Lessons from the WW II Japanese Relocation

Whenever terrorism strikes America, earnest admonitions about avoiding the Japanese relocation of WW II arise. After all, the thrusting of 110,000 ethnic Japanese, two-thirds of whom were citizens, from their west coast homes into hastily constructed inland relocation centers is unparalleled. Yet, our revulsion at this policy and the Supreme Court’s refusal to condemn it may lead us to the wrong conclusions for our anti-terrorism and immigration policies today.

In bashing once again Korematsu v. U.S. (the 1944 Supreme Court case upholding the removal of ethnic Japanese from the west coast), George Will repeats some of these distortions of history by relying on the latest ploy by Peter Irons, whom I’ve debated about these issues. Will contends that “Officials altered and destroyed evidence that would have revealed the racist motives for the internments.”  While agreeing with Irons’ attack on Korematsu, Ilya Somin refrains for now from signing his petition (link no longer available).

Briefly, my rebuttal to Irons is simply that regardless of what the government’s brief excluded the same argument was being made by numerous other sources, including the Munson report[i], the tedious (and seemingly open-mic) Roberts Commission hearings, and a host of law review articles. The tendentious Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians has been attacked by, among others, the Chief Army Historian. This debate is neither defined nor closed. My purpose here is to sharpen that vital discussion.

Moreover, the anti-mass relocation arguments cited by Irons approve and recommend the isolating and interning of an unspecified number of enemy aliens and their associates. Would Irons permit such a singling out? He opposes curfews for ethnic Japanese as well. The question that hovers in those reports, such as the Ringle report that Will misinterprets, is what will ethnic Japanese do, if the tide of the war changed.

Hawaii did not suffer relocation because it was under a general curfew, such as part of Boston was. Is that also objectionable? As policy? Constitutionally? “Internment” and relocation were two separate policies, the former applied to suspected agents under investigation, the latter to those sent to relocation centers.  Some critics wish to use the internment label to cover both policies. I knew a Buddhist priest who served as a chaplain in the Japanese Army in Manchuria. He was interned—arrested a few days after Pearl Harbor and not to be heard from for months. Relocation proceeded more slowly, in early 1942, and included about 90 percent of all ethnic Japanese.

Finally, and most revealingly, few if any critics of Korematsu and the relocation policy mention the Nihau episode, which must have alarmed policymakers following Pearl Harbor. Niihau stands out as a specific example of how susceptible Japanese Americans might be to the seductions of Imperial Japan.

On December 7a damaged Japanese fighter-bomber landed on the isolated island of Niihau, at the westernmost tip of the Hawaiian archipelago. The pilot urged a California-born Japanese-American farmer and his wife to aid him in claiming the island for the Emperor. But Hawaiians eventually resisted and after a shootout both men were dead and the wife in custody. Here was a simple farmer, neither agent nor nationalist, joining the cause of Japan in its moment of glory and committing suicide, in an utterly crazy endeavor. Any honest study of the relocation or WW II will discuss the Niihau episode.[ii]

I’m not sure why more wasn’t written about Niihau. Might it be dismissed as just a one-off, or, more ominously, was it what might generally be expected to happen with ethnic Japanese in the event of an invasion of the west coast or Hawaii? Evidently, Japanese war planners relied on exploiting the sentiments and opportunism of Hawaiian Japanese, as University of Hawaii historian John Stephan documents in Hawaii Under the Rising Sun: Japan’s Plan for Conquest after Pearl Harbor.  

The irrelevance of Irons’ recycled argument is underlined by the fact that the Korematsu dissenters took account of the objections he finds in the omitted materials. The Court majority exercised appropriate deference to the executive. And in referring to this case it is unconscionable to avoid mention of its companion case, ex parte Endo, which clearly established the principle that  “whatever power the War Relocation Authority may have to detain other classes of citizens, it has no authority to subject citizens who are concededly loyal to its leave procedure.”

Here it may be helpful to understand the “leave procedure” available in the 10 relocation centers or camps, as their residents called them. After disposing of some property and storing the rest with friends, my Tacoma, Washington parents were herded into an assembly center (the Puyallup, Washington fairgrounds) and then to a relocation center (first, Tule Lake, in northern California). (Those living farther inland, in Spokane or Salt Lake City, for example, about 10 percent of the ethnic Japanese population, were spared.)

Camp life was Spartan, to say the least, but, as this useful war-era film shows, amenities developed over the years. During the spring and summer they were needed to work in agriculture, so they moved out of camp to work in fields. Three of my mother’s siblings moved to Chicago rather than live in such conditions. (A job or place in college could get one out of the centers.) When Tule Lake became a segregation center to house ethnic Japanese who proved troublemakers in other camps by demonstrating in favor of Japan and beating pro-American residents, my folks went to Minidoka Center in Idaho. There they could visit relatives who worked in a nearby sawmill.

The war posed loyalty tests. My father, like others who emigrated from Japan, favored Japan, but my mother, whose parents emigrated, was American-born, and this was her country. One uncle of mine joined the army and was decorated; another, obeying his immigrant mother’s demand, went to prison rather than be drafted. The Administrators of the camps (led by Milton Eisenhower) tried to get the camp residents to leave for much-needed work on the outside, but they were hesitant to do so and passed on the opportunity. As America pushed the war front into the western Pacific, FDR allowed the Supreme Court cases to be argued, and the decisions were announced after the November elections (fearing Governor Earl Warren).

The decisions restricting ethnic Japanese liberties were not more racist than any other government or social practice of the 1940s–hardly an endorsement of them, of course. The point for us today, as we determine policy concerning terrorism and immigration, among others, is to avoid condemning the relocation as unconstitutional and unjust without acknowledging the moral horizon of the world of 1941.[iii] Today we face different threats, and temporary exclusions of nationalities (or religions) are not at issue. Whatever strategy develops will seek out the active loyalty of Americans and immigrants of all ancestries.

We Americans almost viscerally hate opinions like Dred Scott and Korematsu because they turn Americans into tribes, when we know Americans are really free individuals, like the Declaration says we are. Yet we were not born yesterday, we come from different cultures; we are in a bad as well as a good sense a “nation of immigrants.” Jefferson and the other founders worried that foreigners would corrupt the new republic with their European monarchist sympathies and strangle self-government in its crib with their demand for a king. WW II reflected this same founding pressure. By the nature of our founding principle of equality there will be other wars and crises to come. In such situations loyalties are far from certain.

[i] The Munson Report asserts “There are still Japanese in the United State who will tie dynamite around their waist and make a human bomb out of themselves. We grant this, but today they are few.” In light of such reservations, how should one in January, 1942 act?

[ii] For a sampling, see journalist Michelle Malkin, historian Brian Hayashi, and California historian Roger Lotchin, who all present different arguments forcing us to reassess the standard assessment of the relocation. Charles Lofgren’s review (link no longer available) of Malkin’s book remains the most balanced account, though I disagree with some of his criticism (I read her book manuscript and gave her some editorial advice on it). Lofgren is one of our most distinguished American historians; see his Plessy Case, the best study of Plessy v. Ferguson.

[iii] For support for Korematsu or for the policy of relocation among the justices, see Rehnquist (All the Laws But One), Brennan (in his joint opinion in Bakke), Douglas (concurring in De Funis v. Odegaard), and Black (in an interview).  Brennan cited the reasoning of the relocation constitutional cases approvingly, in his defense of racial quotas and set-asides in his joint opinion in the Bakke affirmative action case. He was following Douglas, who, in the earlier DeFunis affirmative action case, defended the relocation cases in a curious footnote. (They were both offering defenses of racial preferences.)