The Contrasting Cases of American and Japanese-American World War II Internees by Martin Meadows

This article was originally published in the CPOW newsletter, Beyond the Wire, in September 2021. Additional articles by Prof. Meadows are listed following this piece.

INTRODUCTION It has been more than 76 years since I was among the nearly 4,000 American and other Allied-country nationals who were liberated from Manila’s Santo Tomas Internment Camp (STIC) on 3 February 1945. Despite that passage of time, however, I continue to harbor two grievances concerning the U.S. coverage of two related but separate and distinct subjects linked to World War II (WWII): (1) The American public’s virtually total ignorance of the subject of Japan’s WWII American civilian captives, or internees; and (2) the sharp contrast between that lack of coverage and the extensive (and continuing) amount of attention accorded in the U.S. to the subject of U.S. government treatment of WWII Japanese-American internees. This analysis will discuss each grievance in turn, focusing on the main reasons for the contrasting nature of the coverage, and on how that difference contributed to the failures and successes, respectively, of the American and the Japanese-American efforts to achieve restitution. Lastly, this study will examine certain neglected aspects of the subject at issue in the concluding section.

Before proceeding, several distinctions and clarifications should be cited, for the sake of accuracy (and to forestall potential criticisms); but brevity dictates that not all of them will be used here. They include the following: (1) In the context of this survey, the term “Japanese-American” is not always appropriate, as not all those of Japanese descent in the U.S. and in the then Territory of Hawaii were U.S. citizens during WWII. (2) The word commonly used to include all diaspora ethnic Japanese, regardless of their citizenship, is Nikkei; a term used herein, though not comparable, is “Japanese-American community.” (3) Because not all Japanese-Americans were interned, it would be inaccurate to refer to them — although I do so — as “internees” (as distinguished from military prisoners, or “POWS”). (4) To simplify, instead of using the terms “former internees” or “ex-internees,” they will be referred to simply as “internees.” Finally, a note to emphasize that my grievances are not personal; this survey is the outcome not of prejudice, antipathy and/or bitterness, but rather of an examination of the historical record.

GRIEVANCE #1. The reasons for the ignorance of the American internees’ case in my opinion result largely if not entirely from deliberate policy decisions by both the Japanese and the American governments. The principal reason Japanese leaders always have desired to conceal the facts of their handling of WWII captives (both military POWs and civilian internees) needs no explanation — they simply do not want it known how brutally they treated their prisoners. As evidence of that mistreatment, here are some illustrative facts and figures: Among American POWs in Europe, slightly more than one percent died while prisoners; among Japan’s American POWs, about 40% died in captivity. Among American internees in Europe, 3.5% died in prison; among American internees of Japan, 11% died in captivity — more than triple the European rate. (Fewer than 0.02% of Japanese-Americans died as internees.) Moreover, Japanese motivation to suppress the facts has been greatly reinforced by the post-WWII growth of right-wing ultra-nationalism in Japan. As a result, Japan has always refused even to discuss — let alone to award — reparations payments to its American internees, citing the provisions of the 1951 peace treaty with the U.S. And in that regard, it is important to underscore the fact that the American government at every step of the way has sided with Japan against any and every attempt by the American internees to seek reparations from Japan. The reasons for that stance are examined next.

The motivations of the U.S. government both to conceal the facts, and to side with Japan, in my opinion include (in addition to the provisions of the aforesaid peace treaty) these three major ones: (1) The desire to cover up the government’s role in actually preventing, not merely discouraging, American civilians from leaving the Philippines prior to the Pearl Harbor attack (for instance, by refusing to furnish required travel documents). (2) The desire to avoid any negative reaction that might have resulted from Americans’ knowledge that a foreign enemy had captured the greatest number of American civilians in U.S. history, and that the U.S. government was at the least partly responsible. (3) No doubt most important, the desire to ensure that Japan would be an ally against the Soviet Union in the rapidly-developing cold war. And, to support the view that the U.S. government did not treat American internees equitably, note that it provided them only minimal compensation for their internment (a maximum of $2,200 per STIC adult), especially so in comparison with reparations from WWII Allied countries to their own internees (an average of at least $15,000 each).

GRIEVANCE #2. And now to the second grievance, concerning the grossly disparate treatment within the U.S. of the two categories of internees, a situation for which the U.S. government and the Japanese-American community bear primary responsibility. First, just as the U.S. government has been mainly responsible for Americans’ ignorance of the American internees’ case, so too it has contributed considerably to the disparity of coverage, since ignorance of the issue obviously has led to its lack of coverage. On the other hand, however, the U.S. government could not have prevented widespread knowledge, and thus extensive coverage, of the Japanese-American case. That is because the government could not legally have censored any, let alone all, of the numerous efforts to publicize the Japanese-American case, and also because those efforts were led not only by the Japanese-American community but also by what could be called the civil rights community, which is often an influential factor in such instances. Conversely, though the government could not suppress awareness of the Japanese-American case, it was able to do so in the American internees’ case, because that occurred outside of the U.S. and thus beyond public notice, did not involve either civil rights violations or the civil rights community, and affected a far smaller number of individuals (a few thousand as against more than 100,000).

As for the Japanese-American community, its lengthy pursuit of restitution achieved complete success in 1988, when the U.S. Congress formally apologized for the government’s WWII actions, and passed the Civil Liberties Act. That Act, and its later amendments, awarded $20,000 in reparations to almost all WWII-era Japanese-Americans (of whom more than 80,000 were still alive), regardless of their wartime status — that is, regardless of their citizenship, their treatment (e.g., internment, relocation, or neither), their ages, or even whether they had been repatriated to Japan or had actually fought for Japan. The Act also authorized creation of a Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, which has served to insert the Japanese-American point of view into the country’s educational system as well as into the historical record. And the Japanese-American case has continued to receive public attention as well as to achieve further successes, which need not be cited here. In short, ever since WWII, Americans have displayed the sharpest possible contrast in their knowledge of and interest in the two categories of WWII internees discussed in this study.

CONCLUSION. The contrasting outcomes traced above — resulting from contrasts in awareness, and thus in coverage — seem destined to be more or less permanent; thus a more complete analysis than so far provided is needed to produce a fuller explanation, and judgment, of those contrasting results. The standard explanation — which is espoused by the Japanese-American community — follows conventional lines: In accordance with “the American dream,” Japanese-Americans “worked hard and played by the rules” — particularly the rules of the American political system, including in particular the election of Japanese-Americans to the U.S. Congress. Thus they were much more able to promote their cause and influence public opinion than were the virtually unknown, ignored, and numerically insignificant American internees. While that explanation has merit, it is not the whole story; there is a darker side to consider. A detailed account of that aspect, briefly summarized next, can be found in an unpublished article-length manuscript by John J. Stephan, professor emeritus of history at the University of Hawaii, who is fully conversant with Japan’s language and history. (Complete citation: John J. Stephan, “Injustice Contrived: Wartime Internment as Political Theater,” Honolulu, 2021. A 2018 version is available to the public at the internet site “Researchgate,” via the following link — where, more importantly, Stephan intends to soon post the 2021 updated version:

To cite only the barest essentials, among other things Stephan outlines the pre-Pearl Harbor beliefs and actions of a minority (approximately one-fourth) of America’s Japanese-American community, almost all of them located in the then Territory of Hawaii. According to Stephan, that minority harbored a “racist-nationalist virus”; actively supported Japanese expansionism in Asia; did not intend to settle in the U.S.; made trips back to Japan; and on several occasions hosted visiting members of the Japanese military. Their actions were so potentially incriminating that, after Pearl Harbor, they sought to dispose of evidence of their sympathies. Thenceforth, Japanese-Americans in general made — and continue to make — similar efforts to discourage any and all references to the aforesaid minority’s compromising pre-WWII history. Stephan also pinpoints the various deficiencies — simplifications, distortions, etc. — in the Japanese-American version of their relationship with the U.S. government. In view of such flaws, one may well wonder why the Japanese-American story, as presented to the American public since WWII, has never been successfully challenged. The reason is simple; as Stephan pointed out in a personal email, any criticism of the Japanese-American community’s presentation of its history is virtually impossible to publish. In his words, that history is based upon “a civil rights narrative that the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 turned into orthodoxy enforced within the government, media, and academe.”

In summary, thanks in part to the less savory side of its history, the Japanese-American community not only ultimately achieved its objectives, it is virtually invulnerable to attack. Conversely, the American internees who were victims of Imperial Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere appear destined to remain invulnerable as well — except that they are invulnerable to the public attention and support Americans bestow on the Japanese-American community. Their efforts to achieve restitution were unable to gain traction within the American public and were aimed primarily at the U.S. government — which itself, however, undercut their efforts, as explained earlier. Thus, by comparison with the efforts of the Japanese-American community, those of the American internees proved to be pitifully feeble. And there the story of these two sharply contrasting histories must rest, for now if not forever. That is, unless the remnants of the American internees, and/or their descendants, can somehow muster the will, the energy, and the financial and political support to gain public recognition and thereby at least modify their side of the story for the better.

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