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A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America - Excerpt Part 2


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As important as that initial goal is, this book has a greater purpose: to expand the contours of discussion on Japanese American confinement beyond the overly narrow framework of time and space in which the subject has been placed. First, my history goes beyond the limits of the wartime period in its discussion of events. The main story of confinement properly begins in the prewar years, with the buildup of suspicion against Japanese Americans and “enemy aliens” generally. One element especially worth exploring is the U.S. government’s construction, in the months before war broke out, of what it called concentration camps to hold enemy aliens. This book investigates for the first time how these actions created a climate and momentum for mass arbitrary action against perceived “enemies” after Pearl Harbor.

Conversely, much remains to be said on the long after-history of Japanese American confinement. The postwar era is all but forgotten in conventional narratives, which tend to stop with the end of the fighting and the closing of the camps. Yet it is impossible to understand these events fully without also studying the rapid turnabout of official policy and attitudes toward Japanese Americans in the first years after the war, and the attempts by officials in Congress and the White House to make gestures at restitution. In the same way, the eclipse of the wartime events in public discussion during the 1950s and their gradual reappearance in later years, a matter largely uncovered by existing works, merit discussion. Finally, while a number of writings exist on movements among Japanese Americans for reparations and the granting of redress in the 1980s, the story of the camps does not end with the official apology and payment. In a final section, I will look at the period since redress was granted, and how recent events and polemics over historical memory and representation contribute to our overall understanding of the wartime actions and reflect their continuing impact upon American national consciousness.

Impounded Boats, New Westminster. Photo courtesy of Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre Archives.

An even more troubling problem with the conventional narrative is that it discusses Executive Order 9066 and the treatment of Japanese Americans only within fixed spatial and national boundaries, as part of internal (and mainland) American history. Yet the confinement policy fits into a wider international—indeed continental—pattern of official treatment of people of Japanese ancestry, and it is imperative to study other areas in order to understand in-depth the experience of West Coast Japanese Americans.i The first of these areas is wartime Hawaii, where “local Japanese” constituted the largest single ethnic population and provided the backbone of the labor force. In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, army commanders pushed through a declaration of martial law and did not restore the territory to full civilian control until late 1944. Military rule in Hawaii—a unique status in modern American history—was shaped in fundamental ways by the fears of the “local Japanese,” on the basis of which army commanders justified and built public support for such steps as abolition of civilian courts and their replacement by military tribunals. Conversely, Japanese residents were the focus of an epic conflict between national leaders who urged their mass confinement and local rulers who resisted these orders. The resulting struggle not only had different results from those on the West Coast but helped shape government policy on Japanese Americans elsewhere.

A similarly gaping hole in standard portraits of Japanese American confinement exists with regard to events in Canada. Like their American counterparts, twenty-two thousand Japanese Canadians from the West Coast of British Columbia were rounded up during the spring of 1942. They were then dispersed to a variety of destinations: road labor camps, sugar beet farms, or settlements in isolated mining villages. Their property was confiscated and sold by official decree, and they were forced to use the funds to pay for their own expenses. The Canadian government ultimately required the Japanese Canadians to choose between resettling outside the West and being deported to Japan, and it undertook the mass deportation of thousands of inmates as soon as the war was over. Astoundingly, no work has ever been published that looks at the history of Executive Order 9066 and the camps in the United States alongside that of the Canadian government’s wartime removal and confinement of Japanese Canadians, a series of events that remains all but unknown south of the border.[ii]

Finally, there is the experience of the Latin American Japanese in North America to consider. Following agreements between the U.S. State Department and the governments of Peru and other Latin American nations, U.S. forces carried off some 2,300 ethnic Japanese (plus larger numbers of ethnic Germans) from their home countries, brought them to the United States, and imprisoned them in an internment camp operated by the Justice Department at Crystal City, Texas. The Mexican government (though it refused to surrender any of its residents to the United States) decreed mass removal of 5,000 ethnic Japanese from its Pacific coast in 1942 and confiscated their property. As a result, a refugee trail of people formed to Mexico City and Guadalajara, where they were forced to resettle (in most cases permanently) and make new lives amid poverty and deprivation. Cuba opened a camp for Japanese residents on an offshore island (today’s Island of Youth) and confined several hundred people.

Not only is the experience of the Canadian and Latin American Japanese compelling within itself, but a study of the similarities and differences across borders provides a greater and more balanced perspective on any number of overall questions relating to the Japanese Americans: What drove confinement? What choices existed in administering it? How important were Nisei soldiers in shifting public opinion about the loyalty of the Japanese? For example, the timing, extent and mode of mass removal across the different nationals differed in revealing ways. The bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor by its Japanese attackers set off a series of ripples that ended by engulfing the various communities of overseas Japanese throughout the Pacific Rim. Only those in Hawaii itself —the eye of the storm—were able to retain their liberty, within certain limits. Those on the Pacific Coast of the Americas (like their counterparts in Australasia) were less fortunate, as they were singled out on racial grounds for “control,” which meant mass removal from their homes, farms, and businesses. In all of these places, evacuation was foreshadowed and informed by bitter prewar prejudice against Asians and economic jealousy of Japanese immigrants, who were barred from citizenship rights.

In Cuba and Central America, blanket action against small colonies of Japanese settlers followed immediately on the heels of a declaration of war with Japan (even before any such declaration, in the case of Mexico). The rapidity of these official actions and the lack of explanation for them suggest not only a pressing fear of Japanese fifth-columnists but an overarching desire by governments for revenge against Japan through mass internment or despoliation of its nationals and their few descendants. In contrast, on the West Coast of the United States and Canada, which were farther from Japan and where the resident ethnic Japanese populations were primarily composed of native-born citizens, the decisions to undertake mass removal did not come immediately after the outbreak of war in the Pacific. Instead, each evolved over the weeks that followed, in response to West Coast political and economic pressure.

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i. The U.S. government’s actions also mirror the mass removal and confinement of ethnic Japanese following Pearl Harbor by the governments of Australia and New Zealand and the French colony of New Caledonia, and their mass postwar deportation to Japan. In addition, camps to hold ethnic Japanese were established by American forces occupying Saipan in the last months of the war, While the events in Oceania and the Pacific Islands form a useful backdrop and context for those in the Americas, they do not have the same relevance to evaluating White House policy, and so will be dealt with only summarily.

ii. Several works on Japanese Americans have chapters that briefly discuss Canada. Examples include Roger Daniels, Concentration Camps North America: Japanese in the United States and Canada (Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 1989); and U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997 [1983]). Conversely, a few books on confinement in Canada, such as Ann Gomer Sunahara, The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians during World War II (Toronto: Lorimer, 1981), briefly outline the actions of Canada’s southern neighbor. Louis Fiset and Gail Nomura, eds., Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005), discusses the history of both national groups but gives scant treatment to the wartime era. Stephanie Bangarth, Voices Raised in Protest: Defending North American Citizens of Japanese Ancestry, 1942–1949 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008), compares wartime events at length but focuses on opposition to confinement and deportation and not confinement itself.



* This is an excerpt from A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America (Columbia University Press, 2009) by Greg Robinson, posted with the permission of Columbia University Press.

© 2009 Greg Robinson

Canadá Orden Ejecutiva 9066 órdenes ejecutivas detención encarcelamiento Estados Unidos Segunda Guerra Mundial
Acerca del Autor

Greg Robinson, nativo de Nueva York, es profesor de historia en la Universidad de Quebec en Montreal , una institución franco-parlante  de Montreal, Canadá. Él es autor de los libros By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Editorial de la Universidad de Harvard, 2001), A Tragedy of Democracy; Japanese Confinement in North America (Editorial de la Universidad de Columbia, 2009), After Camp: Portraits in Postwar Japanese Life and Politics (Editorial de la Universidad de California, 2012), y Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era (Editorial de la Universidad de Illinois, 2012), The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches (Editorial de la Universidad de Colorado, 2016), y coeditor de la antología Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road (Editorial de la Universidad de Washington, 2008). Robinson es además coeditor del volumen de John Okada - The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (Editorial del Universidad de Washington, 2018). El último libro de Robinson es una antología de sus columnas, The Unsung Great: Portraits of Extraordinary Japanese Americans (Editorial del Universidad de Washington, 2020). Puede ser contactado al email

Última actualización en julio de 2021

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