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Saturday
Jul232016

Japanese-American internment

Near Cody, in the middle of Wyoming, lies the remains of one of the internment camps where Japanese-Americans* were imprisoned in during WWII. More than 110,000 Japanese-Americans (most second/third generation American citizens, others barred from applying for American citizenship due to racist laws) were rounded up, stripped of their Constitutional rights and imprisoned in concentration camps. The excuse given at the time was that it was a military necessity after the attack at Pearl Harbor, but report after report since the event has found that there was never any security risk, and the real reason was simply racism. There was systematic racism against Japanese-Americans before WWII, during WWII and after WWII, and the implementation of internment was based on popular sentiment rather than military objectives. 

It was difficult to explain to Hayden. “In America, the people who live here came from lots of different countries, and have different colour skin. The people with white skin didn’t like the people with brown or black skin just because of the colour of their skin. They took lots of big ones and little ones who had a different skin colour and put them in jail for four years, even though they didn’t do anything wrong. It was a really really bad thing to do, we should never be mean to someone because of the colour of their skin.”

The great shame of America is just how systematically every aspect of the democratic republic failed its own people. The root cause of the internment was popular racism, and jealously of the economic success that Japanese immigrants has achieved (a parallel to the racism that the Nazis harnessed in Germany against the Jewish peoples). The bigotry and dehumanisation was broad within the American public, and loudly proclaimed by newspapers**, prominent businessmen*** and community leaders. Americans politicians rode the popular sentiment, all the way through the system up to FDR who signed the incarceration order. The judiciary failed to implement the Constitution, being swayed by popular racism rather than objective law, again, all the way through the system up to Supreme Court. The executive branch actively aided the racist policy, with the military implementing the order based on race (“I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must go to camp”, Colonel Bendetsen) and the Census bureau providing the confidential data needed to identify who had Japanese ancestry. For all the checks and balances, democracy failed its own citizens and let racism and bigotry rule. Is America now preparing to do the same to Muslim-Americans and Latino-Americans under a President Trump?

Despite all these deliberate insults, large numbers of Japanese-American men volunteered for the army, and fought bravely for a country that despised them. “Rarely has a nation been so well-served by a people it has so ill-treated. For their numbers and length of service, the Japanese Americans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team… became the most decorated unit in American military history” – President Bill Clinton, 2000. Such a lasting shame to the country that these decorated soldiers, returning home, had to visit their family in concentration camps.

*At the moment it is popular for conservative (white) Americans to rail against “hyphenated Americans”, saying they should drop the hyphen and just be Americans. Which is rather rich of them, consider the long and dishonourable history of white Americans forcing the dual identity on minority groups, and treating them less for it. No matter how they protested, Japanese-Americans during WWII were not treated as regular Americans, so if some choose today to embrace dual identities the white nationalist brigade just have to suck it up. For my personal point-of-view, as an Australian-British-Belgian-European, the more identities we have the more likely we are to overlap and find common understanding.

**Columnist Henry McLemore, Hearst newspapers: “I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. I don't mean a nice part of the interior either. Herd 'em up, pack 'em off and give 'em the inside room in the badlands... Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.”

*** Austin E. Anson, Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, Saturday Evening Post, 1942: “We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either”

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