What Makes Today’s America Different From the Country That Incarcerated the Japanese?

A conversation with a historian about the slow creep of discrimination, from the U.S. government to church groups

First Communion class at the Catholic church in the Minidoka Relocation Center in Hunt, Idaho, in 1943 (National Archives and Records Administration via Densho Digital Archives)

When Donald Trump and other Republican legislators proposed a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States last November, many commentators turned to history. My colleague Matt Ford argued that the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, along with the jurisprudence initially used to justify it, shows why these kinds of ethnic- or religious-based policies are flawed. More recently, Trump and his aides have spoken in favor of reviving a registry for Muslims entering the United States and undertaking “extreme vetting” of Muslims fleeing persecution, including potentially creating holding areas for them outside of the United States.

In the wake of Trump’s election, some Americans fear the possibility that hate crimes and incidents of bigotry will multiply, enabled by the new president’s rhetoric and policies. The comparison between Japanese internment and policy proposals related to Muslims speaks more to this fear than a significant chance of history being repeated. But Japanese Americans’ experiences are still instructive: They illustrate how America in 2016 resembles America in the 1940s, and show the ways that systematic discrimination can shape a minority group’s self-understanding.

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].

One hymnal “had songs like ‘Onward Buddhist Soldiers’ and ‘Buddha Loves Me, This I Know.’”

Green: One of the goals of your work is to highlight the religious diversity among the Japanese who were detained by the U.S. government in the 1940s. Describe the way these different groups’ religious backgrounds shaped their experience of internment, along with the theology that came out of their experience.

Blankenship: I don’t think it varies by religion, necessarily. Japanese Christians and Japanese Buddhists had a similar experience. In both cases, their religion provided comfort and solace in different theological ways. Buddhists [relied on] ideas of reincarnation and the permanence of suffering in this world. Within Christianity, a lot of people talked about how their faith in God got them through and helped them survive life in the camps. Of course, on the flip side of that, there were people who said, “Well clearly, God isn’t standing with us,” and left their religion.

The religious organizations in the camps also provided very strong community. In the face of being forced from their homes and humiliated, the familiar routines of church services and youth groups were a strong support system within the camps.

After the camps closed, the situation of Japanese Buddhists really changed in terms of organization and how they presented the group to the public. They recognized the fact that they needed to appear American. They break official ties with Japan, they start handing over leadership to the next generation, they start having more services in English, and they also formalize practices that had developed prior to the war, like having church choirs. There was actually a hymnal published that had songs like ‘Onward Buddhist Soldiers’ and ‘Buddha Loves Me, This I Know,’ taken straight from the Christian page.

Green: How did Japanese Christian groups change?

Blankenship: Prior to the war, basically everyone worshipped in ethnic Japanese churches on the West Coast. They were started as mission churches; all were staffed by Japanese Americans; most, if not the majority, were led by Japanese American pastors. Because they feared the U.S. might confiscate all their property, they signed all their leases over to whatever denomination they belonged to. They sold them for a penny with the presumption that they would get them back after the war.

Instead, after the war, the churches said it would be better for Christianity if these churches were not segregated. They viewed segregation as one of the main reasons why incarceration happened—people were not familiar with Japanese Americans, and that increased the prejudices that led to incarceration. So they said, “You know what, you can’t have your churches back. It’s for your own good, and for the good of the country, and the world, if you join white churches.” For the vast majority of Japanese—after coming out of the camps, where they were fully segregated for the first time in their lives—being thrust into a predominantly white church was not something they were interested in. So they stopped going to church, period.

“They had to deal with trauma and discrimination on a daily basis. It was inevitable that this was going to shape their theology.”

Green: How many of the detained Japanese were Christians?

Blankenship: The numbers are very fuzzy and contradict one another. It depends on the region: My book focuses on the community in Seattle, Washington. There, nearly 20 to 25 percent of the population was Christian, but that was considerably higher than a lot of the communities in California. A lot of people just weren’t religious, and it also varied a lot by generation. At most in any community, a quarter was Christian. In most places, it would be closer to 17 or 18 percent.

Green: You talk about a liberation theology that some detained Japanese pastors developed out of their experience in the camps. How does this fit with other liberation theologies developed in different countries and contexts?

Blankenship: Liberation theology starts in the 1950s and 1960s in Latin America. Then it is spread and adopted by lots of different communities. Black liberation theology is probably the one most familiar to anyone who knows anything about this stuff. And Palestinian liberation theology has certainly been very powerful for Palestinian Christians today.

Japanese incarceration hit at a point when a lot of the second generation of Japanese Americans were graduating college. The folks who became the leading Japanese American theologians were, for the most part, all in seminary at the time of the war. They were thrust into positions of leadership within the camp without any kind of parish experience.

In their formative years in the camps, they had to deal with trauma and discrimination on a daily basis. It was inevitable that this was going to shape their theology later on.

Asian American liberation theology developed at a point when Japanese Christians were the most established and outspoken of the Asian Christian populations in the United States. Since those proportions changed so much after 1965, when other groups immigrated, that has certainly shifted. Now, Japanese Christians are a very small minority within the Asian American Christian population.

Green: What would you say is the takeaway from all of this as we look ahead to more years of discrimination against different minority groups in the United States?

Blankenship: Japanese incarceration was completely based on racial prejudice and economic competition. There have always been unacceptable roots of discrimination. It has never furthered security. Increasing discrimination by registry or detention only feeds into the opposition.