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Trump And The 75th Anniversary Of The Japanese Internment


Bettmann via Getty Images

(Original Caption) 1942-Internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII: ‘Evacuation’ of the Niseis from California: Interior scene in an electric train en route to the assembly center.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of the executive order that authorized the internment of 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent during World War II. As we contemplate the actions of the Trump administration in matters pertaining to national security, it is imperative that we remember and reflect upon this lesson from the past.


In the immediate aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there was no clamor for the mass internment of persons of Japanese descent. To the contrary, shortly after Pearl Harbor, Attorney General Francis Biddle assured the nation that there would be “no indiscriminate, large-scale raids” on such individuals, and Congressman John M. Coffee expressed his “fervent hope” that “residents of the United States of Japanese extraction will not be made the victim of pogroms directed by self-proclaimed patriots.”


In the weeks that followed, however, a demand for the removal of all persons of Japanese ancestry—citizens and non-citizens alike — exploded along the West Coast. The motivations for this sudden outburst of anxiety were many and complex. In part, this demand was fed by panic-driven fears of a possible Japanese invasion of the mainland. Conspiracy theories abounded, and neither government nor military officials did anything to allay these anxieties.


General John L. DeWitt, the top Army commander on the West Coast, reported as true a fabricated report of an imminent uprising of 20,000 Japanese Americans in San Francisco. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover publicly dismissed this hysteria as unwarranted, and Attorney General Biddle repeatedly reiterated that no person would be detained “on the score of nationality alone.”


Public agitation for a mass evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry was inflamed, however, by a California legislative manifesto that purported to connect the ethnic Japanese with an alleged fifth column, asserting that even ethnic Japanese born in this country are “totally unassimilable” and insisting that every American of Japanese ancestry had primary allegiance “to his Emperor and to Japan.”


On January 4, 1942, newspaper columnist Damon Runyon falsely reported that a radio transmitter had been discovered in a rooming house that catered to Japanese residents. Who could “doubt,” Runyon asked, the “continued existence of enemy agents” among the Japanese population? On January 14, Republican Congressman Leland M. Ford demanded that “all Japanese, whether citizens or not, be placed in inland concentration camps.”


Such demands were further ignited by the Report of the Commission on Pearl Harbor, which was released on January 25, 1942. Hastily researched and written, this report falsely asserted that persons of Japanese ancestry had engaged in espionage and facilitated Japan’s attack on the United States. Although these assertions were unfounded, the report played a key role in turning Americans against Americans. Shortly after the report was released, Henry McLemore wrote a column in the San Fransisco Examiner calling for “the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast.” He added: “Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.”


On February 4, California Governor Culbert Olson declared in a radio address that it was “much easier” to determine the loyalty of Italian and German aliens than of Japanese Americans, and that “all Japanese people, I believe, will recognize this fact.” California’s Governor, the Mayor of Los Angeles, and most members of the West Coast congressional delegations now demanded that all persons of Japanese ancestry be removed from the West Coast.


California Attorney General (and future Supreme Court Justice) Earl Warren argued that, unlike the situation with respect to Germans and Italians, it was simply too difficult to determine which Americans of Japanese ancestry were loyal, and which were not. General DeWitt added that, “you needn’t worry about the Italians, except in certain cases” and “the same for the Germans.” But “a Jap’s a Jap.”


In early February, Attorney General Biddle, resisting growing pressure for internment, informed President Roosevelt that J. Edgar Hoover had concluded that the demand for mass evacuation was based on “public hysteria” and rampant misinformation. Biddle added that the Department of Justice “would have nothing to do” with any mass evacuation of Japanese Americans.


The public clamor on the West Coast, however, continued to build. American “patriots” began to commit ugly acts of vigilantism and vandalism against Japanese Americans and their property. On February 19, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Over the next eight months, 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were ordered to leave their homes. They were assigned to temporary detention camps, which had been set up in converted race tracks and fairgrounds. Many families lived in crowded horse stalls, often in unsanitary conditions. Barbed wire fences and armed guard towers surrounded the compounds.


From there, the internees were transported to one of ten permanent internment camps, which were located in isolated areas in wind-swept deserts or vast swamplands. Men, women, and children were placed in overcrowded rooms with no furniture other than cots. And there they remained for three years. Many of these families lost all of their possessions, to say nothing of their liberty and their dignity.


American “patriots” began to commit ugly acts of vigilantism and vandalism against Japanese Americans and their property.


The public rationale for the decision, laid out in the Final Report on the Evacuation of the Japanese from the West Coast, was that time was of the essence and that the government had no reasonable way to distinguish loyal from disloyal persons of Japanese descent. This report has rightly been condemned as a travesty. It relied upon unsubstantiated and even fabricated assertions.


Why, then, did Roosevelt sign the executive order? Undoubtedly, public opinion played a key role in his thinking. Although Roosevelt purported to explain the order in terms of military necessity, there is little doubt that domestic politics played a role in his thinking. 1942 was an election year. Roosevelt was not prepared to stand up to the growing panic, even though he knew it to be based on false information and public hysteria.


In Korematsu v. United States, decided in 1944, the Supreme Court, deferring to the judgment of military authorities, upheld the constitutionality of the Japanese internment. In a memorable dissenting opinion, Justice Frank Murphy courageously declared that “no adequate reason is given for the failure to treat these Japanese Americans on an individual basis, as was done in the case of persons of German and Italian ancestry. . . . I dissent, therefore, from this legalization of racism.”


In a separate dissenting opinion, Justice Robert Jackson insisted that the Court must not “distort the Constitution to approve all that the military may deem expedient,” adding that “once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, . . . the principle then lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.”


On February 19, 1976, as part of the celebration of the Bicentennial of the Constitution, President Gerald Ford issued Presidential Proclamation 4417, in which he acknowledged that, in the spirit of celebrating our Constitution, we must recognize “our national mistakes as well as our national achievements.” “February 19th,” he noted, “is the anniversary of a sad day in American history,” for it was “on that date in 1942 . . . that Executive Order 9066 was issued.”


President Ford observed that “we now know what we should have known then” – that the evacuation and internment of loyal Japanese American citizens was “wrong.” Ford concluded by calling “upon the American people to affirm with me this American Promise – that we have learned from the tragedy of that long-ago experience” and “resolve that this kind of action shall never again be repeated.”


In 1983, Congress appointed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to review Executive Order 9066. The Commission unanimously concluded that the factors that shaped the internment decision “were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership,” not any genuine military necessity. The Commission recommended that “Congress pass a joint resolution, to be signed by the President, which recognizes that a grave injustice was done and offers the apologies of the nation for the acts of exclusion, removal and detention.”


In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which officially declared that the Japanese internment was a “grave injustice” that was “carried out without adequate security reasons” and without any documented acts of “espionage or sabotage.” The Act offered an official Presidential apology and reparations to each of the Japanese-American internees who had suffered discrimination, loss of liberty, loss of property, and personal humiliation because of the actions of the United States government. Over the years, the Supreme Court’s decision in Korematsu*  has become a constitutional pariah.


As we move forward in the face of a president’s call for a “Muslim ban” and who knows what else in the future, it is imperative that we remember, reflect upon, and remain eternally vigilant against our capacity to do evil in the name of national security.


*Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944),[1] was a landmark United States Supreme Court case concerning the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, which ordered Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II regardless of citizenship.

In a 6–3 decision, the Court sided with the government,[2] ruling that the exclusion order was constitutional. Six of eight Roosevelt appointees sided with Roosevelt. The lone Republican appointee, Owen Roberts, dissented. The opinion, written by Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, held that the need to protect against espionage outweighed Fred Korematsu's individual rights, and the rights of Americans of Japanese descent. (The Court limited its decision to the validity of the exclusion orders, adding, "The provisions of other orders requiring persons of Japanese ancestry to report to assembly centers and providing for the detention of such persons in assembly and relocation centers were separate, and their validity is not in issue in this proceeding.") During the case, Solicitor General Charles Fahy is alleged to have suppressed evidence by keeping from the Court a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence indicating that there was no evidence that Japanese Americans were acting as spies or sending signals to enemy submarines.[3]

The decision in Korematsu v. United States has been controversial.[2] Korematsu's conviction for evading internment was overturned on November 10, 1983, after Korematsu challenged the earlier decision by filing for a writ of coram nobis. In a ruling by Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California granted the writ (that is, it voided Korematsu's original conviction) because in Korematsu's original case, the government had knowingly submitted false information to the Supreme Court that had a material effect on the Supreme Court's decision.



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Excerpted from the Preface to No More Cherry Blossoms.   Sisters Matsumoto and Other Plays. A collection of plays by Philip Kan Gotanda.

No one is ever just one thing: the label that has been given them, the definition that one has accepted and lives within.  Nonetheless, so much of what we work and live by seems based on these seemingly transparent assumptions. I am a playwright, I am an American playwright, I am an Asian American playwright, I am an Asian American playwright of Japanese descent, or, I am not an Asian American playwright.  They serve their purpose.  They served their purpose.

In the end we are all beings in flux, in continual invention and reformation.  We must use social labels and self-defining names as they should be used, as convenient constructs to get a handle on the shifting world, to be replaced by more suitable ones as the world shifts again, as we shift again.

It is an always present, seen and unseen exchange going on between the external and the internal. The process involves keeping the two in sync, mutually informing, conforming, so one has keener negotiation of the described world. The artist can then by the simple act of attention make an action in the direction of truthfulness, relevancy and liberation.

We all do many things. We are all many things. I never quite know what I will be doing tomorrow. If I will travel or stay at home.  Be with others or alone. If it will be a play, a film, a song, a pot or a performance.

What I try to do is get up each day and give my body the chance to speak. In whatever format, language, medium it chooses.  I try to be a harsh judge of the work and brutally honest in its appraisal.  It should represent the truth of that moment to me.  The exact articulation of my whole being – hair to bone, bowels to skin, historical to contemporaneous, emotional to intellectual, all that can be seen and all that can be dreamt – in as artful a gesture as possible.

Of course one can never do exactly that. One comes as close as one can. That is the challenge.

Here is some of that work. It covers a period of about five to six years and gives a sense of the work I have been doing in theater. It is a good companion to my book, Fish Head Soup and Other Plays.  It is a good companion to my films and screenplays. It is a good companion to my Website. It is a good companion to hearing a performance of my spoken-word retro jazz ensemble, the new orientals or, its newer iteration.

The world shifts  

The label no longer fits  

We go to sleep, wake up, and try again  

Hopefully with new eyes. 


Copyright Philip Kan Gotanda 2012-2013 ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Epiphany at Shinsai

-- added May 3, 2013 --

Excerpt from a Panel after the Shinsai Event at Cooper Union in New York.   March 12, 2012. Anne Cattaneo moderated. Panelists included:  John Guare, John Weidman, James Yaegashi, Philip Kan Gotanda.

Anne Cattaneo: And then I called Philip Gotanda, who I’ve known for 30 years, and I said “You have to be part of this.” Can you tell us a little bit about your life and how it fit into your Shinsai play?

PHILIP GOTANDA: Well, my connection is I’m a third generation Japanese American. My mother and father were the children of immigrants and I myself went to Japan in the early ‘70s. I went to school there and then I left the program and I lived in a pottery village for a while, for a year and a half, studying pottery. And subsequent to that I’ve been going back and forth, and more recently they’ve been doing my plays in Japan.

What I thought I’d talk about is my experience with this event. I arrived Friday night, late Friday night.  Saturday I went to rehearsals and I attended rehearsals. I had a chance to meet and mingle with all the performers, all the people behind the scenes, various writers. And then I sat through both performances yesterday, in the afternoon and the evening, quite near John. And I think John and I had the same experience finding that the event was remarkable, and it was remarkable for me in the sense that my own play was subsumed by everyone’s stories, so by the end of last night it all became one event. It wasn’t just the plays, the material, it was the audience response, it was me meeting everyone, and it was this powerful cumulative feeling that the event created. 

What I think is that because the initial gesture was one of kindness, collective generosity, and mutual compassion,  the event itself carried a kind of purity of impactfulness that ultimately wrote all over all those who participated and all over my body.  That was the story that I came away with, and it was a wonderful sort of feeling. 

Also, if I can repeat what John was saying, I thought the Japanese playwrights’ material ultimately was what moved the evening. The American playwrights of course we are all here, but  the Japanese playwrights were able to ground the abstraction of the evening and make it real, so concrete because of the specificity of what they talked about, because of the day-to-day events shown in the plays. And that allowed the stories for all of us to become so real.  We feel as best as we can, through theater, through art, as John was saying, the pain, the challenges that the country is facing, by way of everyday people, through the words of the playwrights.

And the last thing I wanted to say was it’s connected a bit to the piece I wrote which was called “Child is Father to Man.”  It’s about a son talking about his father and the relationship they have and the relationship the two of them have to the past, Japan being part of it, Kauai, Hawaii being part of it.  My mother was a Nisei, was born in America at a time when, this was before World War II, she was the all American kid.  She loved America. She loved Japan. And it was all fairly integrated.  She was an American kid. The war happens and Japan and America go at it, and she is imprisoned for three years for being Japanese-American.  She gets out, she comes back to the West Coast and she raises a family, three sons of which I am one, and from that point on, from the time she was incarcerated, imprisoned, her relationship to both Japan and America was ambivalent.  She wanted to love and be patriotic towards Japan, the country of her family.  She wanted to love and be patriotic to America, but they imprisoned her.  And as a consequence, her entire life was one of ambivalence, of a love-hate relationship, which she passed on to me.

But last night I had a minor epiphany, then I’ll be quiet, but I thought of my mother. I wish my mom could have been here at the event because it also ties into something that Oskar Eustis in his welcoming remarks said about this being about the world. My mother struggled always with trying to love and be patriotic to two countries of the world, and I think if she was at the event last night she would have realized that she could love, and she should have perhaps loved the world of which there were two countries, and that’s the thing I thought, that’s what this is about. I wish my mom could have been here. She would have understood something new. As I did. (Applause)


Coming - a Second Act.