Miscellaneous / Ethics Of Identity: Japanese-American Internment

Ethics Of Identity: Japanese-American Internment

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Autor:  anton  04 June 2011
Tags:  Ethics,  Identity,  Japanese,  american,  Internment
Words: 2012   |   Pages: 9
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Ethics of Identity: Japanese-American Internment

Since 1893, when Fredrick Jackson Turner announced that the American identity was not a byproduct of the first colonists, but that it emerged out of the wilderness and only grew with the surfacing of the frontier, America has placed a great emphasis on the notion of a national identity. However, the paradox of the American identity is that although the United States is a melting pot of many different traditions, motives, and ideals, there are nevertheless, distinctive qualities that define the "American." It usually takes a crisis to cause an individual, or a nation, to renew itself. However, sometimes it takes a fight for survival to induce it.

The incarceration of a numerous number of Japanese American's during World War II explicates one such fight that paved the identities for many, both socially and ethnically. Rarely do history classes or stories dissect this ordeal in order to expose the consequences upon the collective and individual identities of the Japanese Americans. While there is a voluminous body of literature that details the Japanese American narrative, there is little popular discussion of a key question: What do the Japanese internment and assimilation experiences tell us about the "national myth" and the identity of "Americans?" David Kennedy, in "Freedom from Fear," describes:

The chronic discomfort of government officials with their own policyВ…bore witness to the singular awkwardness with which American culture tried to come to terms with the internment episode. What happened to the Japanese was especially disquieting in wartime America precisely because it so loudly mocked the nation's best image of itself as a tolerantly inclusive, fair-minded "melting pot" society В– an image long nurtured in national mythology, and one powerfully reinforced by the conspicuously racialized conflict that was World War II (790).

David Kennedy's "national myth," В– the American self-image of a tolerant inclusive, fair minded "melting pot" society В– was tested and rewritten on the backs of Japanese Americans. Many of the Japanese American stories, coming from either written or oral documentation, reflect upon their personal identities to illuminate upon the larger topic of what it means to be an "American."

One way to view Japanese American identities during the internment period is to analyze the situation of Japanese American students during the time of the war to gain a perspective on what shaped their identity and which "culture" they identified with. Yoon K. Pak's study, "Wherever I go, I will always be a loyal American" presents writings of Japanese American and non-Japanese American students at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. Pak examines how the students at Washington School in Seattle dealt with the national message of race hatred against the Japanese. However, there is a range of stimulants to consider when evaluating young teenagers and children, to properly assess what influenced them. Some causes include the type of education at the time or even the intensity of the peer pressure that may have caused Japanese American's to forgo their traditional Japanese identity and assimilate to become more "Americanized."

One story, in particular, deserves attention because it details the effects of discrimination and of the voluntary renunciation of a Japanese's identity. May K. Sasaki confesses: "it hurt being Japanese because as we grew up I remembered the taunts and, especially after the war, those that were related to being Japanese." Sasaki also witnessed strong discrimination from her friends. As she recalls, her Chinese friends wore buttons that read "I am Chinese" in order to "make sure they were not mistaken for В‘Japs.'" This is a direct parallel to the character of Esther in Hisaye Yamamoto's "Wilshire Bus," in which Esther spots a man wearing a placard that reads "I am Korean" В– in other words, please don't mistake me for Japanese. "Heat suddenly rising to her throat," Esther remembers that at this sight she had felt "angry, then desolate and betrayed" (36). This instills a feeling of revenge within Esther, which Sasaki also felt. As a direct result of the racial discrimination and the internment experience, Sasaki renounced her Japanese name and made a conscience effort to be as "American as possible."

Although Sasaki was forced to assimilate to a more Americanized identity, many factors may have influenced her decision. Pak suggests that being compliant and accepting the American identity may be one of the Japanese cultural characteristics; however, it may also be the result of the "democratic citizenship education" that the Washington School was advocating. Pak argues, "Seattle had a tradition of steering a moderate course in response to Americanization pressures while stressing loyalty and Americanism" (44). However, despite the strong push for Americanization В– involuntarily substantiating the "melting pot" theory В– mainstream America could not distinguish between the Japanese of Japan and Japanese Americans who had lived in the United States for more than a generation. To further complicate this notion of the "American" identity, place of origin also assists in discriminating upon many of the Japanese Americans В– especially the Nisei and Sansei, second and third generations respectively. Caught between the ideas of tolerance and American citizenship and the national propaganda of hatred against Japanese, many Japanese Americans, specifically the Sansei ended up suffering an identity crisis.

One story that elucidates the identity crisis within a Japanese American is that of Reverend Yoshiaki Fukuda. In his autobiography, "My Six Years of Internment," Fukuda relates the internment experience to a deep internal turmoil that even leads him to describe himself as a "caged animal" (68). Fukuda, interestingly, repeats the animal metaphor throughout his autobiography. Additionally, when he discusses the animalistic sides of internment, he detaches himself from the narrative and begins writing in third person: "[t]hey became irritable and quarreled over trivial matters. They became sleepless, worrying about the plight of their families...They lost their appetite" (68). Fukuda goes on to express his feelings of being "caged" and called the internment experience an "unnatural life, devoid of freedom" (69). His strong distaste to what his "own government" did to him stimulated him to write a petition to the government in which he discusses the bitter resentment all Nisei had towards the government. However, Fukuda's story contradicts itself at the end when he claims and titles the section, "I love the United States" (74). His crisis is evident when he makes the contradictory statement, "I am proud to be an American. I wish the U.S., which I love and am proud of, becomes and even better country so that it can set an example for the rest of the worldВ…through our most trusted President" (74). Thus ends Fukuda's narrative. Fukuda's repetition of the word "love" for the United States is used so frequently that one may conclude he is trying to brainwash himself into trying to find some soft spot for the American identity that he feels he should assimilate to. This identity conflict is manifested throughout his autobiography, but is only blatantly stated towards the end.

Many other Japanese Americans underwent Fukuda's internal turmoil. The notion of assimilation has been a crucial concept throughout the history of the United States. Such a habitual theme is, not surprisingly, evident in the Japanese American's struggle for a unique identity. However, this is not to say that all Japanese Americans either forgot their identity or struggled to find a balance. Many internees and Japanese Americans found strength in their identity and united under this banner.

Responding to discrimination that had based itself on cultural and racial superiority, several Japanese Americans assumed an ethnic identity that embraced and remembered their turbulent history on the road to becoming an American citizen and did not let it stop them in their pursuit of a better life. With each act of discrimination, a moment of association was created, leading to pride and identity. One story that depicts the unifying nature of the Japanese identity comes from Yosh Nakagawa, an intern at Crystal City. Nakagawa story was presented in an oral interview recorded in the Densho Digital Archive. Nakagawa states: "I would forever know my identity because I was always hyphenated as a Japanese-American. I never knew that the weakness of the majority was that they were not hyphenated." Nakagawa uses the notion of exclusivity here and turns the views of a concept that was seen through mainstream American lenses as discriminatory and makes it a positive factor. However, his Japanese identity did play a detrimental role in his early high school years. Nakagawa faced harsh racial and stereotypical discrimination, such as name-calling; however, he later realized "all it was trying to do was differentiate based on skin color, but inside, I was something elseВ…[w]e all play that game, but when I found strength in my identity, it was no longer a negative." Although Nakagawa was able to identify strongly with his Japanese-American culture, an analysis should be done to consider the external factors that may have influenced Nakagawa's identification.

According to Roger Daniel's "Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II," the internment campsite known as Crystal City is unique among other interment camps. So close was the family community formed during the years at Crystal City that for their Fiftieth Anniversary Reunion in Monterey, California, in 1993, "the surviving internees put together a book containing their memories of camp life, including school newspaper clips, headlines about their parents' arrest, and selected excerpts from scholarly articles" (35). Most importantly, though, they included their own personal stories of how their family ended up at Crystal City. The stories and memories of the internees of Crystal City, as they remember them fifty years later, demonstrate the capacity to which people treat each other, in terms of both the government's treatment of the Japanese Americans and their treatment of each other within the camps, and how it changed their views of their own ethnicity. Through Crystal City, the history of Nakagawa's strong affirmation of a Japanese identity becomes clear, and the memories of adults who now understand what they went through as children shed new light on the internment experience, beautifully identifying the remarkable metamorphoses of what it means to be Japanese American and, ultimately, an "American." Crystal City commemorates the survival not only of the Japanese Americans in the camp, but the survival of their spirit, their pride, and mostly В– the preservation of their identity.

Regardless of its stature as a better relocation camp, Crystal City remained a relocation camp nonetheless. Crystal City still had the 24-hour guard duty and the same barbed-wire fences described by Roger Daniels: "the barbed-wire fences, the guards, and the surrounding wasteland were always there to remind the detainees that they were exiled, incarcerated Americans, who didn't even know whether they would ever be allowed to return to their former homes" (51).

These three competing stories, all presenting different forms of Japanese-American identities, complicate the meaning of what it means to have a singularly "American" identity. The "melting pot" theory, although losing its relevance in modern times refers to the idea that societies formed by immigrant cultures, religions, end ethnic groups, will produce new hybrid social and cultural identities. The theory also tends to be taken as a prediction that the ensuing culture will be uniform. These Japanese-American stories debunk this traditionally held myth and help ascertain that the "American" identity once proposed by Frederick Jackson Turner cannot be widely held as the only identity for all Americans, as many Japanese-Americans were able to find their own niche and identity without conforming to the mainstream America.

Works Cited

Daniels, Roger. Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

"Densho Digital Archive." Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project. .

Fukuda, Yoshiaki. My Six Years of Internment: An Issei's Struggle For Justice. San Francisco: The Konko Church, 1990.

Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Pak, Yoon K. Wherever I Go, I Will Always Be a Loyal American: Seattle's Japanese American Schoolchildren During World War II. Great Britain: RoutledgeFalmer, 2002.

Yamamoto, Hisaye. Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1998.



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