Faculty Members Reflect on the Era of Japanese American Internment, 75 Years Later

Faculty Members Reflect on the Era of Japanese American Internment, 75 Years Later
Photo provided by Dorothea Lange; courtesy Department of the Interior
February 17, 2017

Seventy-five years ago, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order that led to the forced removal and incarceration of about 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast. Five Wellesley professors—of history, English, religion, and women’s and gender studies—reflect on the ways looking back at that era can give us clarity as we consider the global complexities of the present day.


Brenna W. Greer, Knafel Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and assistant professor of history:

“When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, concerns about ‘the enemy within’ prompted the government to intern over 100,000 citizens of Japanese ancestry, in violation of their civil rights. In the present-day United States, the threat of terrorism—whether real or imagined—has made questions of who belongs and who is ‘safe’ again central to national politics and provided rationale for measures such as the recent ‘travel ban,’ a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and a Muslim registry. The cultural legacies of Japanese internment include shame, trauma, and disunion. We would do well to remember this while we debate the logic and efficacy—to say nothing of the morality—of targeting certain groups as dangerous based on race, religion, or nationality.”


Y. Tak Matsusaka, professor of history:

“Executive Order 9066, signed by the president of the United States on February 19, 1942, authorized the forced relocation of almost all Americans of Japanese ancestry to barbed-wire enclosures in remote areas of the American interior. Estelle Peck Ishigo (1899–1990), was a white artist who married American-born actor Arthur Shigeharu Ishigo, a son of Japanese immigrants. Although the executive order did not apply to her personally, given her non-Japanese ancestry, she nonetheless chose incarceration with her husband at Heart Mountain Relocation Center (Wyoming) rather than acquiesce to the breakup of her family. Estelle Ishigo chose to be a Japanese American. Executive Order 9066 and Estelle’s choice form part of our history. It is a history that sheds light on the fragility of our civil liberties and a moral choice that, in the name of freedom, must make us all Japanese Americans. Today, we are all Mexican Americans and Muslim Americans as well.”

(Estelle Peck Ishigo’s collected works can be found at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.)


Yoon Sun Lee, Mildred Lane Kemper Professor of English:

“What always strikes me the most about Japanese American internment is the fragility of what we take to be the normal world. Many Japanese Americans mention their sense of shock and disbelief at how suddenly they were transformed from being, in their view, part of ordinary American life to enemy aliens, part of an ‘enemy race.’ More than half of the roughly 120,000 internees were American-born citizens; many were children. When Executive Order 9066 was issued, the first requirement was for each family living on the West Coast to register. Living as we do in a moment when executive orders are much in the news, and especially when there has been talk of a ‘Muslim registry,’ we urgently need to remember and to speak out clearly so that such a shameful episode may never repeat itself. Immigrants and their children, in particular, need to fight for each other against the forces of bigotry and nativism.”

(Lee has written about Japanese American internment in her book Modern Minority: Asian American Literature and Everyday Life and has taught many works of literature related to internment at Wellesley. She recommends Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660 and John Okada’s No-No Boy.)


T. James Kodera, professor of religion:

“Although they swore allegiance to the United States, and not to the emperor of Japan, the Japanese Americans were revoked of their U.S. citizenship and were reclassified as ‘enemy aliens.’ In the camps, they showed how American they were. Girls took up baton twirling. Boys played baseball. In the camp in Manzanar, Calif., just north of Death Valley, they formed a baseball team, which they named the Red Sox! Many men volunteered to fight for the United States. They were sent to the European theater of the war. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was an infantry regiment of the U.S. Army, consisting entirely of Japanese American soldiers from the camps and from Hawaii. Their motto was ‘Go for broke.’ [T]hey liberated the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, [and] they remain today the most decorated in the history of warfare…. President Harry Truman, who had dropped two atomic bombs in Japan in August 1945, greeted the Japanese American soldiers in July 1946 with these words: ‘You fought, not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice, and you’ve won. Keep up that fight, and we’ll continue to win. To make this great republic stand for just what its Constitution says it stands for, the welfare of all the people, all the time.’ While they fought in the European theater, their families were locked up in prison. The guards had guns pointed at them at all times…. Many of the inmates were women and children, some born in the camps. They eventually were released and returned to their homes only to find that their properties had been confiscated….To remember what happened 75 years ago is of great significance today, when people of certain racial, ethnic, and religious groups are targeted as potential enemies of the United States….We see today history repeating itself. Would our new president say to the potential ‘terrorists’ what President Truman said to the Japanese American soldiers [he] had come to honor [for] their valor in the end?”


Elena Tajima Creef, professor of women’s and gender studies:

“As a historian of previous presidential executive orders that singled out a people on the basis of race and ethnicity, I thought that we all understood the disastrous consequences of such monumental errors on the part of our leaders. Seventy-five years later, on this ‘Day of Remembrance,’ let us all remain steadfast in the lessons we have learned from the past.”

(Creef is the author of Imaging Japanese America: The Visual Construction of Citizenship, Nation, and the Body.)


Photo: Dorothea Lange; Members of farm family board evacuation bus in Centerville, California. Department of the Interior, War Relocation Authority.