The Lasting Trauma of Japanese American Incarceration | Sojourners

The Lasting Trauma of Japanese American Incarceration

75 Years After Executive Order 9066
Japanese American families form a line outside Civil Control Station located in the Japanese American Citizens League Auditorium at 2031 Bush Street in San Francisco to appear for "processing" in response to Civilian Exclusion Order Number 20 in 1942.

“Whereas, the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection … by virtue of the authority vested in me as President … I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War … to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded …”

Every winter, these weighty words are read aloud in museums and sanctuaries across the country, as Japanese Americans gather to commemorate the anniversary of Executive Order 9066. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt empowered military commanders to execute the “forced evacuation” of anyone with Japanese ancestry from the West Coast of the United States. This order set in motion a mass incarceration that would sweep tens of thousands of people, most of them American citizens, into concentration camps throughout the country’s inland regions.

This year’s Day of Remembrance marks 75 years since it was signed. Rarely has this historic legacy of ethnic scapegoating, forced detention, and state violence echoed so familiarly to the descendants of the survivors of the Japanese incarceration.

Mari Yamagiwa is a social worker whose family was resettled in Chicago after their release. Her family members spent time in concentration camps at Manzanar, Tule Lake, Heart Mountain, and Poston, surrounded by barbed wire, guard towers, and machine guns that always pointed inward — “for their own protection.”

Seventy-five years later, Yamagiwa says she is wrestling with her family’s history, her Christian faith, and the demands of the current political climate. For Yamagiwa, all of these factors only amplify the severity of the plight of those affected by President Donald Trump’s recent executive orders on immigration. Immigrants and refugees are “being dehumanized and devalued … cast out in very visible ways and very real ways.”

Yamagiwa is involved in a nascent local group of Asian American progressive Christians who are wrestling with similar pressing questions of race, faith, and justice. Her white Christian siblings, Yamagiwa insists, must “be open to learning and understanding your fellow brothers’ and sisters’ experiences and the ways that oppression and hate have deeply impacted other people of color specifically.”


Catholic Church of Father Clement, Maryknoll Priest, at the Poston center in Arizona.
by Iwasaki Hikaru, Public domain

Indeed, the statistic “81 percent” has been seared into the consciousness of many evangelicals of color. This November, four out of five white evangelicals chose to ignore the concerns of their siblings of color, voting instead to elect the most blatantly white nationalist presidential candidate in recent memory. For many white Christians, that historical memory is all too short. Throughout American history, most white Christians remained silent at best on questions of white supremacy, generally tacitly or actively approving of the racial sins of slavery, lynching, and segregation.

As their Japanese American neighbors were being rounded up, few Christians voiced opposition to the government’s plan of mass detention. Protestant and Catholic groups did little to oppose the incarceration orders, fearing being viewed as unpatriotic, opting instead to comfort individual families as they could, help resettle them outside the prisons if possible, or evangelize from inside the barbed wire to win new souls for Christ.

Only the Quakers broke the mold in this regard, evincing a level of racial insight and responsibility rare for white Christians at the time. The American Friends Service Committee issued internal memos throughout the war encouraging workers to recall their own community’s silence and complicity, saying “let us never forget that we threw these people behind barbed wire … we still have a debt to pay.”

While white Christians of various traditions voiced opposition as executive orders affecting mostly Muslim immigrants and refugees rolled out earlier this month, many others remained silent, with recent polling suggesting that churches are more likely to fear refugees than actually welcome them. Franklin Graham, like many members of the religious right’s old guard, openly defended the measures, citing national security concerns. In fact, on Graham’s Facebook page in July of 2015, he wrote: “During World War 2, we didn’t allow Japanese to immigrate to America … Why are we allowing Muslims now?”

‘They Had to Continue to Prove That They Were American’

After the war, many Nikkei families simply did not speak of their experiences to future generations, internalizing a deep sense of shame and blaming themselves for their traumatic ordeal. As Yamagiwa shared, “they felt like they had to continue to prove that they were American.”

Frank Yamada, incoming executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, has a deep interest in “how this kind of hyper-assimilation affected people’s faith” and emotional lives. It wasn’t until decades after the war, when Yamada spoke with his own father about his plans to attend a reunion of Japanese families in Utah, when these stories began to pour out.


Nursery school at the Topaz, Utah center. Public domain.

Like many others, Yamada’s family had only 48 hours to leave their homes after the evacuation orders were posted. They sold their grocery store in downtown Oakland for what little cash they could arrange. Yamada’s great-uncle negotiated with the mayor of a small town, Keetley, Utah, arranging to bring several Nikkei families to work there on an abandoned farm.

In Utah, the West Coast families did their best to integrate with their new neighbors. They sometimes attended Sunday school, where Yamada’s father first learned to sing “Jesus Loves Me.” But their family also faced challenges farming the cold, hard land, and was a target for open hostility from the outside community. Their home was frequently pelted with eggs. Local whites threw dynamite at their farm on more than one occasion.

Yamada said that his own family’s experience has impacted his understanding of current social ills, calling it “sympathetic outrage.” He says he felt this way especially after 9/11, when Muslim and South Asian Sikh communities were experiencing threats driven by nationalist frenzy, and a fear of the Other and the Oriental body.

“There were all these resonances: the Patriot Act, more recently the immigration ban and the executive orders,” he said.

These experiences also drive Yamada’s work as a postcolonial biblical scholar.

“It’s a faith stance to stand with Muslims who are being ostracized and persecuted in the ways Japanese were,” Yamada said. “You evoke these narratives from the past as narratives not only of survival and suffering but exile and identity.”

Living Legacies of Trauma

Lisa Doi’s faith community, the historically Nikkei Midwest Buddhist Temple, recently hosted an event conferred by Japanese American civil rights groups and members of local Arab American and Muslim communities. Survivors and their descendants shared their experiences, denouncing the recent climate of race prejudice and hysteria sown by the failing political leadership of President Trump and others.

The stories resonated with Doi, whose grandparents’ lives were overturned in the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Her grandfather, Al, was ordered to report to the infamous Santa Anita racetrack, which had become a militarized “assembly center” for displaced Japanese Americans, where he was imprisoned in a converted horse stall.

“I just know that would have killed him,” Doi said. “He wore the same outfit every day, dress pants and wing tips to the beach. He was just a really classy guy… it would have been devastating for him. It would have been so embarrassing.”

The majority of incarcerees were sent from these temporary locales, sometimes simply occupied fairgrounds and horse tracks, to any of 10 larger, more permanently constructed camps: Gila River, Granada, Heart Mountain, Jerome, Manzanar, Minidoka, Poston, Rohwer, Topaz, and Tule Lake. Doi participated in a youth pilgrimage to the site of one of the camps just six months after the passing of her grandparents. “I suddenly had all these questions that I could not ask them anymore … ghosts of my grandfather were traveling with me.”

For many, these sites are not just relics of the past, but living legacies with lasting implications for today.

As a child, author David Mura remembers hearing talk of “camp” at family gatherings, but he only had a general sense of what his parents had experienced.

“Nobody ever sat me down and said, ‘David, during World II, all the Japanese Americans on the West Coast were imprisoned,’” he said. “Many other Japanese Americans of my parents generation, the Nisei, never talked about the camps. I had a friend who thought her parents were referring to summer camp until she found out about the camps during high school.”

More than anything else, Mura explained, his parents’ generation felt a lasting sense of emotional shame about their incarceration. “If you shoplift and are imprisoned for it, when you get out, to show you’re reformed, you don’t shoplift anymore. But what are you to do if your crime is your race and ethnicity?”

What do you do when the evidence of your racial guilt is written into your body?

“That is part of the psychological mindset of my parents and their generation, and that is part of the climate I grew up in,” he said.

‘Do You Hold Anger?’

Both Yamagiwa and Doi are planning to attend a Day of Remembrance ceremony this week. Doi, a former interfaith activist who has studied Christian liberation theologies, continues to wrestle with the spiritual and emotional role of anger in her own inner life, whether it should be actively summoned, and internalized as fuel, or rejected, released as toxin.

“During the Vietnam war, Buddhist monks would self-immolate to protest,” she explains. And yet the call of Buddhism, as Doi sees it, is “to be loving and compassionate towards all living beings.”

Seventy-five years after her family’s incarceration, as shadows of violence and trauma against her neighbors loom larger, Doi simultaneously inhabits both landscapes.

“Do you hold anger? How do you be loving towards Steve Bannon? I’m trying to find that space.”