I want to call your attention to a new addition to Wyoming culture. It is a museum of the Heart Mountain Japanese American Relocation Center between Cody and Powell in World War II.
As you probably know, the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were evacuated from their West Coast homes to camps in the interior West and Arkansas. That was done as a national security measure because the U. S. government doubted the loyalty of many of the “Nikkei,” as the group was then called, and feared the military prowess of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
The point of the museum is to prove that the camps were “concentration camps” and that they were established because of racism. Neither charge is true and neither has ever been proven. It is beyond question that many of the first generation Nikkei (a term comprising all Japanese-Americans) were loyal to Japan and some even went so far as to repatriate themselves to that country during the war and many more stated their intention to do so. The first generation had extensive pre-war ties to the Imperial Japanese government through the Japanese consuls in the United States. The pre-war Japanese claimed to have an extensive spy network on the West Coast and just before the war the government rolled up a net headed by a man named Itaru Tachibana. We don’t know whether a net existed after that point, but we do know that the Imperial Japanese servants thought that they had one. So did the American government. The United States and its allies suffered tremendous losses in the first six months of the war and the government thought that it could not fully trust the Nikkei in case the Imperial Japanese launched a raid on the West Coast. That was what caused the relocation of the Nikkei.
How many Japanese- Americans were disloyal is not known, but I have never read a piece of evidence from a reliable witness which said that all of them were loyal.
I would admit that relocation was a bitter experience for the Nikkei but it was not caused by “racism;” it was caused by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other
U.S. and allied possessions. The Heart Mountain Museum does not say this; it says that American racism caused the relocation.
Racism, as it was understood at the time, meant a belief in the biological inferiority of a group. I have never read a shred of evidence that shows that either the American or western publics in general or the decision makers who decided on the camps thought that the Japanese here or in Japan were biologically inferior. Anti-Japanese feeling certainly was present, but not biological racism. Americans and westerners were angry about the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent Pacific War, in which their sons might have to fight and die, but their anger was mostly nationalist, not racist.
They were angry at Japan as a nation. To argue that racism caused the camps is to let the Japanese fascist government off the hook for the war that it caused.
And the camps were not comparable to any historic concentration camps, either those in Cuba, South Africa, or the Philippines at the turn of the 19 century, nor the World War II camps run by the Nazis. These camps were horrible in the extreme and the American camps were nothing like them. They were humane, if Spartan institutions, with all kinds of privileges that never existed in historic concentration camps. These rights included freedom of speech and religion, K-12 education for children, free medical care, free flow of information, plenty of food, clothing allowances, radios, some short wave, telephones, the right to visit or be visited, and a leave policy that allowed for both short-term and long-term leaves.
Several thousand young Japanese-Americans were allowed to leave the camps to attend college where they were almost universally treated well. None of these rights existed in the historic concentration camps referenced above. Between the American and Japanese governments the only one to operate anything close to concentration camps for civilians were those where some 5,000 American citizens were interned by the fascist Japanese government in the Philippine Islands after Japan conquered them early in the war.
Read “Captured” by Frances Cogan. By the time of the Allied re-conquest of the Philippines, most of the Americans in those Japanese camps were starving. They were only saved from death by hunger by liberation by American Army. Starvation was a universal characteristic of the historic concentration camps and no one in the WWII Americans relocation camps was starved by those running the centers.
Calling the relocation centers “concentration camps” is an outrageous misrepresentation. Even the Commission on Wartime Relocation and internment of civilians convened by the U. S. Government in the 1980s to investigate relocation specifically repudiated the term “concentration camps.”
Yet 30 years later this museum and many historians are still accusing the United States of running home front concentration camps.
That the Japanese- Americans suffered loss in the camps cannot be denied, specifically loss of property, loss of income, and loss of reputation. For some these losses were grievous. But the reason for that loss was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other American territory in the Pacific.
The Japanese government in World War Ii was a fascist government and America was at war against fascism. Without the Japanese fascist initiation of the war there would have been no relocation. All the reasons for relocation usually trotted out by this school of history-weak political leadership-hysteria, racism, greed were tied to the war; they were not independent causes. This conclusion is inescapable because there was no significant movement to expel the Japanese from their West Cost homes before their mother country unleashed World War II on the United States.
And the field of Japanese relocation history is a part of a much larger sub-field of American history that seeks to paint America as a fundamentally racist place. Specifically, they seek to portray racism as the basis of both American policy and identity. The racism/concentration camp school is a typical academic endeavor, which has achieved an orthodoxy of interpretation largely by excluding opposing views. It could never have attained this dominance if the field allowed even minimal competition.
The Japanese-Americans have every right to their opinions about relocation, but so do the rest of us.
Roger W. Lotchin is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina