the land of their birth. In the years since their wartime hardships, incarcerees such as my parents often wondered if the day would ever come when their rights, and those of others similarly targeted, would be treated with equal protection under the law. They questioned when their county would function with “liberty and justice for all,” as they noted the irony of reciting the pledge of allegiance as government prisoners. And yet, you’ll read in the book examples of the Nisei’s almost incomprehensible degree of loyalty and patriotism, never losing faith in a country that did not have faith in them.
Cart: One of the most vexing consequences of the incarceration was the deterioration of the family unit. Would you talk about that?
Kamei: The fathers could no longer function as heads of households after they were wrested from their livelihoods and were prevented from providing for their families. Thousands of Issei men had been arrested in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and were separately detained from their families, in many cases for years, so those families suffered the additional impact of family separation. The primitive living conditions in the detention facilities meant that the families lacked privacy. The incarcerees were not supposed to cook in their barracks living quarters and all meals were to be eaten in large mess halls. Very quickly Issei parents lost the ability to keep their families together at meal time and to maintain any family customs. The Issei parents felt they could no longer discipline their children or hold them to any kind of standard. By and large, the Issei spoke limited or no English, and in dealing with the white camp administrators, were dependent upon their Nisei children to translate and handle complying with the incessant demands to fill out forms and to provide written documentation. All of this served to undermine the role of the Issei as parents. Nevertheless, many Nisei became the caretakers for their parents after the war when the Issei were unable to find employment or restart their pre-war livelihoods.
Cart: Initially Japanese American men weren’t permitted to enlist in the Army except, I gather, in Hawaii. What changed that?
Kamei: As the war dragged on, the Army and the War Department realized it was running short on manpower and rethought the decisions made in the immediate aftermath of the Pearl Harbor bombing. The Japanese American Citizens League also lobbied for the ability of Nisei young mean to enlist and prove their loyalty by being able to serve in defense of a country that had imprisoned them and their families. Later the draft of the Nisei men was reinstated; most of the Nisei solders from the mainland were draftees, who were required to serve.
Cart: The resulting units were segregated; i.e., they were all Japanese Americans commanded by white officers. Did they make good soldiers?
Kamei: They were considered exceptionally outstanding soldiers. The Nisei segregated units, the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, amassed a record that to this day, their units remain the most decorated for their size and length of service. They were intensely motivated to succeed and make the case that they (and their families) were loyal Americans, so much so that they were willing to die to show that.
Cart: What was the real reason Nikkei were incarcerated?
Kamei: The congressionally established Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians found that the reasons for the incarceration were racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and the failure of political leadership.
Cart: What do you say to those who question the relevance to today of things that happened eighty years ago?
Kamei: The incarceration is a case study of the consequences when our constitutional system of checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches breaks down. Our government is charged with safeguarding our national security, but it also should be protecting the civil liberties of individuals against detention without charges, unlawful searches and seizures, and the presumption of guilt instead of innocence until proven guilty. These civil liberties were compromised during WWII and are being compromised again today.
The poet and philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To this, I would add a corollary: Those who don’t know our past will find a way to reinvent it. The voices in this book speak over the passage of time and yet need to be heard urgently now.
Cart: What would you hope readers might take away from your book?
Kamei: I hope readers will find that the reality of the incarceration and its impact is incontrovertible—that it really happened and that it had real impact on real people—and that it could happen again.
Near the entrance to the National Archives is the inscription “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” In an environment in which their appearance of looking like an enemy counted more than their rights as citizens, the Japanese Americans lacked political standing and effective allies to push back against the hatred and prejudice that overwhelmed them and democratic processes. I hope readers will come away with a greater appreciation for the importance that each of us do our part to stand up for justice and the rights of all.
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