Term Paper: Japanese American Internment During World War II an Ethnographic Survey

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Anthropology

Japanese-American Internment during the Second World War:

An Ethnographic Survey

The interning of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War ranks among the most infamous episodes of American history. Cores of thousands of men, women, and children - many of them native born citizens of the United States - were forcibly removed from their homes on the West Coast and held under detention in camps in the interior portions of the country. The reason given for these extraordinary measures was one of wartime necessity, the need to eliminate potentially subversive elements from the general population. Japanese-Americans, being of different race, ethnicity, and cultural background than the vast majority of Americans were viewed as an alien population living in the midst of the nation's cities, towns, and countryside. Suspect because they were different, it took little to convince many "real" Americans that Japanese-Americans' first loyalty would lie with the Empire of Japan, and not with the United States. The United States was at war with Japan, and all Japanese - American or not - would be treated as enemy aliens. Oddly, the situation stood in stark contrast to that of those persons with ethnic and historical ties to that of America's other wartime foe - Hitler's Germany. Unlike their fellow citizens of Japanese origin or descent, German-Americans continued to live unmolested. They continued to walk the streets of America, to hold jobs, own property, and go to school - their lives continues as normal. What then led to this singling out of the Japanese-American population? Why were Japanese-Americans subjected to such harsh, unconstitutional, and un-American treatment as a result of the War?

The answers to these questions are to be found in majority white America's attitudes toward individuals of different races and culture, and in the unique history of the Japanese-American community and its relationship to the larger whole of the United States.

Background: The Japanese Experience in America

The United States of America has always envision itself as a land of freedom and opportunity; a place to which the oppressed masses of the world come and being new lives. Regardless of race, religion, creed, or ethnic or national origin, all would be equal in the new land, at liberty to purse the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - or so ran the national mythology. Yet America was never so free or welcoming. The first centuries of European settlement in the land that was to become the United States witnessed the beginning of the end for the continent's indigenous inhabitants as the Native American populations were decimated by disease, driven off their land, or outright slaughtered. Many hundreds of thousands of Black slaves were brought from Africa to be put to labor on plantations of tobacco, rice, indigo, and later cotton. Neither Native Americans, nor these new African-Americans, enjoyed the rights of citizens. Rather, they were treated as subject peoples, denied basic freedoms, and were subjected to onerous regulations and restrictions. Already, by the Mid-Nineteenth Century Ralph Waldo Emerson had given form to a peculiarly American doctrine of progress and the perfectibility of mankind that fused high-minded ideals with a sense of the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race:

Transcendental thought, of which Emerson was the principal representative, gave Manifest Destiny its ideological base, by popularizing geographical determinism, the active role of Divine Providence in the nation's destiny, the natural progress of the human race, and the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race in promoting that progress."

The voluntary immigrants who came in increasing numbers during the Nineteenth Century were thus placed immediately on a lower rung of society from their "more equal" White counterparts of Anglo-Saxon descent.

Naturally, the situation was worse the further removed from the Anglo-Saxon ideal a group might chance to be. After the Civil War, the newly reunited nation demanded a huge supply of cheap labor to build its rapidly expanding railroad network. In the West, this labor was provided, to a large extent, by settlers from Japan and China. Labor Contractors, generally Japanese or Chinese themselves actively recruited these workers and brought them to America.

They helped to lay the foundations of America's industrial prosperity. White American racial attitudes combined with a nationwide railroad strike in 1877 to create the necessary conditions for a crackdown on Asian immigration.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was soon followed by other, stricter acts, in 1892, 1902, and 1904.

And as White America saw little, if any difference, between Japanese and any other Asians, the anti-Chinese immigration laws were followed by a Japanese Exclusion Act in 1907. By 1924, the United States had imposed an almost total ban on all immigration from East Asia,

The once free and unrestricted immigration policy of the United States was systematically curtailed on economic, cultural, and political grounds. California workers claimed Asian workers who already faced discrimination here were paid poorly and employers gave preference to these poorly paid workers over native born workers in order to save money."

The attitudes of racial and cultural superiority that had long been second nature to many Americans were now fusing with an image of Japanese, and other Asians, as competitors who took needed jobs by driving down wages.

Nevertheless, Japanese-Americans would not long remain on the lowest levels of the economic ladder. By the 1920s, the picture of the Japanese immigrant, and his by now native-born children and grandchildren, as simple laborers was inaccurate. Already, at this time, American-born Japanese had reached educational parity with American whites.

Though established in sizeable numbers in what was then the Territory of Hawaii, in the continental United States, Japanese settled overwhelmingly in just three Western states, California, Oregon, and Washington. Their pattern of settlement was overwhelmingly rural, with only a slightly higher tendency to gravitate toward urban areas in the State of Washington.

The Japanese became especially successful in small-scale agriculture despite discriminatory laws that prevented aliens from owning land.

Many avoided these strictures either by leasing, or putting land in the name of their native-born children and grandchildren.

Others found work as small-scale entrepreneurs, prohibited as they were from membership in virtually all major unions (the sole exception was the Industrial Workers of the world) on account of their race and ethnicity.

Nonetheless, the Japanese formed a coherent and tight-knit community, one that was uniquely organized along generational lines. Japanese immigration had occurred almost entirely during a single discrete period, allowing the initial arrivals to become established as a distinct elder class called the Issei. Born and raised in Japan, the Issei were the leaders of the Japanese-American community on the eve of World War Two. Their children, fluent in English and born in the United States were called Nisei, and the children of the Nisei, were known as Sansei.

As Japanese war planes rained down bombs on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, it was the Issei who dominated Japanese-American society. In the existing climate of racial prejudice and discrimination, it was easy to identify the entire Japanese-American population as a band of foreign subversives. The next step was the internment of scores of thousands of men, women, and children as "real" Americans i.e. white Anglo-Saxon Americans reacted to irrational fears of alien conquest from within.

Prejudice Unleashed: The Internment Experience

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 giving the American military the authority to create military areas in the West Coast states.

That spring, the United States government began the rounding up and evacuation of the approximately 120,000 persons of Japanese origin or descent then living on the West Coast. With only a few days warning, these individuals and their families were to gather up what belongings they could, and then be sent to internment camps in the interior of the country. Two-thirds of these men, women, and children were native-born citizens of the United States of America.

Having committed no other offense than being Japanese, these people would be held indefinitely... until at least the cessation of hostilities with the Empire of Japan.

The imprisonment of an entire, formerly free population - for no apparent crime - was unprecedented in the annals of American history. The process itself, and the experience and conditions of internment, were to leave lasting impressions on the lives of countless Japanese-Americans and on the whole American psyche.

The racist origins of the internment of Japanese-Americans can clearly be seen in government attitudes toward people of Japanese origin in the years between the two World Wars. A few months after a 1920 sugar plantation strike, the Bureau of Investigations, precursor to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, described the "Japanese Problem" as,

Almost unbelievable' in scope. Japan, the bureau's agent contended, was bent on a 'program for world supremacy' and saw California as a dumping ground for its 'constantly increasing surplus population.' If the tide of immigration was not stemmed, warned the report, 'the white race, in no long space of time, would be driven from the state… [END OF PREVIEW]

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https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/japanese-american-internment-during/76798.