Reflections of Cultural Identities in Conflict: Japanese American Internment Camp Newspapers during World War II

Article excerpt

On February 19, 1942, shortly after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal of all Japanese Americans living in the Pacific Coast region. As a result, about 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry were forced to evacuate to hastily erected internment camps. Those who have discussed their internment experiences often mention the struggle in cultural identity that they had felt. This article explores how the newspapers that were established in each camp reflected this identity struggle. Although the Japanese Americans initially suppressed their Japanese cultural identity in favor of their American identity in the newspapers, their sense of identity evolved through the course of internment to where both cultures were proudly affirmed.

In this era of high technology and rapid communication processes, the socially constructed boundaries separating various cultures have become obscured. It is within this context that an interest in the concept of cultural identity has resurfaced. Many authors have approached this topic under the overarching framework of neo-colonialism, incorporating a center-periphery notion and conjuring up images of cultural identities being transformed by economically and politically defined dominant cultures.1 Although the works produced by these authors have been highly insightful, their underlying assumption appears to be that cultural identity can be changed in a linear fashion. In other words, if a dominant power is able to legitimate its position in relation to a subordinate, the cultural identity of that subordinate will be directly transformed in a manner that would accommodate the higher power.2 Lacking in the scholarship is consideration of the possibility that resistance may occur on the part of the subjected in the transformation process.

In contrast to this widespread notion that cultural identity change is linear, the approach in this article conceptualizes such change as taking place in a dynamic process. The central assumption is that when two cultural identities come into conflict, a struggle occurs between them, regardless of whether an asymmetry of perceived strength exists in the conflict. The end result is a merging of identities or a triumph of one identity. It is also contended that communication plays a vital role in this struggle. According to sociologist George Herbert Mead, "communication in the sense of significant symbols, communication which is directed not only to others but also to the individual himself," serves as a means of objectifying the individual.3 Forms of communication allow the individual to step outside of himself or herself in order to view how he/she is reacting to the outer world and to see how the outer world is responding. In tandem with this line of thought, media are envisioned in this article as providing an arena where viewpoints can be expressed and where clashes in cultural identities are reflected. Through such reflection, it is assumed that media also help to define and shape the final identity that emerges from identity conflicts. Thus, the analysis of media documents (i.e., books, newspapers, electronic media, etc.) should allow researchers to decipher and understand how identities are molded over the course of time.

This research explore these ideas through the examination of newspapers written and edited by Japanese Americans while they were detained in American internment camps during World War II. Studies have shown that many of the Japanese Americans who were forced to relocate, a majority of whom were citizens of the United States, experienced an identity crisis.4 Suddenly denied their civil rights as U.S. citizens, they began to question the American side of their identity. An identity crisis touched even those Japanese Americans who were not U.S. citizens. As former internee and author James Oda wrote, "Alien resident Japanese felt that America was their adopted country, despite the fact that they were denied by law to become naturalized. …