Japanese American Internment Depicted in Literature Analysis

Identifying Issei and Nisei

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Within hours after Japan’s bombing attack of the United States naval station at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began arresting community leaders, teachers at Japanese schools, and anyone who had business ties to Japan. Most of the two thousand men arrested were Issei (born in Japan, immigrants to the United States). Their status as resident aliens was changed to that of enemy aliens. The two-week period of arrests along the Pacific coast was also a time of search and seizure of Japanese American households. Homes, businesses, and personal property were lost.

For the Nisei (born in the United States) the wartime hysteria and subsequent actions on the part of fellow American citizens were simply not believable. This is evident in Monica Sone’s fictionalized autobiography Nisei Daughter (1953). In Nisei Daughter, Sone recalls the FBI raids on ordinary citizens, confiscating radios, cameras, firearms, knives, and anything Japanese that could be construed as subversive. For the shocked Nisei, their identities as citizens were erased along with their constitutional rights. Having one’s identity suddenly become a number on a cardboard tag is an issue universal to internment narratives. Mine Okubo even titled her memoirs by her family number, Citizen 13660 (1946). The loss of their names is yet another example of the assault on Japanese American identity. In Janice Mirikitani’s poem “Crazy Alice” Alice remembers that before the war she had a name.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In reaction to pressure from special interest groups, Congress, and the military, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which authorized the removal of certain people from military areas. It was Lieutenant General John DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Command, who issued civilian exclusion orders to all persons of Japanese ancestry, alien and nonalien. Evacuation zones included the western half of Washington and Oregon, all of California, and the southern third of Arizona. Prior to actual mass evacuations, which began at the end of March, 1942, a designated responsible person, representing a family unit, was required to register with the wartime civil control agency. Station J: An American Epic (1979) reveals the harsh scrutinizing of two Japanese American brothers during processing at a civil control station. Based on facts, this play by Richard France follows the changing identities of a typical Japanese American family from the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor to the dedication of the Japanese Cultural Center in San Francisco in 1968. Station J is an artistic testament to the humiliation experienced by Nisei Japanese American men as they learned that their draft status had been changed from 1-A to 4-C. Suddenly enemy aliens, they were forced to assume an unwanted new identity.

Assembly Centers

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Evacuees were held from two to six months in temporary assembly centers. Twelve centers were in California and one each in Washington, Oregon, and Arizona. These holding centers were typically fairgrounds and race tracks. Living in horse stables and livestock pavilions with spiders and rats caused many Japanese Americans to question their basic identity. Okubo’s poignant prose in Citizen 13660 takes the reader inside the Tanforan assembly center in California. Typical of all the assembly centers, it was surrounded by military police and barbed-wire fences. Citizen 13660 depicts the inadequate sanitary facilities and complete lack of privacy as being particularly devastating to one’s personal dignity. Forced to live in the hastily whitewashed stalls with linoleum floors laid over manure-covered boards, eating boiled potatoes and canned sausage in mess halls with thousands of people, the people in the internment camps faced the beginning of the devastating way of life Japanese Americans and their alien parents were forced to endure during World War II.

Camp Life

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The first literature published about camp life was a collection of Japanese poetry titled Nararebashi (shooting star) mimeographed in 1945 at the Crystal City, Texas, internment camp. The poems in the collection and others written by Issei men were translated by Jiro Nakano and Kay Nakano for the anthology Poets Behind Barbed Wire (1983), illustrated by internee George Hoshida. These poems illuminate the irony of their internees’ identity as prisoners of war of the United States while their sons were United States soldiers.

One of the most damaging effects of camp life was its tearing apart of family identity. Mothers could no longer run a household, fathers could no longer be breadwinners, high school and college students no longer had a campus life, and no one had any privacy. The full-length narrative Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment (1973), written by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, tells the story of a changing family through the eyes of a girl. Long Road from White River (1983), a novel written by Lois Morioka, gives readers a picture of camp life through the eyes of a Caucasian woman married to a Nisei farmer. The heroine Lisa represents the 219 voluntary residents of the camps, who were primarily spouses. Long Road from White River, along with other literature, calls the internment centers American concentration camps. Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan (1984) describes the Japanese Canadian experience of evacuation and relocation.

Despite their internment and loss of rights, most Japanese in the camps tried to maintain their identity as Americans. Janice Mirikitani edited a Japanese American literary anthology entitled Ayumi: The Japanese American Anthology (1980) containing several of her own poems about the internment. Many of the poems illustrate the ironies of concentration camp life: In one poem, the speaker’s mother makes paper flowers for the American Legion for two cents a dozen.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The issue of loyalty played a major role in the identity of Japanese Americans. Farewell to Manzanar highlights the devastating effect on Japanese American families of the infamous loyalty questions twenty-seven and twenty-eight, which are reprinted verbatim at the opening of chapter eleven. Answers to the questions were required of all internees over the age of seventeen. Question twenty-seven asked if one would be willing to serve in the armed forces. Question twenty-eight asked if one would swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and forswear allegiance to any foreign power. The effects of these questions are the subject of the first novel published about the internment, John Okada’s No-No Boy (1957). Approximately 10,000 “disloyals,” or those who did not answer yes to both questions, were segregated at the Tule Lake center in northern California. Eventually about 4,700 people repatriated to Japan, many as part of prisoner-of-war exchanges. Of those repatriated, 65 percent were American born.

Long Road from White River includes the loyalty theme of Japanese American identity by telling about the young men who served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the United States Army. In January, 1944, the federal government reversed the 4-C (enemy alien) status of draft-age men and created a segregated Nisei unit of the United States Army. Fighting on the front lines in Italy and France, the 442nd became the most decorated unit in the entire American Army. The men of the 442nd participated in the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau while their families remained behind barbed wire in America.

Relocation and Resettlement

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Nisei Daughter relates two positive experiences with “relocation,” the War Relocation Authority’s program that was instituted after the “disloyals” were segregated to Tule Lake. The first is the experience of the young people who received seasonal work releases to harvest potatoes and sugar beets in agricultural areas of the West. The second is college student Monica’s relocating to the Midwest. The autobiography concludes with Monica securing a position in a church-sponsored home and leaving camp to attend college, as did 4,600 students. On the other hand, Long Road from White River describes the difficulties of resettlement for a family whose collective identity had been severely altered during the war. Like the family in this novel, many Japanese American families lost elder members and babies in the camps and their young men in battles overseas. Facing strong racial prejudice, Japanese American families were not welcome on the West Coast and many relocated to midwestern urban areas.

Hisaye Yamamoto’s short story “Las Vegas Charley” explores the life of Charley as a young man in Japan, his coming to America, his family’s removal to a concentration camp, and his resettlement in Las Vegas. A dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant with long-standing gambling and drinking habits, Charley still maintains the identity he assumed while incarcerated during World War II. Typical of many Japanese families during internment, Charley lost two sons: one who repatriated to Japan after renouncing his American citizenship and another who was killed in action while fighting for the Allies.

Internment’s effect on the family is also the focus of the film Come See the Paradise (1990). Based on historical facts and events, this film, with an Irish American hero, tells the internment stories narrated by a Nisei heroine, his wife. Come See the Paradise incorporates major incidents occurring at the Santa Anita assembly center, Manzanar relocation center, and Tule Lake segregation camp. Lawson Fusao Inada’s poem “Amanche Gate” reveals the identities of teens in the 1950’s who were children in the camps.


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Suggested Readings

Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Provides a chronology dating from 1600; the chapter “Changing Fortunes, 1941 to 1965” covers Japanese American internment.

Chang, Gordon H. “‘Superman Is About to Visit the Relocation Centers’ and the Limits of Wartime Liberalism.” Amerasia Journal 19, no. 1 (1993): 37-60. Commentary and reproduction of a daily Superman series that ran in national newspapers the summer of 1943; Superman suppresses an insurrection in one of the camps.

Kikuchi, Charles. The Kikuchi Diary Chronicle from an American Concentration Camp. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1973. This college student’s diary explores the changing identities of his family members in the Manzanar camp.

Kitagawa, Daisuke. Issei and Nisei: The Internment Years. New York: Seabury Press, 1967. This autobiography begun in 1956 examines the identities of first-and second-generation Japanese Americans during World War II.

Kitano, Harry. The Japanese Americans. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. This photo essay explores Japanese immigration to America, culture and religion, survival in the internment camps, and adjustment to postwar America.

Nishimoto, Richard S. Inside an American Concentration Camp: Japanese American Resistance at Poston, Arizona. Edited by Lane Ryo Hirabayashi. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 1995. This portrait of daily life within the camps contains an autobiography, reports on gambling, and a discussion of labor. This work sheds new light on Japanese American identity.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989. The chapter “Hyphenated Americans: The Nisei Generation” examines the American-born Japanese who remained loyal to the United States even after being stripped of their constitutional rights.

Weglen, Michi. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps. New York: William Morrow, 1976. Contains photographs smuggled from the camps.