“Go for Broke” was the motto of the 442 Regimental Combat Team. It was a spirit that changed the minds of Americans as they watched ethnic Japanese fight and die for the United States, even while their relatives were stripped of possessions and thrown into camps. Over forty years later, President Reagan signed legislation that admitted "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership" caused the internment. HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports on the legacy we all share from this experience.
“Look at the fortifications on the island of O‘ahu, they wouldn’t dare attack us!” That’s the feeling that contributed to astonishment when those bombs fell over Pearl Harbor.
Bishop Museum historian Desoto Brown points out Americans were on a steep learning curve.
“There was a very strong racist element to that of, ”Oh they’re little people, and they all have bad eyesight, the men all wear these funny glasses, thick glasses, they can’t see very well, and they’re physically smaller than us big stalwart Anglo-Saxon people so they can’t possibly beat us. It got turned around very, very frighteningly when the Japanese did beat all the white people, badly, right at the very beginning. That was a big slap in the face for a lot of people to have to deal with.”
Shock at the bombing turned to fear and suspicion surrounding ethnic Japanese in the U.S. WWII veteran Ted Tsukiyama says he and others in Hawai‘i had no questions about which side they were on.
“Throughout, the Nisei had no question they were American, where their loyalty was. Japan was the enemy.”
Motivated by patriotism, shame at being identified with the enemy, and social/economic pressures at home, ten thousand Hawai‘i boys volunteered for the 442 Regimental Combat Team. The four thousand original members had to be replaced two and a half times, with a total of 14,000 men serving.
In his definitive book, “Go for Broke,” Chester Tanaka records that soldiers of the 442, the most decorated unit in United States military history, were actually kind of small, their average weight was 125! They were different from other recruits in that they liked to eat rice, three times a day. Tsukiyama says, when he was stationed at Camp Shelby, he had a chance to visit a “relocation camp.”
“When I was a Camp Shelby and some of the kotonks (mainland-born Japanese) had parents in the closest concentration camp. So I remember one of the guys was visiting his family, said, “Wanna go?” I said, “Sure.” So we went along, showed up in rural Arkansas, and lo and behold you see the whole place with barbed wire and Japanese behind the barbed wire. In other words, they were prisoners, prisoners of their own country. That was a shocking incident.”
The docility of Japanese internees and the sacrifices Japanese Americans made on the battlefield helped forge a new image.
“And you know, of course, especially after they got into battle and proved themselves, the status of the Nisei really got clarified and strengthened after they started getting wounded and killed. I think that made a difference.”
Images of vicious creatures with slanted eyes and protruding front teeth have receded, and UH Mānoa Ethnic Studies professor Jonathan Okamura says racism since the 1960’s has been more veiled in language about merit, equal opportunity, and individualism. According to Okamura, President-elect Donald Trump, however, has been more blatant about
“Most racism now as expressed in America is not the kind of snarling, in-your-face, biologically based forms that were prevalent much earlier, say, in the ‘60’s.”
“Trump doesn’t use that language. He’s quite blatant in terms of his racism against Mexicans, against Muslims, and he’s certainly tapped into Americans who feel the same way.” Okamura points to characterizations of religious and ethnic groups as a monolithic “Other.”
Trump: “When Mexico sends its people they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. they’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing their problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume are good people.”
“The reason why I’m so concerned about the verbal assaults that we’re seeing now is that the verbal assaults that we saw in the run up to World War II were quickly followed by actual violations of constitutional rights including the internment,” says Mari Matsuda, professor at the Richardson School of Law.
Matsuda is a nationally recognized expert working with critical race
theory. She points out that legal assurances stemming from the Japanese American WWII experience took forty years to accomplish. Ethnic Japanese were imprisoned in the U.S. until the last camp closed in 1946, Their goods and property were lost for the most part, but they began new lives. With the help of the G.I. Bill, many graduated from college and in Hawai‘i, a new generation moved into business, education, politics, and more. Not everyone supported the postwar effort to seek reparations and legal repudiation of the internment. They said, Don’t rock the boat! But efforts by the JACL, Japanese Americans Citizens’ League, and others resulted in the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which admitted the imprisonment was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."
Matsuda: “It’s to the credit of this country that we now recognize that that is a mark of shame because it was not consistent with the constitution and Bill of Rights. Congress recognized that, President Reagan recognized that, an apology was issued and reparations were paid. With that record in place, it enshrines current equal protection doctrine, which says that we can’t make any law that denies equality on the basis of race, and as soon as we do that we’re in trouble.”
Legislation and precedent are not always consistent with national sentiment. National organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center are documenting an uptick in hate crimes. The New York Times reports that since the presidential election, hate crimes in New York City have risen to a 35% increase over last year. This week, a NY Giants fullback had his house broken into and vandalized with a swastika, and the first Somali-American legislator was taunted as an ISIS terrorist in Washington D.C. Libraries nationwide report an increase in attacks and vandalism.
President-elect Trump, meanwhile, has been stepping back from some campaign rhetoric, distancing himself from white supremacist supporters.
“I think his plan is to remain popular by keeping the visuals of a racist, anti-immigrant, xenophobic stance, and that means open harassment of immigrants and not just the undocumented. Anyone who doesn’t look American, with a racist reading of that, is going to be subject to street harassment by goons and thugs on the one hand and law enforcement on the other.”
Law enforcement, of course, is not a monolithic group either. Matsuda says the post incarceration legal process built on the fact that Japanese Americans joined the political process, as elected officials, workers, and supporters of the national civil rights effort.
“Gaining political power in that way was what worked in tandem with the legal strategy to create what is
really the lasting legacy of the internment which is a promise on the part of the United States of America that this will never happen again. The Nisei wanted a promise that it would never happen a gain and that promise was made. For my generation, it’s our obligation to make sure that promise was kept.” Matsuda adds she is certain the JACL will be on the front line of any defense of civil rights today.
Matsuda also finds hope in the ranks of Yonsei, fourth generation Japanese Americans, who are willing to put their bodies where the social/political need is. Okamura, however, sees less political engagement and activism among his students.
2017 is the 75th anniversary of President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of ethnic Japanese in America. Now, on the 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor’s bombing, Admiral Harry Binkley Harris, Jr., Japanese-American, is Commander of the United States Pacific Command, even as stereotype-based violence against other groups increases around the nation. It serves to remember that the original incarceration document was an Executive Order, and legalities do offer protection, until they are changed or reinterpreted.
Find a running tally of hate crimes across the U.S. at Slate.com
Historic materials and ongoing exhibitions can be found at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.