Nine Things You Didn’t Know About The History of Japanese-Americans

By: Emily Shimabukuro

For many people, their first and only exposure to Japanese American history was a brief paragraph about Japanese internment during the WWII chapter of their history textbook. However, the history of Japanese Americans is more than one of the most regrettable decisions in American history. Even then, many people have cursory knowledge about Japanese Internment at best. Additionally, diversifying historical education requires people to learn that the history of minorities extends beyond what white people have done to them. This listicle aims to both inform readers more deeply about Japanese internment, and provide new, more complete information about Japanese and Japanese Americans in modern day American society. The Japanese in America continue to have a vibrant culture that blends the US and Japan.

  1. Approximately 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during WWII.
Internees at Heart Mountain, one of the largest internment camps during WWII. Photo credit: Department of the Interior. War Relocation Authority.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which forced all people of Japanese descent living on the west coast of the United States to go to internment camps in order to neutralize the threat of Japanese enemies. Many internees were American citizens. Japanese and Japanese Americans on the west coast were only allowed to bring “what they could carry.” This meant people had to leave their homes, with most of their possessions in them, their businesses, and anything else they couldn’t fit into a suitcase. People were forced to leave their jobs, liquidate their businesses, and sell anything they couldn’t take with them. Internees would be taken to a holding facility like Santa Anita Racetrack, where families would live in repurposed horse stalls. After being taken to a holding facility, they were taken to internment camps in remote locations, like Heart Mountain in Wyoming, or Manzanar in California. The internment camps were uninsulated barracks, had communal bathrooms, and were surrounded by barbed wire fences and guarded by soldiers in watch towers who had orders to kill anyone who tried to escape.

2. The all-Japanese 442nd regiment was a combat team in WWII, and is the most decorated regiment of its size.

While their families were held in internment camps, Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) joined the army. They were put in a segregated regiment from the white and black soldiers, and became the most decorated regiment of their size in US history, so much so that they were nicknamed “The Purple Heart Battalion”. With the motto “Go for Broke,” a mantra with its origins in Hawaiian sugar cane plantations, the members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team went in with the attitude of putting everything on the line to succeed. By joining the army, Nisei hoped to prove to Americans back home that they were not the enemy. The 442nd RCT was sent to fight alongside the 100th battalion, another segregated Japanese battalion. The 442nd is well known for saving “The Lost Battalion.” After being cut off from the rest of the army, the 77th Division was forced to hunker down until help arrived. Despite suffering intense casualties, the 442nd was finally able to rescue the Lost Battalion.

While many Nisei signed up to join the 442nd, over 200 internees were charged with draft evasion after refusing to join. In 1943, the US government reclassified Nisei from 4C (enemy aliens ineligible for conscription), to 1A — American men eligible for conscription. The US government framed this shift as recognizing the citizenship of Nisei, but many saw through it. They would still be forced to be in a segregated unit destined for the front lines, and were not given the same options as other citizens. While many internees complied with the draft, most camps had draft resisters. They resisted for different reasons, and in different ways. Some resisted because they believed that the government was just using them as cannon fodder, others because they were outraged that they were imprisoned for not being American enough, but are still forced to die for their country. Over 200 draft dodgers went to court and many were convicted and imprisoned. The only exception to convictions was the judge presiding over dodgers from Tule Lake, the camp for those suspected of disloyalty. This judge saw the mismatch of suspecting internees to be disloyal, then drafting them, and then arresting them when they resisted. After the war, President Truman issued pardons to all Nisei draft resisters at the advice of an amnesty board whose chair was former Justice Robert Owens.

The Color Guard of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team stands at attention. 1944. Photo credit: Department of Defense

3. The ACLU refused to fight against Japanese internment.

While the Northern California affiliate of the ACLU wanted to defend Fred Korematsu, the national board pushed them not to. Some in the national chapter thought they could change the executive order behind the scenes while others saw no problem with the order itself. The national board turned to the National Committee, a committee of over 70 members of the ACLU from across the country. It proposed two resolutions: one formally objecting to the removal of Japanese from the military exclusion zone extending down the west coast, the other affirming the right of the government to force people from zones if it was a matter of national security. The Committee voted 2–1 in favor of the second resolution, prohibiting challenges to Executive Order 9066. This caused a rift between the California affiliate and the national office as Ernest Besig, executive director of the Northern California ACLU, refused to drop the case.

A family moves their belongings into Manzanar Internment Camp — the largest of the ten internment camps. Photo credit: AP

4. Japanese-American Fred Korematsu filed a case against the internment camps… and lost.

Twenty-three year old Fred Korematsu, son of Japanese immigrants, refused to go to the internment camps, and was subsequently arrested. Ernest Besig of the Northern California affiliate of the ACLU then found him and asked him if he would be willing to appeal his case all the way to the Supreme Court. Korematsu agreed, and in 1943, the case found its way to the Supreme Court. Fighting on the grounds that Korematsu’s fifth amendment rights had been violated because there was no suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, Besig and Korematsu understood that the amount of racial prejudice in the US would make this case hard to win. In a 6–3 split decision, the Supreme Court upheld the government’s right to exclude and relocate Japanese from the west coast into internment camps.

Fred Korematsu. Photo credit: Fred T Korematsu Institute

5. The US government did not formally apologize for Japanese internment until 1988.

Immediately after Japanese were released from internment camps, many attempted to go back to life as normal. This included rarely, if ever, bringing up life during the camps. The culture of the Japanese was to stay quiet and unobtrusive.

In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which formally apologized for Japanese internment and paid $20,000 to surviving Japanese internees. Family members of internees who had died before 1988 were not eligible for compensation. Additionally, the Korematsu vs US ruling wasn’t overturned until the 2018 Trump vs Hawaii case.

Ronald Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act. Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

6. Little Tokyo is a National Historic Landmark located in Los Angeles

As Japanese immigrants came to the US in the late 19th century, they began settling in pockets along the west coast of the United States. Before WWII, Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, California was the largest Japanese community in the United States. This community was broken up at the start of WWII as Japanese were sent to internment camps, but Little Tokyo remains a central commercial district for Japanese in the United States. With the oldest Japanese-American owned shop in the US (a mochi shop called Fugetsu-Do Confectionary which opened in 1903), and many other Japanese owned shops and restaurants, Little Tokyo is a hub for Japanese in America.

Storefront of Fugetsu-Do, the oldest Japanese American owned store in the US. Photo credit: Fugetsu-Do

7. Nisei Week was created to drum up interest in the second generation of Japanese Americans

It is also one of the oldest ethnic festivals in the US. Started in 1934 in Southern California, Nisei Week was created to make Nisei (the American children of immigrants) feel more included in the Japanese American community. Within the Issei, or immigrant generation, there were fears that Nisei were favoring American department stores instead of Japanese owned stores. Before the creation of Nisei week, the elder Issei controlled much of the Japanese American culture and commercial spaces. In order to drum up interest in the younger generation, older Nisei created Nisei Week. Additionally, Nisei Week transformed Little Tokyo, the hub of Japanese culture in the US, into a tourist destination. White people came to experience Japanese culture and food, and politicians looking for the Japanese vote attended the festival. After a seven year break around the time of WWII, Nisei week was revived and continues to be celebrated. The festival blends American and Japanese cultures in a myriad of ways, including a gyoza eating contest, and a beauty pageant.

At the end of Nisei Week, one Japanese American young woman is crowned as Nisei Queen. Traditionally, the Nisei Queen was celebrated as a Nisei who embodied the values of Japanese culture, and won by receiving the most votes from attendees of the festival. Today, the Nisei Queen is selected by a committee of community leaders and members of the board of Nisei Week. participants in the Nisei Queen pageant are sponsored by Japanese American organizations, like the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League). Candidates for Nisei Queen undergo cultural enrichment courses in addition to preparing for the pageant, and once crowned, the Nisei Week Queen and Court participate in trips to Hawaii and Japan, as well as participate in community events.

2019 Nisei Queen and Court. Photo credit: Nisei Week Japanese Festival

8. The “model minority” myth originated with praise for the Japanese not asking for government assistance after the internment camps.

After returning from internment camps, internees felt a sense of shame and rejection. True to Japanese culture, many did not talk about it, especially with people who were not in camps, and in some cases including their own children. A group phenomenon known as social amnesia fell over returning internees. When asked about their memories of the camps, many Nisei recall only the funny memories, if they speak about it at all. Internees believed that their path to rebuilding their lives was by looking forward and not dwelling on the past.

The term “model minority” was coined by sociologist William Pettersen in reference to the success of Japanese Americans after internment camps without them asking for assistance from the government. In his 1966 article titled Success Story, Japanese American Style, Pettersen emphasized Japanese Americans’ seemingly quick rebound into American society. He places special importance on the work ethic of Japanese and their ability to remain unproblematic by quietly going back to their lives without protesting for reparations from the government. This was juxtaposed with black Americans, a “problem minority” demanding equal rights and reparations for slavery.

Credit: Chelsea Beck/NPR

9. Obon, is a Buddhist festival celebrated in late summer that came from Japan.

In Japan, Obon is celebrated around the country from the 13th to the 17th day of the seventh month. In the US, Buddhist temples around the Los Angeles area take turns hosting Obon. This means that every weekend in July and August, there is a different festival at a different Buddhist temple. Traditional belief states that during Obon, the souls of the dead return and allow festival goers to achieve a higher state of being while celebrating gratitude and joy. Obon festivals in California include Japanese food, taiko (Japanese drum) performances, martial arts performances, and the traditional dance, or Bon-Odori. The festivals are usually held in the temple parking lots, decorated with paper lanterns to guide the spirits home, and stands where you can buy food, drinks, and merchandise sold by members of the temple. Similar to the Obon festival in Japan, dancers will dance six to eight dances in a row with a short break in the middle. Many experienced dancers will wear yukata — a light, more casual version of a kimono — or Japanese front wrap jackets.

Obon is an excellent example of how Japanese in America stay tied to their roots in Japan while creating new traditions. Japanese Americans Americans like to embrace their Japanese culture, especially in a country with so few Japanese people.

Attendees of an Obon festival in Southern California participate in Bon-Odori. Photo credit: Glen Tao


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Comparative American Studies at Oberlin

Musings by students and faculty affiliated with the Comparative American Studies department at Oberlin College.