Government Suppression of the Japanese Language in World War II Assembly Camps

Article excerpt

This article investigates how the U.S. government prohibited the use of the Japanese "enemy" language at Japanese American "assembly centers" during World War II. Using archival government documents, this study demonstrates that assembly camp authorities curtailed Japanese American evacuees' First Amendment rights. By issuing various regulations and orders, camp officials outlawed the publishing, writing, and reading of Japanese literature of all kinds. They also banned Japanese-language assemblage, worshipping, cultural events, and recreation. Thus, evacuees at assembly camps, especially the older generation who lacked education in the English language, were deprived of their most essential means of self-expression.

Introduction

The protection of basic civil liberties, including freedom of speech and self-expression, was one of the publicized national goals of the United States during World War II. In his fireside chat on 29 December 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that "[w]e must be the great arsenal of democracy." On 6 January 1941, Roosevelt announced before Congress the famous "four essential human freedoms," putting "freedom of speech and expression" first. On 15 December, a week after Pearl Harbor, he reassured the nation that "we Americans know that the determination of this generation of our people to preserve liberty is as fixed and certain as the determination of that early generation of Americans to win it."1

But one ethnic minority group did not enjoy the benefit of the President's promise: Japanese Americans. Following Executive Order 9066 of 19 February 1942, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast were forced to move from their homes to inland camps. About two-thirds were American citizens by birthright. They were "Nisei," literally the second generation, born and raised in the United States. Among them was a group called the "Kibei," American citizens educated in Japan. The others were Japan-born, first generation "Issei," who were then prevented from becoming citizens by the anti-Asian naturalization law. The deep-rooted racial prejudice against these individuals of Japanese origin climaxed when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.2

Today, mass evacuation and incarceration of Japanese Americans is widely understood as a "dark spot" in American history. In the midst of the war emergency and heightened anti-Japanese public sentiment, the Supreme Court of that period upheld the constitutionality of curfew and evacuation orders aimed exclusively at Japanese Americans. In 1982, however, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) concluded that Executive Order 9066 resulted from "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership" and "was not justified by military necessity." Following the commission's recommendations, Congress approved a redress payment of $20,000 to each surviving evacuee. Accompanying each check was a letter of apology from the President. Accordingly, research on Japanese Americans and their history has advanced, including examination of how mass evacuation and incarceration severely abridged Japanese Americans' constitutional freedoms.3

What has not been written about, however, is how the policy affected their First Amendment freedoms of speech and expression during the period from March 1942 to October 1942, when evacuees were held in temporary "assembly centers." During this interim period between mass evacuation from the West Coast and subsequent confinement to inland "relocation centers," Japanese Americans were under military control in short-term "assembly centers" hastily established on fairgrounds and racetracks along the West Coast. Even scholars who have probed this earliest assembly-camp phase, such as Shimada, admit that little is known about the evacuees' experiences during this transitional stage.4

One recent study has examined censorship of evacuees' English-language newspapers. …

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