Incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII seen in light of events that followed 9-11
Art Kameda is of Japanese heritage, and his often times impassioned April 14 presentation at the Mount Shasta library on the forced relocation of 120,000 Japanese-Americans into camps after Pearl Harbor was intended not only to remind people of that injustice, but to warn against such future incarcerations.
Kameda’s interest in the issue is not casual. His father’s family was forced to relocate from the west coast to Colorado where they worked as sharecoppers. Although they did not live in one of the 10 relocation camps that were spread throughout the United States, Kameda said they experienced “extreme hardships.”
“Near starvation,” he said.
Kameda’s father-in-law fought in World War II in the all Japanese-American 442nd regiment – a unit many young Japanese-Americans joined out of the camps to show their loyalty to the US.
“The 442nd was one of the most decorated units in the history of the US Army,” Kameda said.
In warning of future forced incarcerations, Kameda noted the treatment of Muslims in the wake of 9-11.
“I fear that if enough people do not learn of this particular big failure from our past, we may repeat our mistakes,” he said. “After 9-11 happened, I was deeply troubled to hear of the 700 to 1,000 people of the Islam faith or of Arab descent who were incarcerated without trial or hearing.”
Kameda said he was also disturbed by President Obama’s recent signing of the Defense Authorization Bill that allows incarceration of American citizens for an indefinite period of time without charge or trial.
“I was really disappointed by Obama signing the bill,” Kameda said. “It sets up a legal framework for it to happen again.”
The 63 year old Kameda said his interest in the relocations began in high school and early college.
“In my high school history books there was nothing but the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” Kameda said. “In my college books there was two sentences on the camps.”
Kameda presented an extensive history of American bias against Asians from the 1800s to 1924 that contributed to the fear and racism after Pearl Harbor. Among the actions taken were the following:
•?1880 – California passed anti-miscegenation law aimed at Orientals;
•?1913 – California passes Alien Land Law prohibiting aliens who are ineligible for citizenship, including all Asian immigrants, from owning land or property; and
•?1924 – New immigration bill effectively ends Japanese immigration to the US, 17 years before WWII.
“The era of Yellow Peril in the early 1900s saw newspapers make false accusations against Asians,” Kameda said.
He noted that immediately after Pearl Harbor, newspapers once again made false claims.
“The newspapers printed wild rumors that Japanese farmers in Hawaii cut arrows in their sugar cane plantations pointing toward Pearl Harbor so the bombers could find their way and that some of the downed pilots who attacked Pearl Harbor had University of California rings on their fingers. This implied that Japanese-Americans flew the planes,” Kameda said. “These were all found to be false.”
Kameda said that despite a US State Department report completed just before Pearl Harbor stating that Japanese-Americans were loyal and not a threat, there was tremendous pressure to put Japanese-American into camps.
“In addition to patriotic organizations, newspapers fanned racist hysteria and suspicions,” Kameda said. “Groups with financial interests, farming groups, unions and merchant groups pushed for the Japanese-Americans to be sent to camps.”
Kameda said that despite pronouncements by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that Japanese-Americans posed no threat, an executive order was signed Feb. 19, 1942 that allowed the military to exclude anyone from anywhere without a trial or hearings.
The camps were built and detainees were allowed only a few days to dispose of or store their possessions and could bring with them only what they could carry. A military exclusion zone along the west coast was established from which Japanese-Americans were forcibly removed to the camps.
Kameda said his father’s family managed to avoid being in a camp because of a short lived three week voluntary evacuation period just before the forced removals.
“You had to have a sponsor and a job waiting,” Kameda said. “Very few were able to go voluntarily.”
Kameda focused on the Tule Lake camp in Siskiyou County as it ultimately became the largest camp, with 18,000 internees, and was where resisters to a loyalty oath were sent. Kameda said conditions were harsh.
“The camp was surrounded by barbed wire and had 21 guard towers. The living area for a family of five was 20’ by 25’,” Kameda said. “There was no running water, and communal latrines and dining areas. The rooms were furnished with one light bulb, a wood stove and sleeping cots.”
Kameda detailed the dissension that took place in 1943 when the US military wanted to draft men out of the camps into the Army and move others out of the camps by requiring a Loyalty Oath. The oath required that you were willing to serve in the armed forces, would swear to defend the United States and forswear allegiance to the Japanese Emperor.
Kameda said among the divisions the oath created were the following:
•?Anger at being subjected to this under their circumstances;
•?Japan-born felt they may become people without a country;
•?Many felt it was a trick question in that forswear means to renounce an oath to the Emperor they never gave;
•?Fear of family breakups;
•?Some refused to serve a country that had taken away their civil liberties;
•?Some said they would serve only after their families were let out of incarceration;
•?Fear of being in a segregated unit, that the army might send them on suicide missions with little regard for their lives;
•?Some felt that being drafted into the army while being incarcerated violated the Selective Service Act; and
•?Some became pro-Japan
“Nine-thousand dissidents who refused to sign the oath were shipped to Tule Lake,” Kameda said. “There were upheavals at Tule Lake including an internee shot, labor disputes, black market food and fighting between loyals and disloyals. One of the moderates was murdered by the extremists.”
Kameda said a 1944 bill allowed Japanese-Americans to give up their citizenship.
“Over five-thousand renounced their citizenship,” Kameda said. “There were many reasons. For some it was an act of protest, others for family reasons, some just gave up on America. Over 2,000 agreed to be sent back to Japan.”
Kameda said most citizenships were restored in 1959 because the renunciations were made under “duress.”
Kameda spoke at some length detailing the military service Japanese-Americans provided in WWII including code breaking, interrogation of prisoners, reading captured documents and the heroics by the 442nd Regiment.
“The 442nd earned 18,143 individual decorations, 21 Congressional Medal of Honor awards and took 9,000 casualties including 600 dead,” Kameda said.
Kameda said a 1980 Congressional commission established to review the incarcerations found that there was no security threat and that the action was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
Kameda said this ultimately led to a $20,000 payment to every survivor of the camps and an official apology.
“Many of the persons who were hurt the most had already passed on and money did not go on to their survivors,” Kameda said.
In closing the talk, Kameda read a lengthy statement on his experience of researching the camp’s histories and giving talks on the incarcerations. He closed, in part, with the following words.
“We must stand up and ask that this does not happen again. It would mean that America has not learned its lesson from the past and a new cycle of suffering would begin,” Kameda said. “Help us preserve the Tule Lake Segregation Center and some of the other concentration camps similar to this one. Do it for me, do it for my community and do it for my country.”