From the Archives, 'The Japanese in Our Midst'


It's hard to imagine a time when the U.S. government singled out a racial group, rounded-up more than 100,000 of its members (most of whom were American citizens), and imprisoned them in some of the harshest climates in the country.

In a recent gallery, Alan Taylor reminds us of a dark period of American history with a series of photos documenting life before, during, and after the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Looking through the images, the detention centers provoke an uneasy parallel to Nazi concentration camps: Japanese-Americans were forced out of their homes, put on trains, and sent to live in neatly-aligned barracks in desolate areas of the country. But at the time, the mass evacuation was framed as a patriotic sacrifice, even a means of protecting the Japanese.

After the Supreme Court decided in 1944 that U.S. citizens could not be detained without a cause, the internees returned to looted homes and businesses. But perhaps the greater damage was inflicted on the Japanese family. The camps wedged a divide between immigrants and their first-generation American children -- a generation that desired to assimilate into the country that imprisoned them. Later on, studies on the effects of internment on detainees found the camps increased Japanese-Americans' feeling of guilt and shame in regards to their cultural background.

But in April 1943, Atlantic Author George E. Taylor was just beginning to ponder the long-term effects of internment. Taylor, a renowned East-Asian scholar,  focused his report on the relocation community in Poston Arizona, a camp situated in a desolate corner of the Sonora desert (in the summer, temperatures in the area reached 120 degrees). In this piece, Taylor explores the society that developed within the community and wonders what is to become of the nisei (first-generation Japanese-Americans) whose "ambition to be Americans is genuine and compelling."

Here's the opening passage:

The future of the Japanese minority in the United States is no longer a domestic issue for three states of the Pacific Coast: it is the responsibility of the entire Union. Most of the West Coast Japanese are now settled in permanent relocation centers where they were moved by the Army and where they remain as wards of the nation. The American people have thus assumed the power to plan the lives of these 112,000 persons, more than half of whom are American citizens...

Once evacuation was decided upon, it followed logically that these people should become at least temporary wards of the Federal government. The charges against Washington would have been severe indeed if the evacuees had been let loose outside the Western Defense zone and told to fend for themselves. For the majority of the Japanese this would have meant victimization, exploitation, and possible starvation. As it is, the appropriation of $70,000,000 to the War Relocation Authority is about equal to the estimated capital losses of the evacuees. Although feeding and housing involve detention, this was the only civilized way of handling a mass migration.

It was a gigantic problem and I must say it was carried out with reasonable credit to the American people. A Japanese American colleague wrote me that he considered the evacuation from Seattle an excellent example of American democracy at work. Nor must one overlook the cooperation of the evacuees themselves, their disciplined acceptance of a hard decision. But now that we have the Japanese evacuated, what are we going to do about them?

Read the whole "Japanese in Our Midst"

Image: NARA