"No Jap Crow": Japanese Americans Encounter the World War II South

By Ward, Jason Morgan | The Journal of Southern History, February 2007 | Go to article overview

"No Jap Crow": Japanese Americans Encounter the World War II South


Ward, Jason Morgan, The Journal of Southern History


DURING THE FINAL WINTER OF WORLD WAR II, BILL HOSOKAWA boarded a bus bound for the Arkansas Delta. Having received an early release from a Wyoming internment camp to work for the Des Moines Register, the young reporter set off to visit two similar camps operated by the War Relocation Authority just west of the Mississippi River. As the vehicle headed south from Iowa, Hosokawa witnessed the peculiar customs of Jim Crow for the first time. From his seat in the front half of the bus, the journalist jotted notes on what he saw. Hosokawa encountered segregated bathrooms, restaurants, and waiting areas as he traveled through the border states. By the time the bus reached Arkansas, it was so full that passengers were standing in the aisle. Boarding and exiting the bus became an elaborate ritual of segregation, as whites emptied the front half of the bus at every stop to allow blacks to file in and out of the back section. The whole process, Hosokawa later recalled, seemed "profoundly ridiculous." (1)

Before 1940 few Japanese Americans had ever set foot in the Deep South. Three years later, more than sixteen thousand relocated Californians and Hawaiians lived behind barbed wire in the Arkansas Delta. Meanwhile, hundreds of Japanese American recruits trained at military bases across the region. (2) Although Bill Hosokawa could see "no middle ground in the South's polarized society of black and white," Japanese Americans confounded the color line in the Jim Crow South. (3) That the unprecedented influx alarmed many citizens is not surprising considering the anti-Japanese sentiment sweeping the country in the wake of Pearl Harbor. But southern fears ran deeper, as leading whites worked to offset the impact of a third "race" on the segregated status quo. To accommodate Japanese American servicemen, local officials decided to keep them on the white side of the color line. But simply allowing Japanese Americans to use white water fountains and restrooms proved an uneasy compromise. Japanese Americans were a conspicuous other in a volatile racial caste system. Moreover, they refused to "act white." Many Japanese American troops rejected the rules of segregated society, while others actively rebelled against discrimination. As southern whites quickly realized, Japanese American internees and soldiers in Dixie posed a variety of challenges to Jim Crow. Officials and everyday people feared that the problematic "third race" would undermine white supremacy. In response, Arkansas officials and southern congressmen backed the anti-Japanese crusade of their West Coast colleagues while adding their own segregationist slant. The controversy over Japanese American internees and troops reflected broader racial anxieties in the wartime South. While white leaders pointed to a Tokyo-led insurgency, the growing impatience of southern blacks and Japanese Americans with second-class citizenship spurred homegrown resistance.

The Japanese American experience in the South during World War II revealed the increasingly permeable borders of Dixie. Officials like Arkansas governor Homer M. Adkins felt confident that they could curry federal favor while forestalling a social upheaval that could compromise white supremacy. The wartime influx of Japanese Americans forced whites in the South to confront the precariousness of Jim Crow. This episode revealed the increasing inability of southern white leaders to defend the segregated status quo, even as it exposed their segregated society to comparisons with fascism. At the same time, in trying to make the Japanese Americans behave according to the Jim Crow script, white leaders foreshadowed the ways they would later react to the protests of the civil rights movement. First in Arkansas and then in Mississippi, whites granted Japanese Americans some privileges of whiteness to isolate them from African Americans. At the same time, whites discriminated against the Japanese Americans in explicitly racial terms. …

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