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Japanese Internment, 1942

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With its combative attitudes towards Muslims and refuges, America mislearns from her young history. 

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As America debates over accepting Syrian refuges, opposing voices have grown louder in recent weeks. A politician was quoted as wistfully referring back to the internment of Japanese Americans. Joining that fray more recently was Donald Trump, a boorish tycoon who was improbably a front-runner for Republican nomination, who wants to ban all Muslims from the US. The Congress overwhelmingly passed a law rolling back visa-waivers to foreigners who have visited troubled Middle-Eastern spots.

As lights of tolerance slowly dimmed across the country, it is instructive to look back at the Japanese-American internment itself, now considered a dark chapter in the country’s history. Then though, in the wake of Pearl Harbour, politicians were enthusiastic to herd off Japanese Americans to internment camps. Creeping terror was unmistakable: firstly, only those who were in sensitive areas (military bases, strategic sites) were relocated, but eventually 120,000 Japanese Americans altogether were removed from their homes. Their property was confiscated, and in a thoroughly capitalist form of state violence, trademarks, copyrights, and patents they held were stripped off.

Terror was all the greater for full support it received. Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, an organisation of Californian elites who were descended from the original settlers of the state, supported it, as did the state’s Attorney General Earl Warren, later to be a liberal Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  American Legion was in favour, as were businessmen who viewed it as easy ways to get rid of their competitors. The media, which broadly endorsed the camps, covered them as if the Japanese Americans have been shipped off to a picnic. In an April 1942 article tellingly titled “Coast Japs Are Interned in Mountain Camp,” Life magazine used the term “concentration camp” but described the internees as “enchanted by scenic surroundings”.

Authorities also perpetuated this atmosphere by not allowing photographers to take pictures of the camps’ barbed wires or guard towers. All the photos also had to be approved by the War Relocation Authority, the body responsible for the internment. Only in the 1970s and the 1980s did reassessment of camps (via photographs taken by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams and Life’s Carl Mydans) take place. Adams did capture some barbed wires in his sprawling vistas of the camp, but he himself viewed the camps as basically harmless: “the acrid splendor of the desert, ringed with towering mountains, has strengthened the spirit of the [internees],” he wrote.

As such one of the most iconic photos of the internment was taken in March 1942, when Fumiko Hayashida became one of the first Japanese American to be relocated. In the photo, 31-year old Hayashida holds her sleeping 10-month-old daughter, Natalie, while waiting to board a ferry from Bainbridge Island, Washington State which would take her to the internment camps. The photo was printed in The Seattle Post Intelligencer, one of the few papers which gave space to anti-internment editorials, but Hayashida wasn’t named. She was only as “Mystery Lady” until the 1990s, when the Smithsonian Institution tracked her down. {She died only last year}.

The internment lasted until December 1944, when the Supreme Court ruled that the internment had been unconstitutional. However, the Court however ruled that evictions had been legal. Bitter atmosphere surrounded the court before and after the rulings with many a legal mind proposing an amendment to the United States constitution which would revoke the American citizenship of all Japanese to make internment constitutional. Internees who returned home were harassed and even killed. A formal apology was not issued until 1988.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

December 10, 2015 at 8:04 am

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