In the United States, February 19th is a day of remembrance that is still too little known. The date is related to the signing of Executive Order 9066, which sent people of Japanese descent living in the United States to internment or detention camps, often in desolate environments. This US decision sparked similar movements in Canada, Mexico, and Latin America and led to a parallel mass displacement of ethnic Japanese from their homes (Robinson, 2009). This shows the international relevance of the imprisonment of people with Japanese heritage during World War II. In the United States, in particular, there were many children among the 120,000 Japanese Americans displaced, and it was an adventure in their young minds. George Takei wrote about his childhood memories of the camps in his book “They Called Us Enemy”. When his family was sent to the Santa Anita Racetrack, he remembered how much fun he had as a young child sleeping in horse stables and how the long train ride to remote Camp Rohwer, Arkansas was full of entertainment and excitement. In reality, he could not grasp the injustice of the situation in which his parents had worked so hard to buy their own house only to be forced into a single, filthy horse stable. His mother also sacrificed her limited baggage of treats and toys for him and his brother, and his father explained to both of them that they are more on vacation than prison-like camps. Takei looks back on his parents’ efforts to undertake two very different journeys, “one, an adventure of discovery” for the children and “the other, a fearful journey into a fearful unknown” (Takei, 2019, p 49).
From innocence to shame
It wasn’t until he got older and went to public school outside the camps that Takei’s memories of the war shifted from innocence to shame. A school teacher called him ‘Jap Boy’ and he explained how he understood it to be related to his time in the camp. He said, “I was old enough at this point to understand that the camp was something of a prison … but I couldn’t fully understand what we were being sent there. The guilt surrounding our internment made me feel that I deserved to be called this evil epithet ”(Takei, 2019, pp. 170-171). Then while in high school, Takei studied civics and government and finally discovered that the internment was a violation of his rights and illegally unjust. The US government had acted on the belief that someone of Japanese descent could commit acts of espionage or sabotage against the US and that these camps would prevent it. However, there was no evidence of a military need to support this decision after a comprehensive government review by the Commission on the Resettlement and Internment of Civilians During the War (CWRIC, 1983).
The experiences of Takei and others detained in these detention centers reveal important issues such as shame and anger in their memories (Nagata, Kim, Wu, 2019). This often affected the generation that came after the decision to move. Nagata, Kim, and Wu addressed this issue well by addressing the detention camps psychologically and explaining the psychological distress associated with the detention. Through qualitative research through interviews, they found a link between feelings of shame and anger with internment camps. The shame resulted in years of silence in many Japanese-American families to keep their children away from the shame of being interned (Kuramitsu, 1995). For many Issei (first generation Japanese Americans who immigrated to the US) and Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans who were born in the US), the silence was associated with post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the lack of the subject of incarceration Public discourse and textbooks were reinforced (Nagata, Kim, Wu, 2019). Both articles also discussed the intergenerational trauma of Japanese-American families. A major influence of the detainees has been the need to raise their post-incarceration children to “fit into mainstream society by belittling Japanese culture and language” (Nagata, Kim, Wu, 2019). Unbeknownst to them, this had psychological ramifications for their children as they felt they had to prove their worth to society and become “super-Americans” (Nagata, Kim, Wu, 2019). Further research found that the low frequency of communication between Japanese-American parents was due to their feelings of shame and cultural practices Gaman (Endurance suppression of emotions), Enryo (Restraint, restraint) and maintaining harmony also affected how racial trauma presented itself across generations (Nagata, Cheng, 2003). All arguments overlapped and explained the transfer of psychological damage, not only to the internees, but also to their children. To sum it up, George Takei, an actor and activist, insisted: “Shame is a cruel thing. It should be up to the perpetrators … but they don’t wear it like the victims. “
Gender and age differences
The trauma attributed to the internment camps is felt differently depending on factors such as gender and age. Nagata, Kim, and Wu said that men were more likely to have negative feelings about the detention center and reported greater difficulties with detention than women. The majority of those detained were of college age, an important stage in the development of identity and ideology, and were more likely to feel more unjust and stressed. Those older and well into adulthood also did not report positive memories when recalling their internment experiences. Many committed suicide during and after their detention. This was more likely to occur with older bachelors. Interned children aged 7-11 were more likely to recall positive memories of friendships and social activities in the camps and a sense of adventure or anticipation during the move (Nagata, Kim, Wu, 2019).
Both of my grandparents were among the older children who were detained. This meant they understood the gravity of the situation, but were more inclined to have positive memories. My grandmother Helen Mukai was 13 when she had to move and my grandfather Tom Mukai was around 16 or 17 years old. Both were held in congregation centers before being sent to their respective detention centers. My grandmother went to Gila River Camp, Arizona and my grandfather went to Jerome Camp, Arkansas. While I was at the meeting center, my grandmother remembers that she was “lucky” not to have to stay in the horse stables like many other Japanese Americans, but in the new and roughly built “housing”. Many Japanese-American farmers were allowed to continue working in the fields near my grandmother’s assembly center until harvest, as the farms needed the workers and the assembly centers were not overcrowded. My grandmother told my father that some Japanese-American farmers nearby would see the internees and roll melons for them at harvest time.
In the camps, my grandfather and grandmother lived under very different conditions. My grandfather faced harsh Arkansas winters with snow drifting under the door of her single room. My grandmother endured the Arizona summers without air conditioning. Occasionally she had to sweep sand out of her room while my grandfather had to sweep out the snow. My grandmother said her family separated her cramped room with sheets because she lived with her immediate family of five except for her brother who was married with a baby. The camps shared dining and bathroom facilities, and the internees had to endure the weather conditions to get food, use the toilet or shower. Both of my grandparents went to camp school. My grandmother fondly remembered studying late at night or early in the morning because a little girl next door was visiting all the time to talk and play with my grandmother. She wasn’t older than 5 or 6 years. My grandmother enjoyed her company and often wondered where she is now and how she is. My grandmother was imprisoned for over three years, remembering one excursion all the time to visit a nearby city. She graduated from high school after camp in San Jose, where her family moved upon her release. Although my grandparents’ families never met at the camp, my grandfather’s family moved to Gila River Camp after Jerome Camp closed. He did not move with his family because he was able to leave the camps early before the war began. Many Japanese-American men were able to leave early but were not allowed to return to the west coast. He traveled to Chicago, Cleveland, and other cities in search of work. He was interned for a little over 2 years. He graduated from high school in the camp. It was not until decades later that the US government began to redress what is now widely recognized as a grave violation of civil rights in American history.
Promote a more meaningful dialogue on the history of racism
The efforts of academics, artists, and activists reporting memories of the internment are fostering a more meaningful dialogue by investigating the follow-up failures of this country and preventing the disenfranchisement of other groups based solely on racial hysteria.
These perspectives expand on the prevailing accounts of the war in the United States by addressing the generational trauma that is still felt today among former internees and their descendants (Nagata & Cheng, 2003). According to my review, there is clearly a negative impact on the incarceration of an individual or parent during the war that has been obscured in historical and societal contexts. Reports by Japanese-American artists and activists, as well as my own reflection on how memories of the war were shared in my family, further underscored the gravity of the executive’s decision on this community.
The memory of internment and the trauma associated with it has often been overlooked. George Takei had to ask his father about the internment camps to find out more, as none of his civics and history books could be found. Takei explained, “That remains part of the problem – that we don’t know the uncomfortable aspects of American history … and therefore don’t learn the lesson these chapters must teach us. So we repeat them over and over.” Wise, Karen Korematsu, the daughter of activist Fred Korematsu, who was known for defying military orders to move the case and take it to the US Supreme Court, didn’t have much about the detention of Japanese during World War II or She knew about her father’s role during this period because her family never talked about her time in the camps and did not find out about it in her textbooks, as she found out from her friend Maya, another third-generation Japanese American Concentration camp in the United States (Korematsu). She was incredulous when she heard her own last name mentioned. Before she knew it, Her memories of the war were shaped by the discrimination and bullying she experienced because of her Japanese heritage. Now that she realized that her father played such an important role in American history, she felt strengthened by this new memory of that time and is working to make a difference herself. She founded the Fred T. Korematsu Institute to “work with teachers and students to teach about this story and the mistakes we made” (Korematsu).
Nina Akamu, a Japanese-American artist and third generation Japanese American, was also distanced from the traumatic events of the past due to a lack of education about what had happened. As a child, she lived in Hawaii and had to rely on small visual cues like bullet holes in the buildings around the harbor, ominous dark shapes of sunken battleships, and oil stains on the surface of the water (Akamu). As an artist, she was commissioned to create the centerpiece sculpture of the National Japanese American Memorial. To this end, she studied the Japanese experiences during World War II, read history, watched videos, and heard recordings from Japanese-American veterans and internees. Her memories of the war were based on her family’s tragedy and the reports and memories of others that she explored. Akamu used what she learned about a community suffering from war hysteria, a community to which she was naturally a part, to inspire a work of art that “depicts the internment, injustices, and sacrifices that Japanese Americans suffered during the Suffered war … and an evocation of strength and a testament to the strength of the human spirit ”(Akamu).
Like Akamu, my memories of World War II are based on reports from my family. Stories from that period and about the war imprisonment were told to me mainly by my father and some through conversations with my grandmother. Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away before I was born, so all of his memories of the war came from my father. However, I often phoned my grandmother and heard some of her experiences during the internship. It often expressed the injustice of the decision to imprison Japanese Americans. She would say they were loyal American citizens and that it was wrong to turn down legal proceedings. The only reason for her imprisonment was her Japanese heritage. She expressed that this was her country, but they were treated as if it wasn’t, or worse, as if it didn’t matter. Only recently, when I asked about her memories of internment for this paper, my grandmother burst into tears. I never heard my grandmother cry, but my specific questions about the war and the internment camps brought these tears to life. A painful memory was that when they were forced to move, she had to leave her dog behind. This was not very difficult for anyone. Although she left her dog with neighbors, they wrote that he refused to eat and died shortly after she left him. She believes it was most likely a broken heart. Of all the traumatic experiences my grandmother had during World War II, leaving her beloved dog is still one of the most painful memories she has about 78 years later. She tried to focus on the positives by discussing how the camps helped her meet many friends from other places, and how she is grateful to have received an education while she was incarcerated. These memories of war incarceration gave me a broader perspective on American history than the formal education I received.
It is easy for me to imagine this period as a period of hatred, racism and injustice after hearing my family’s experiences. It is also easy to take on the victim’s mindset and blame those who we believe are responsible. However, my father likes to remind me of a story my grandfather told about his neighbors on his family’s farm. After the order was issued, my great-grandfather feared that he would not be able to continue paying the mortgage on the farm while he was detained. Several of his neighboring farmers offered to lease his land and agricultural equipment. Although they could only have used the land for agriculture without leasing or my great-grandfather’s permission until it was foreclosed and no one would have been the wiser, the neighboring farmers were honorable and thus helped to save the family farm. Unfortunately, although the farm was safe, unknown vandals burned the farmhouse down. My grandfather had very few belongings left, other than what he had brought to the camps, as most of them were destroyed in the fire. When his family was released from the camp, the neighboring farmers returned all agricultural implements in good condition, and my great-grandfather rebuilt the farmhouse and returned to farming. My father likes to remind me of this story that while there are bad and ignorant people in this world, the vast majority are good.
Karen Korematsu, Nina Akamu, George Takei, and my two grandparents are just a few of many Japanese Americans who have gone through something that no one else would wish for. Your memories of war and internment will be carried on as they are passed on from generation to generation. It is full of pain, sadness and anger, but also full of resilience and hope for a better and better future. Like Karen Korematsu and Nina Akamu, George Takei uses his memories of that tragedy to use his actions and activism to spread awareness of America’s past mistakes. All three people work hard to educate others about the Japanese-American detention camps in order to learn from them. As Korematsu noted, “People tend to have brief memories, and we need to keep reminding people not to repeat the same past mistakes.” In addition to the negativity, there are also memories of this time full of resilience, happiness and community. As long as people hold on to memories of World War II, the unjust treatment of Japanese Americans in the past will continue to affect their communities today. Though as time and distance from that period come, memories of the injustice faced by Japanese Americans during World War II are in danger of being forgotten. History must repeat itself if one does not remember the teachings of this land. The goals are constantly moving to do justice to the hysteria in the current political discourse, regardless of whether they are Mexicans, Syrians, Iranians, North Koreans or Chinese. Despite the shame, anger, and confusion over memories of Japan’s imprisonment, it is important to continue the discussion. Hopefully keeping memories of that time will help our country not violate other people’s rights. Because of this, Japanese Americans continue to share their memories of a painful past together in order to move forward into an optimistic future.
Akamu, N. (2016). Retrieved November 17, 2020 from http://ninaakamu.com/njam.html
Fred T. Korematsu Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2020 from http://www.korematsuinstitute.org/
Kuramitsu, Kristine C. “Internment and Identity in Japanese-American Art.” American Quarterlyvol. 47, no. 4, 1995, pp. 619-658. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2713369. Accessed October 26, 2020.
Nagata, D.K. and Cheng, W.J.Y. (2003), Intergenerational Communication of Racial Trauma by Former Japanese American Internees. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 73: 266- 278. doi: 10.1037 / 0002-94188.8.131.526
Nagata, D.K., Kim, J.H.J. & Wu, K. (2019). The Japan-American Wartime Incarceration: Examining the Scope of Racial Trauma. American psychologist, 74(1), 36-48. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/amp0000303
Robinson, G. (2009). A tragedy of democracy: Japanese imprisonment in North America. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
G. Takei, J. Eisinger, S. Scott & H. Becker (2019). They called us enemy. San Diego, California: Top Shelf Productions.
United States. Commission for the Resettlement and Internment of Civilians During the War. (1983). Personal Justice Denied: Report from the Commission on the Resettlement and Detention of Civilians During the War. Washington, D.C .: The Commission.
Posted by: Virginia Tech
Written for: Dr. Audrey Reeves
Date written: February 2021
Further reading on E-International Relations