Anne Blankenship, an assistant professor of history at North Dakota State University, recently wrote a book about Japanese incarceration, specifically focusing on the experience of Japanese Christians in the camps. Our conversation about her research and its renewed relevance in today’s politics is below; it has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Emma Green: Before Thanksgiving, a spokesman for a pro-Trump PAC suggested that Japanese internment is a “precedent” for some of the Trump administration’s tentative proposals related to Muslim immigration and registries. As a scholar of Japanese internment, what have you been thinking about most in recent weeks—and throughout this election?
Anne Blankenship: More than anything—and this might sound strange—relief is part of it, the fact that so many people are speaking out against it. And there’s a strong history within the Japanese American community to speak up for Muslims.
This wasn’t the case back in 1941 or 1942. Incarceration was widely accepted. People who were normally considered progressive heroes, like Dr. Seuss, who has all these books on progressive causes, drew cartoons showing caricatures of the Japanese lining up from Washington to California, picking up their bricks of TNT to go do their sabotage. The only people who did speak out against it were the church groups.
It’s nice to see, now, that it’s not just a limited number of people.
Green: What are the similarities and differences between today’s rhetoric around Muslims and Islamic extremism versus the rhetoric around Japanese nationals in the 1940s?
Blankenship: There are quite a few similarities, certainly, in terms of the slow rise of increased animosity and hateful sayings and actions. We’ve seen this in the rising anti-Semitism this campaign season, as well as anti-Muslim rhetoric, which spiked right after 9/11 and in this election has skyrocketed again.
Looking back historically, the situation with Japan was obviously a little bit different in that there were political tensions growing between the two countries. There were still lots of people who really thought we could work this out. The U.S. wasn’t strongly condemning through any actions, certainly, the invasion of Manchuria and the annexation of Korea, which had happened years and years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Green: What are the different dynamics of these two kinds of pervasive cultural fear—in the case of Japanese, fear based on national identity, and in the case of Muslims, fear based on religious identity?
Blankenship: The notion of even having a definitive registry of who is Muslim in the United States is basically an impossible feat. There are lots of African Americans, Latino Americans, and white Americans who convert to Islam. It’s impractical to say, “Oh, this person converted a week ago, so they must have these radical ideologies.” There’s a huge diversity of ethnicities and national backgrounds [among Muslims].