Student Reflection: Re-thinking Japanese American Incarceration

October 29, 2015
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Guest Post by M. Chip Chang, PhD Student at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Two children aged 4 and 1.5 walk by wooden barracks at the Minidoka War Relocation Center, 1943. Photo courtesy of the Wing Luke Asian Museum, the Hatate Collection.

Two children aged 4 and 1.5 walk by wooden barracks at the Minidoka War Relocation Center, 1943. Photo courtesy of the Wing Luke Asian Museum, the Hatate Collection.

The term internment refers to the restriction or confinement of a person or persons during a time of war, implying that a person is a prisoner of war, enemy alien, or combat troop. And yet, Japanese American “internment” en masse during World War II did not imprison prisoners of war, enemy aliens, or combat troops. Rather, over 110,000 civilians, 60% of whom were U.S. citizens and half were children, were imprisoned in the middle of deserts, without adequate shelter, supplies, space, and due process. So why then does dominant discourse surrounding Japanese Americans during World War II use terms such as internment as opposed to incarceration?

Roger Daniels argues, the term “internment” is a euphemistic way of dismissing U.S. domestic war atrocities.1 As he points out, even President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the supreme court case Korematsu vs. United States refers to “internment camps” as concentration camps. By coloring Japanese American incarceration, the US state is able to erase itself of its historical wrongs, literally. How many K-12 history books discuss Japanese American incarceration beyond terms such as Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 9066? Or mention that Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not incarcerated after the bombing of Pearl Harbor (Pu’uloa) because removing such a labor force would destroy Hawaii’s economy?2 Even the most decorated military unit in US history, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an infantry regiment composed of Japanese American men who were nonetheless incarcerated, are also referred to as “the most remembered, almost forgotten soldiers.”3 And as many scholars, artists, activists, and children and grandchildren of those incarcerated have explained, the trauma of camps has created silences and (un)intentionally forgotten pasts that victims refuse to discuss or remember.4

By toning down the language of Japanese American incarceration as internment or wartime necessity, the history of state-sanctioned racism coupled with wartime hysteria is erased and consequently, viable for repetition. As law professors Jerry Kang and Leti Volpp have outlined, the state’s reaction to the September 11th attacks are similar to those after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.5 And just like Japanese American incarceration was legally justified, the state’s incarceration of “suspected terrorists” follows the like-minded language which justified the imprisonment of 110,000 Japanese American men, women, and children – none of whom were ever convicted of espionage.

Jerry Kang argues, “The most important lesson, then, is not that wartime creates mistakes; instead, it is that wartime coupled with racism and intolerance create particular types of mistakes.” Looking at Kang’s argument in this age of colorblindness, what happens when a domestic war is called against a group of people who historically have been victims of state-sanctioned racism? In other words, what happens when the War on Terror or the War on Drugs are declared against communities of color who have been racialized, criminalized, and labeled as outside the accepted parameters of whiteness? It would be easy to argue that we have learned nothing from Japanese American incarceration, but how could we when so much of it is missing from the narrative?

As Daniels states about Japanese American incarceration, “to write the evacuation off as a ‘wartime mistake’ is to obscure its true significance. Rather than a mistake… the legal atrocity which was committed against Japanese Americans was the logical outgrowth of over three centuries of American experience, an experience which taught Americans to regard the United States as a white man’s country.”


1 Daniels, Roger. “Words Do Matter: A Note on Appropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of Japanese Americans.” In Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest Japanese Americans & Japanese Canadians in the Twentieth Century, edited by Luis Fiset and Gail M. Nomura. Seattle: Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest in Association with University of Washington Press, 2005.

2 Pu’uloa is the Hawaiian name for Pearl Harbor, meaning “long hill.”

3 Fujitani, Takashi. “Go For Broke, the Movie: Japanese American Soldiers in U.S. National, Military, and Racial Discourses.” In Perilous Memories the Asia-Pacific War(s), edited by Geoffrey M. White, Lisa Yoneyama, and Takashi Fujitani. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001.

4 When You’re Smiling: The Deadly Legacy of Internment. Video. Directed by Janice D. Tanaka. Los Angeles: Visual Communications, 1999.

5 Kang, Jerry. “Thinking through Internment: 12/7 and 9/11.” Amerasia Journal: 41-50; Volpp, Leti. “The Citizen and the Terrorist.” A Watershed Moment? September 11 in History, 2003, 147-62.