Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II

Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II

Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II

Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II


Anne M. Blankenship's study of Christianity in the infamous camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II yields insights both far-reaching and timely. While most Japanese Americans maintained their traditional identities as Buddhists, a sizeable minority identified as Christian, and a number of church leaders sought to minister to them in the camps. Blankenship shows how church leaders were forced to assess the ethics and pragmatism of fighting against or acquiescing to what they clearly perceived, even in the midst of a national crisis, as an unjust social system. These religious activists became acutely aware of the impact of government, as well as church, policies that targeted ordinary Americans of diverse ethnicities.

Going through the doors of the camp churches and delving deeply into the religious experiences of the incarcerated and the faithful who aided them, Blankenship argues that the incarceration period introduced new social and legal approaches for Christians of all stripes to challenge the constitutionality of government policies on race and civil rights. She also shows how the camp experience nourished the roots of an Asian American liberation theology that sprouted in the sixties and seventies.


The forced mass evacuation . . . creates a special responsibility for us
to help preserve the ideal of brotherhood and of political and religious
freedom in our country.

—“A Message to the Society of Friends and Our Fellow Christians”

While purportedly fighting a war against ideas of racial supremacy propagated by fascist regimes, the U.S. government incarcerated nearly 120,000 legal residents and American citizens of Japanese descent on the sole basis of their ancestry. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 allowed the military to remove people of Japanese descent from the West Coast, American citizens, residents, and orphaned children alike packed their bags, sold their belongings, and attempted to build functional lives in the desert camps or swampy deltas where they were sent.

Seizo and Ben Itoi had managed the Carrollton Hotel near Seattle’s waterfront for twelve years when the government cast them out of the city. Mr. Itoi had laid railroad ties, harvested potatoes, cooked on Alaskan fishing vessels, and operated a dry cleaning shop for fourteen years before saving enough money to buy the hotel in Nihonmachi (Japan Town). Their four children attended public schools, and the family worshiped together at the Seattle Japanese Methodist Church. The Itois visited family in Japan once, but the children failed to make friends or acclimate to the different customs. Their youngest son, Kenji, died there. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor stole the family’s sense of security and comfort. In the spring of 1942, the U.S. government imprisoned the Itois in an incarceration center, and the family settled into a single room furnished only with army cots. The barracks, flimsy wooden structures covered in tar paper, baked inhabitants in the heat of summer and allowed cold winds to enter throughout the winter.

Nikkei (people of Japanese descent) could leave the camps for jobs or school east of the western exclusion zone but remained banished from the coast until January 1945. Ben and Seizo Itoi’s remaining son, Henry . . .

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