Fractured Ideals: Japanese American Internment through a Government Lens

America stands unique in the world: the only country not founded on race but on a way, an ideal. Not in spite of but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. That is the American way.

President Ronald Reagan
December 1945, in honor of Kazuo Masuda and
August 10, 1988, at the signing of The Civil Liberties Act of 1988

Americanism . . . loses much of its meaning in the confines of a Relocation Center.

A Challenge to Democracy (1943)

February 19, 2017, is the 75th Anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066. Issued in 1942, soon after the United States’ entry into the Second World War, EO 9066 authorized the Secretary of War to designate military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded” and “provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary . . . to accomplish the purpose of this order.”

Though the text of EO 9066 does not contain the word “Japanese,” the intent and effect was the creation of a sweeping program to remove 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent from their homes in coastal California, Oregon, and Washington State in the name of national security. Though the language of the time called this an “evacuation” or “mass migration,” those affected were forced to leave their communities as the Federal government moved them to heavily-guarded camps in isolated areas hundreds of miles away.

Yosh Nakagawa was in fourth grade in February 1942. Like many other American children in his hometown of Seattle, he did not speak Japanese and was a Baptist, not Shinto or Buddhist. But he notes that even though he was in elementary school, “America thought I was a terrorist.” Over a period of weeks the United States government deported Japanese Americans from their neighborhoods. Seattle’s Japanese Baptist Church was boarded up and closed. In any case, there was no one left to attend Sunday services.

The Nakagawa family was first held at a detention facility on the Puyallup Fairgrounds, ironically called “Camp Harmony,” where they slept in converted stables. This was followed by several years of incarceration over 600 miles from home at Minidoka Camp in Idaho. Two-thirds of the Japanese Americans incarcerated in the ten government internment camps were United States citizens and the rest were legal permanent residents (persons born in Japan were excluded from citizenship until 1952).

Idaho- Minidoka- General Plan 2

Idaho- Minidoka- General Plan 2 (NAID 27813968)

The Film Record

The newly-created War Relocation Authority (WRA) heavily documented the government’s program of Japanese American incarceration from 1942 through 1945, so we have many opportunities to understand how the camps looked, how they were laid out, and what the Federal government said about them.

The WRA collaborated with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Office of War Information (OWI), the War Department, and the War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry to make films intended for several different audiences. The films are most definitely propaganda, but they reveal points of tension between the actions of the government and the democratic ideals the nation was fighting a war to defend.

A Challenge to Democracy

A Challenge to Democracy was produced by the WRA with the cooperation of the OWI and OSS. It is the most comprehensive United States government propaganda film about the Japanese American internment and relocation program. The narrator states that what we are witnessing is “evacuation” of Japanese Americans to “wartime communities” or “relocation centers” and insists that “they are not prisoners, they are not internees.” The images in the film tell a different story.

At one point, the narrator states “relocation centers are not normal and probably never can be.” In fact, the government’s longer-term plan was to move the Japanese Americans deemed loyal into towns and cities in the interior of the United States. A Challenge to Democracy likely was directed towards the Caucasian residents of these communities in an attempt to make them more accepting of displaced Japanese Americans. A large portion of the film highlights all of the American institutions organized by the internment camp populations, including the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the United Service Organizations (USO), Parent-Teacher Associations, the Red Cross, and local democratic government. It closes with a segment about the 442nd Infantry Regiment, made up of Japanese American soldiers, telling us they fight for “the American ideals that are part of their upbringing. Democracy. Freedom. Equality of opportunity regardless of race, creed, or ancestry.” Even though many of their families were incarcerated far from home, they still volunteered to fight.

Japanese Relocation

Japanese Relocation was produced by the OWI and distributed by the War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry. Milton S. Eisenhower, director of the WRA for its first 90 days of existence, describes the film as a “historical record” of the operation to remove Japanese Americans from military areas. The film does provide a visual record of some of the economic devastation of EO 9066. We see vacant shops and businesses, and impounded fishing boats in California. The narrator notes that “the quick disposal of property often involved financial sacrifice” by Japanese Americans.

The intended audience for Japanese Relocation was not only Americans. Narration at the end of the film frames the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans as a standard to be followed by its enemies abroad and expresses hope that the “fundamental decency” of this American example “will influence the Axis powers in their treatment of Americans who fall into their hands.”

The Way Ahead

The Way Ahead (produced with the OSS) is the only WRA film held by NARA that appears to have been produced exclusively for an audience of incarcerated Japanese Americans. It is made up of much of the same footage as A Challenge to Democracy but is structured as an informational film about what people resettled into communities far from home could expect. The film assures apprehensive Japanese Americans that they will find work, shelter, and helpful new friends in the towns and cities of Middle America. There is no mention of the very real prejudice against people of Japanese descent that was pervasive during World War II.

Barriers and Passes

Barriers and Passes was not produced by the WRA. Though it also uses some footage from A Challenge to Democracy, it was made by the Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Because the WRA collected a copy of the film, it is now held at the National Archives.

Unlike the government-produced films, the silent Barriers and Passes includes the words of Japanese Americans in its intertitles. One Nisei (child of a Japanese immigrant) is quoted saying, “We faced a neat dilemma. We could stand on our citizenship rights and resist evacuation, or serve our country by doing as we were told. We chose the latter.” Another internee observes that “The devastating blow was the discovery that we were actually prisoners behind barbed wire, guarded by armed men.”

Barriers and Passes also expresses the fear among some incarcerated Japanese Americans as the war stretched on that they might become permanent wards of the state, never permitted to leave the government camps. The film asserts that those incarcerated in the camps are overwhelmingly loyal to the United States but the filmmakers also recognize the country’s climate of prejudice. Near the end of the film decorated Japanese American war hero Ben Kuroki worries that even wearing his uniform and medals, “I don’t know for sure if it’s safe to walk the streets of my own country.”

 Go for Broke

In early 1943, the War Department created the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of mostly Nisei men from both Hawaii and the mainland, which trained at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. Go for Broke is a WRA film made with the War Department and OSS that documents their training. The film is similar to many of the World War II-era films that depict the standard army training regimen. However, viewers realize that the stakes are higher for these young men early on in Go for Broke when the narrator intones, “Many of them volunteered to fight when they were behind the barbed wire enclosures of relocation centers . . . . They volunteered to fight for the land of their birth, the adopted land of their parents.”

In Europe, the 100th Infantry Battalion, made up of Japanese Americans from Hawaii, was attached to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The 100th had already seen combat and earned the nickname “Purple Heart Battalion.” Together they became the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in American military history.

The background behind the formation of the 442nd is not covered in the film, but it is fascinating. The late Senator Daniel Inouye was a member of the 442nd and he tells a story of how Hawaiian and mainland Japanese Americans came together to form a cohesive fighting unit. The two groups were culturally very different and most of those from Hawaii did not have families who were incarcerated in camps. The Hawaiians and mainlanders came up with derisive names for each other (Kotonks and Buddhaheads) and tensions were high. The commander of the 442nd arranged for groups of soldiers–most non-commissioned officers, all from Hawaii–to visit the Rohwer and Jerome camps in Arkansas. Senator Inouye and the others expected they would be visiting a “large Japanese community” and were shocked to find that the community was behind barbed wire and surrounded by machine gun towers. When the soldiers returned to Camp Shelby, Senator Inouye said, “Overnight the regiment was formed. The next morning, you had the 442nd.”

The story of the 442nd was so compelling, that MGM made a feature film about the unit in 1951. The Hollywood Go for Broke! stars popular actor Van Johnson and features five veterans of the 442nd in the core group of characters. Johnson plays an officer in the 442nd as we follow the unit through training, deployment to Italy, and their famed rescue of the Lost Battalion in France.

An American Story

At the end of World War II, Yosh Nakagawa, now in middle school, was released from Minidoka. He and each member of his family were given $25 and a one-way bus ticket. They could only bring with them what they could carry. The Nakagawa family returned to Seattle, but their home and business were gone. They, like many other returning Japanese Americans, slept in the sanctuaries and narthexes of churches while they worked to rebuild their lives.

In 1988, the Federal government recognized the injustice that it had perpetrated upon Japanese Americans and passed a bill providing some compensation. At the signing, President Ronald Reagan acknowledged that their treatment was “wrong” and “a mistake,” and reaffirmed “our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”

February 19 is an annual Day of Remembrance commemorating the effects of EO 9066. Because 2017 is the 75th Anniversary, there are many events planned this year. San Francisco has a film festival. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., is offering an event and year-long exhibit. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., has also prepared a special exhibit. Seattle has a whole slate of events. By learning about this chapter in America’s history, you can help to keep the story alive, and that is important. Yosh Nakagawa continues to tell his story “so people today and tomorrow will not have to experience it again.”

The author would like to thank Yosh Nakagawa, Dan Yoshii, and Mitch Homma for their kind help in researching this blog post.

The National Archives has digitized many records of Japanese American internment and they may be found in our online catalog. The WRA records include photographs, as well as maps and plans of the government internment camps. There is also a National Archives resource page for records related to Japanese Americans. The website for Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project is a rich source for information about the effects of EO 9066 on the Japanese American population.

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