Opposition to Internment: Defending Japanese American Rights during World War II

By Shaffer, Robert | The Historian, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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Opposition to Internment: Defending Japanese American Rights during World War II


Shaffer, Robert, The Historian


In 1943, Rev. Emery Andrews, a Baptist minister and former missionary to Japan, predicted about the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II that "future historians will record this evacuation--this violation of citizenship rights--as one of the blackest blots on American history; as the time that democracy came the nearest of being wrecked"(1) Indeed, Andrews was correct. It is now generally recognized that the removal of over 100,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast during World War II and their internment in so-called "relocation centers" was not motivated by legitimate security needs; rather, historians agree, the Roosevelt Administration's policy both developed from and fanned anti-Japanese racism in this country. The U.S. government itself has apologized for its wartime actions that, as one presidential commission retrospectively concluded, constituted "a grave injustice ... to American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry."(2)

But while historians have given much attention in recent years to the prevarications and prejudice that underlay the internment, they have largely ignored the activities of Americans such as Rev. Andrews who opposed removal and sought to protect the rights of interned Japanese Americans. Andrews was not alone in his views; I have argued elsewhere that opposition to removal and internment was more widespread in white liberal, left-wing, and religious publications and organizations, as well as among African American activists, than historians have generally acknowledged.(3)

This opposition stemmed from the growing rejection of racism among left-liberals in the 1930s and 1940s, and from mainline Protestant denominations who worked with the Japanese American community on the West Coast. I will present here a sampling of the people who spoke up on behalf of Japanese Americans by looking at some of the individuals who did so on the local level in Seattle. Then, I will focus more specifically on the role that missionaries who had served in Japan played in the networks of activists that emerged in opposition to internment. Finally, I will discuss the impact that prior work by American Protestants with a prominent Japanese Christian evangelist, Rev. Kagawa Toyohiko, had on the Christian component of the movement on behalf of Japanese American rights.

As I will show, the strongest opponents of the U.S. internment policy had developed close ties to Japanese Americans, both the first-generation Issei and the second-generation Nisei. Moreover, these bonds formed of friendship, religious fellowship, or acquaintance at school were often informed by a sophisticated political understanding of the global implications of the racist internment policy. Critics of removal and internment highlighted contradictions in the Allies' ideological crusade against the Axis, even comparing American racist actions with the racist Nazi attitude toward German Jews. Victory in World War II would be flawed at best if the United States did not treat non-whites as equal allies in the fight against fascism at home and abroad. Some critics also pointed to American anti-Asian racism as one cause of the tensions between the United States and Japan that led to war.

That much of the opposition to the U.S. policy came from pacifists and socialists, as well as from missionaries who had returned from Japan, undermined their effectiveness in influencing administration officials and public opinion, however. They constituted a very small minority of Americans, and they were not able to prevent the uprooting of the Japanese American community. But their significance was greater than their numbers. Their service to the interned Japanese Americans helped maintain a spirit of community within this beleaguered group. They also built lines of communication between Japanese Americans and the larger society even as removal and internment were proceeding, and they prepared the way for renewed participation by Japanese Americans in U.

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