The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

Wild Blue Yonder on the Air - Ep. 8 - Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz on "Japanese-American Incarceration in World War II"

Wild Blue Yonder --

Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.

Dr. Margaret Sankey: This is Wild Blue Yonder on the air, the podcast of Air University Press, and our guest today is Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz, who is of the National Museum of World War II in New Orleans. She's an expert on Asian-American history in the United States. Her previous books are Race, Religion, and Civil Rights: Asian Students on the West Coast, and A Different Shade of Justice: Asian American Civil Rights in the South. And today she'll be talking about her new book, which comes out in October from the University of Pennsylvania Press, and that is Japanese American Incarceration: The Camps and Coerced Labor during World War II. So welcome.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz: Thank you for having me.

Sankey: The first thing that really struck me is due to activists' and historians' work for decades, it's really mainstream knowledge, I've seen kids do History Day projects. So it's percolated all the way down into the school system about Executive Order 9066. I was really surprised to see that what I had been familiar with really most of my research time as Japanese internment is Japanese incarceration. How and when did this change in the framing happened? 

Hinnershitz: This began, it was actually part of an activist movement going back to really the late '80s, but it really picked up in the late '90s and the early 2000s with the Japanese American community and the Japanese American Citizens League. And they issued a resolution in 2010 called The Power of Words Resolution. And that is, you can find it online, it's a really helpful guideline that points out some of the euphemisms that the US government used at the time to describe incarceration and what are the best words that we should be using today. And so there's still this debate about should we stick with terms that were used by officials at the time to stay historically accurate. So like internment, relocation, evacuation, relocation camps, or should we as historians now look back and call it what it actually was? And the reason why I think more people are turning to calling it incarceration and interment is because out of that 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent that were forcibly removed and then placed in prison or concentration camps. The overwhelming majority, about 70% to 80% of those were American-born citizens.

So internment is a very specific legal process that was used at the time for "enemy aliens." So these would have been immigrants from Japan, immigrants from Germany, immigrants from Italy. They were dealt with by the Department of Justice and put in internment camps. Japanese-Americans were dealt with by an entirely different organization The War Relocation Authority, so this wasn't connected to internment. What this was, was basically imprisonment because Japanese-Americans, even regardless of their citizenship, they were reclassified as enemy aliens. Basically suspected of being disloyal or subversive on nothing more than their ethnicity and their race. And then without due process, without a fair trial, without in-depth hearings, they were removed from their homes and placed in these camps where they were guarded. They had restrictions on what they could or could not do.

So this was all a part of this movement initiated by Japanese-Americans to say, let's call this what it was, because if we call it internment, it takes away what it meant. Not that internment is necessarily any better in terms of being a process. But we need to understand that this was something very specific and that we're talking about a majority of American citizens who had their rights taken away from them. And we even use it at the World War II Museum, I see the usage of incarceration rather than internment. So it really is starting to be much more common, and a lot of people are moving away from internment.

Sankey: Your book highlights that many of the professional planners who were involved with the War Relocation Board and end up being responsible for deciding how this is carried out, have state level backgrounds in the penal system. And I had not thought about that, but it certainly informs how they see what should happen. Could you talk a little bit about that? 

Hinnershitz: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the officials that end up being directly in charge of implementing incarceration were new dealers. Plenty of them were part of FDR's New Deal Program. So they’re bureaucrats, they’re administrators and many of them were very interested in these questions of imprisonment. Can there be reforms for imprisonment to make it maybe more humane, maybe not as punitive as it was before. And so in a really interesting way, you have a lot of these administrators who are interested in these questions of imprisonment. And they take that and apply it to incarceration. And so a lot of them look at incarceration as this experiment to see if America takes a group of people, Japanese-Americans who are largely seen by many at the time as un-American. They live in these ethnic enclaves, they're kind of hopelessly un-American, they can't be Americanized.

But what happens if we take them and put them in the system, can they develop these ideas of democracy? Can they still hold on to democracy even while they're in prisoned during the war? And so it's a really weird mixture of these people who are interested in questions of imprisonment and what it could look like. And maybe how it could improve or what the whole system is. But they're using it in a way that violates a lot of rights, and especially for some of the military leaders who consult some of these agencies bureaucrats like the lawyers who work for the War Relocation Authority. They base a lot of their ideas of what legally can and cannot be done with Japanese-Americans in the camps with labor on convict lease labor. So there is a really strong connection between how legal advisors, the military administrators of the WRA are looking at what can legally be done with Japanese-Americans when they're in prisoned.

Well, we can pull from what we have done with convict laborers going back very long time in American history. So to find that connection very clearly laid out in documents from the archives, it's not good. But it was really a great find for the book because it's a really important piece of evidence that frames just how much a lot of these administrators thought of what was previously called internment as actually a form of incarceration or treating Japanese-Americans as prisoners. So where there's a completely different level of understanding of what they're doing versus what they're presenting to the American public. Because they're not going to the American public and calling these people prisoners, they're calling them pioneers, because they're out in this land that's not great. And they're working to make it better, they're calling them evacuees, but they know, they know that what they are is they're prisoners.

Sankey: And this really feeds into an older World War I notion of ‘you can work or you can fight,’ that there are two tracks to patriotism here. And those who can't be conscripted are supposed to be growing food or knitting socks or something that would go into war materials. And so the framing is really interesting here that something really coercive and civil rights violating is being presented as a patriotic opportunity. 

Hinnershitz: Yeah, absolutely, it's such a strong part of how the whole incarceration system is envisioned. What it's gonna look like? And work is really at the center of it, and I hope that comes through in my book, besides just the title. But it's really from planning on how this is gonna operate and how do you take 120,000 people, most of them American citizens, forcibly remove them from their homes and then place them in these camps. How can you keep morale up, how can you make it seem like they have something to contribute to the war effort? If you make this connection between what you produce is directly correlated with how patriotic you are. And you're telling this to people who are in prison, there is a coercive element to that, and there are many, many Japanese-Americans in the camps who are very patriotic, and they do want to help. But then there are others who really feel like this is... What other choice do you have? 

And so this idea of if you're not fighting overseas, which by the way, there were plenty of Japanese-American men who were already enlisted in the military and were ready to go fight after Pearl Harbor. But then they were demoted to that Four C Enemy Alien class, and they couldn't, they couldn't serve right away. And so of course, if they want to do something and if work is what is being sold to them as this is how you can prove your patriotism, they're gonna do it, I would argue, if you have a group of technically imprisoned people and you're pushing this idea of this is how you prove your patriotism. When the reason why they're in the camps is because they're seen as not patriotic, that's pretty coercive to me. 

Sankey: Your previous books lay out very clearly that, especially in the West Coast, there's an ugly and really deeply seated expectation that Asian labor is exploitable. And so some of this is coming from viewing this group of people as already those who you have some coercive leverage on, I think.

Hinnershitz: Yeah, absolutely, and that's one of the reasons why you can't entirely separate race from incarceration, I know that's a hot topic and a lot of people will bring up... Will make the argument that this really doesn't have anything to do with race and had more to do with ethnicity or nationality. But if you take that route, you overlook the deep history behind how a lot of Americans, especially those on the West Coast, treated Japanese-Americans and Asian-Americans. And now Japanese-Americans were, many were able especially in California to become pretty prosperous, small farmers, so truck farming. Meaning you grow these small crops, you take them to the market, you work with wholesalers, and that alone made a lot of white farmers very angry because they saw they had to compete with them. Whereas other white farmers depended upon Japanese-American laborers to grow the food for them.

And so when you have Executive Order 9066 issued, and then once General DeWitt interprets that on the West Coast as primarily meaning Japanese, American of Japanese descent. There's a lot of white people in the West Coast that have bizarre reactions to this, and so many of them actually ask for exceptions. They want in their town or city or region, they're writing to the army and saying, "Can we make an exception for our Japanese-Americans? Because we need them here to work." Whereas others are saying, "Get rid of them because I'm tired of having to compete with them, and now I can have access to their land." So this whole idea that Japanese-Americans and Asian-Americans are expendable, exploitable, they're there when you need them, get rid of them when you don't. And there's definitely a history of that along the West Coast that really plays a big part in at least along the West Coast to the call for removal and incarceration.

So yeah, you can't talk about incarceration as something separate from what came before, and I think that's one of the reasons why I became so interested in Japanese-Americans and World War II. Because I rarely learned about it when I was in high school, and I still think a lot of historians see it as this kind of separate thing. Either it's just Asian-American history or it's just very horrible, but weird kind of blip in American history. But historians who have studied this topic can say this is not just war time hysteria in a lot of ways, this is almost like the culmination of decades of anti-Japanese sentiment. It's a really good point that you brought up, and I'm always happy to connect it to what had been going on before. Because I think it's really, really important to do that.

Sankey: I also really appreciated in your book because I get arguments that well, we're looking at it from a 21st century lens. And the people at the time didn't know that this was wrong, and you offer a really compelling documentation that people... And to drop names, Milton Eisenhower saying this would be terrible to exploit confined people for a private enterprise, like this is not cool. So how do they end up doing this when you've got some pretty loud voices raising ethical and legal concerns about it? 

Hinnershitz: It's a really complicated issue. And yeah, Milton Eisenhower, I think, is one of the best examples of, "No. People knew this was wrong." So he was the first director of the War Relocation Authority, and he leaves, he resigns from his position, not long after he takes it. He's a guy who initially conceives of, "Yeah, let's do this labor program, let's make incarceration an opportunity to have Japanese-Americans be very productive." And then even while he's saying that kind of publicly, he's moving away from that idea and saying, "Actually, this is kind of un-American that we're doing this, there's some of FDR's top advisors are raising concerns about this." Perhaps not necessarily because they care and they're heart of hearts about Japanese-Americans, they're taking a very kind of sterile position in that. If FDR does this, we're talking about some potentially major constitutional violations.

And again, remember, FDR just came out of the court packing scheme, he's really been pushing the envelope in a lot of ways with constitutional issues. And his advisors know he's got a growing conservative kind of backlash to what he's trying to do. There's also just kind of regular people who have grown up around Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, they work together. They know that this isn't right. But deep down, even not deep down, there are many people that can convince themselves that it's a time of war. And unfortunately war means sometimes we have to do things we don't want to. The US government also did a really good job. And here's why I say it's a really good job because I still hear people today use this when they're... We're trying to defend what we did back then, so the government puts out a lot of propaganda to try and explain to Americans what's going on in the camps. What's happening, why this is happening? 

And one of the reasons they give them to kind of calm people down in case people are upset about what's going on, they say, "Well, actually, this is for the protection of Japanese-Americans themselves. Because if we left them on the West Coast after Pearl Harbor, they would become victims of all kinds of racial attacks, we have to remove them from the West Coast and put them in camps. We're doing it for their own good." And I am always shocked that I still hear people use that and it's a great propaganda because it definitely... It definitely worked. People still today believe that that is an acceptable reason for doing this, but that was a way that... It's kind of twofold, people could say it's just for the war time, it's an extraordinary measure, but sometimes this is what has to happen. And then also this idea that the government is looking out for the best interest of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast by placing them someplace safe.

Sankey: To divert a little bit, you mentioned how important Japanese-Americans were to food production. Thinking about all of those products, the sugar beets, the vegetables, these are not agricultural industries that are mechanized. So when laborer gets drafted, when people need to be doing war work, when Japanese-Americans are forcibly removed... Can you talk about the parallel program, which also has some significant racial and legal aspects up to the present? And that's of course, Mexican-American and Mexican Braceros.

Hinnershitz: Yes, yeah, so especially in the beet industry, a lot of the large beet growers, and these are... That's another thing too that I talk about. That's important to kind of keep in mind. Beet farming is a massive undertaking, like these are corporations, they are not these little farmers out there just on their own, it's corporate. And so a lot of those corporations in Montana and Idaho, and really all throughout the Great Plains and out further in that area. They had usually relied pretty heavily on Braceros coming up from Mexico. They came to rely on them because it is very labor-intensive, and it requires a lot of labor. But then once the war breaks out, there's some suspension initially of allowing Mexicans to cross the border.

So without them, without men around to help out, either they've been drafted, or they've moved on to better work, honestly. A lot of these beet growers, they need someone to do it, and so that's when they turned to Japanese-Americans and they turned to pushing the army, asking the Army, "Can you start to release some of these Japanese-Americans for work?" And so I think it is really interesting. I think there could be a whole book on this and talking about the parallels between the Bracero program and what Japanese-Americans are doing. Because there are a lot of parallels. There's the racial element that both of these groups of people are kind of ideal for this work because maybe they can't get better jobs in other industries. They've always been kind of relied on in a lot of ways to do this more intensive labor, there's the legal issues that need to be worked out with both groups.

So during a time of war, how do you get Mexican immigrants across the border when we're talking about security and defense? So that needs to be hammered out during the war, and then you get the Bracero program. Where a lot of different agencies work together to bring those workers in. And at the same time, you have a similar process going on with, "What are we gonna do about Japanese-Americans in the camp?" So there are definitely parallels, and I would say those parallels are built upon people at the margins during the time of war, what kind of bizarre legal maneuvering needs to happen so that things can continue as usual. So I think putting Japanese-American beet laborers in the same conversation as the Braceros, in the same conversation as women who go to work and men who aren't drafted and kids. You get a really interesting picture of labor during World War II.

It doesn't necessarily fit like the Rosie the Riveter kind of idea of what work looks like on the home front. So again, thank you for bringing that up because I would, again, love to read a book about bringing all these different elements of labor during the war together.

Sankey: Through our conversation, we've kept saying camps, but there are different kinds. Could you differentiate between them? 

Hinnershitz: The term 'camp' can be used in a lot of different ways. So sometimes you will hear historians say concentration camps, that's what they were referred to a lot as in the actual documents. A lot of historians don't necessarily use the phrase concentration camp just because there's that gut reaction comparison to the Holocaust. And so we don't want to go down that route. The prison camps, there's 10 of them, there's 10 kind of permanent ones meaning they're gonna be here indefinitely, however long they need them to be, and they're spread out through... Actually through the West, so interestingly, some of them are very close to, if not in the military zones, that DeWitt orders all the Japanese-Americans out of. Into the Southwest and Arizona, all the way over to Arkansas. So those are the camps that are controlled by the War Relocation Authority, so those will be the camps where most of the Japanese-Americans from the West Coast ended up. There are other camps, there's detention centers or camps that double as what were called segregation centers. So they would also be places where Japanese-Americans who were considered potentially subversive in the camps, disloyal, "Troublemakers," strikers. So a lot of Japanese-Americans who initiate labor strikes, they will be pulled out of camps and transferred to others that are kind of declared to be higher security.

So Tulelake for example, in California, that becomes a maximum security camp. And then there's also general like internment camps or detention camps, those are for "enemy aliens," so Japanese immigrants and those are guarded by... There's some guarding being done by the army, but those were overseen by the Department of Justice. Whereas the others are overseen by the civilian agency, the WRA, with from time to time assistance from the army. And then before Japanese-Americans would end up at one of the 10 WRA camps, they would be placed in these temporary detention centers, which were along the West Coast. So once they were removed from their homes, they would be put in one of these detention centers, processed, and then while the camps were being built, they would wait there. And then they would be transferred to those... To those camps.

So there's a lot of different layers, each camp, there's a lot of similarities amongst all the different... The 10 more permanent camps, but they're run by different administrators who have different plans. They're not all exactly the same, which means you have a lot of varied experiences depending on which different prison camp a Japanese American may have been in.

Sankey: At the same time that this is happening to Japanese-Americans, the US also genuinely has prisoner of war camps for captured Italian and German prisoners. And they're very concerned about holding to the Geneva Convention, can these prisoners be asked to work? What sort of parole should they get to wander around town? What is an appropriate payment for them, this seems really at odds with the way they've decided to treat American-born citizen?

Hinnershitz: Yes, and this is what makes incarceration to me, I mean there's many things that make it so horrible. But the difference is the citizenship, so because most of the Japanese-Americans who are removed and imprisoned are American citizens. That means they're not held to the same standards, as POWs, under the Geneva Conventions, that doesn't apply. Which is another piece of evidence for why we're not talking about internment, and they're also not prisoners of war, and the army wants to be very clear about that. Because they don't want any kind of retaliation against American POWs in Japan or elsewhere. So we're really making a point of they're not POWs, but their citizenship in a weird way makes them more vulnerable to exploitation and rights violations then POW simply because they're Americans. So we've created at this time a weird, bizarre imprisonment system. It's also the labor system to deal with Japanese-American citizens so that it doesn't look like their POWs meanwhile, the POWs have more specific guidelines.

So there's a lot of very clear guidelines about what can and cannot be done with POWs. Like they can't be used to make anything that could contribute to the war, so like war material, actual weapons, and things of that nature. But American citizens can. So American citizens can be used in that, and so that's why in some of the places like Manzanar Camp, you have Japanese-Americans who are making camouflage netting. They can do that because they're not POWs, and so their citizenship again, in a weird roundabout way makes them more vulnerable to being exploited than a German POW would have been in the US.

Sankey: Continually framing this is labor really highlights the contradictions that you see here, especially because so many of these administrators are new dealers. So coming out of a decade where if you were just looking at a high school history textbook, it is left-wing labor victories, contracts, unions, and yet you can use this vocabulary of a contract to do something very coercive. And I think you explained this really well in the book.

Hinnershitz: The army, the War Relocation Authority, these new dealers, they very much want to present the idea that no one is forcing American citizens to work. It's a goal. They want to make it very clear; no one is being coerced to work, no one needs to work, no one is forcing any Japanese-American to work. And they will always turn to the contract as proof of this, prisoners don't sign contracts, free laborers sign contracts and free laborers are allowed to read the contract and see what's all laid out in it. And if they don't want to take the job, they don't take the job. They can quit whenever they want to, but that's not what the contracts look like for the Japanese-Americans who willingly... If you want to use that, willingly sign them.

There's all kinds of weird kind of exceptions to what a normal free contract looks like. For example, Japanese-Americans, if they want to sign up to go work on the beet farmers, they don't have to... They sign a contract, but within that contract, there are clauses like they can be recalled at any time if their labor is needed in the camps. So it's not actually free, they have to follow the dictates and the whims of the War Relocation Authority.

Another thing that becomes a problem, which again, any new dealer would say this is absolutely absurd, that this shouldn't happen with the contract. Is that Japanese-Americans when they sign up, they're allowed to be transferred from one employer to another without their consent. And so there are a lot of times where Japanese-Americans thought they were going to go work for one farmer, but when they get to this train station in the middle of nowhere, Montana, no one comes for them, and they find out that they've actually been transferred to another farmer. Because that's allowed to happen in the contract, so there is going on strike during the war is essentially... No one is allowed to do that. People do it.

So as Japanese-Americans imprisoned, they're already on the line, they're already seen as not being patriotic, and so a strike, a labor strike is often called a riot in the camps. The administrators are trying to keep this idea of free labor, it's something very different, it's really the cognitive dissonance is very impressive, that people are able to kind of juggle this around. And so a lot of the new dealers were very committed to labor rights and unions because it's war time and because it's a very specific system. They can say, well, we can suspend that in this case, but yeah, the army, the WRA, even Americans who hear this, the idea that, well, as long as there's a contract that means no one is forced to work. That belief has, I think, kind of hidden this idea about how important labor was and how coercive the labor could be during incarceration.

I think it's this idea that we as Americans hold so dear, is that no one is gonna make you work, always comes back to the contract. And that was used, I would say, in a very smart way by the government to make that argument that no one's being forced to work.

Sankey: Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned how powerful a lot of the propaganda was and looking at it from a distance, that really papers over a lot of the cracks. Used things as Rosie the Riveter and everybody rushed off to do patriotic factory work. And the unions, the AFL-CIO had agreed no strikes. But that's not entirely the case. In 1942, talk about the wildcat strikes, which happened in mainstream American factories. And in the camps as well.

Hinnershitz: I'll plug in another historians book, it's a really great book, it's called The Year of Peril by Tracy Campbell, and I want to say it came out in 2019... Maybe it just came out last year. He lays out this idea that Pearl Harbor was not this unifying thing immediately, especially like the early part of '42. It was very chaotic, and we were not all on the same page, and one of the things that he points to is labor and these wildcat strikes. And the other thing I like about looking at incarceration as a labor system for Japanese-Americans is that it puts that in conversation with this idea. That it's from industrialization and Rosie the Riveter kind of factories down to the camps themselves, there were strikes, and it was massive. They weren't like just random here and there; they were a lot... There was a huge wave of strikes, and Japanese-Americans are pulling from that tradition. If they're not happy with their labor, they're gonna protest, and so just like others who are taking advantage of the war as "Here's an opportunity to maybe make some pushes or make some protests while the US government needs our labor to make war goods, let's take advantage of that."

Japanese-Americans are doing the same thing while they're in the camps, they're trying to have more say, they're trying to use the war. And how important they have become to just running the camps, let alone making war goods at the time that... Yeah, this is a pattern is part of the labor history of World War II. And we do like to think about Rosie the Riveter as everyone's coming out and putting their all into everything and certainly not denying that that happened. But it's much more complex than that. [chuckle] It really is, it's a very interesting story. And Japanese-American incarceration is just as much a part of the labor history of the war as Rosie the Riveter or any other aspect really.

Sankey: In some of the documents that you found, I was not surprised, but an inappropriately kind of amused that the War Relocation Board sends psychologists and sociologists to the camps to investigate why is morale low? Why are people unhappy? What did you make of these reports? 

Hinnershitz: So the sociologists and the psychologists who go to the different camps, especially the Poston Camp in Arizona, which is often seen as... So the guy who would be in charge of that, he's really interested in all kinds of sociological problems, and so he really saw that camp as almost as a social experiment. And a lot of the surprise that these sociologists had for just how low morale is, it's related to two things. It is related to the propaganda that is being put out by the government. Again, it's a really good propaganda, [chuckle] it works, it still works today, where you see a lot of smiling Japanese-Americans and the kids are out in the playground and the adults are happy to have a job. And here's an opportunity for them to maybe learn some skills and labor skills that they didn't have before. Here's an opportunity for young Japanese-American women to push back in some of those traditional gender structures, and so when sociologists arrive there to do these studies and anthropologists and a lot of social scientists. They are surprised and just how kind of snarky some of the people that they interview are and cynical.

And I think it kind of takes them back because there were also a lot of Japanese-Americans who did say they love this country, and they want to support them. But then you have others who the social scientists can't wrap their minds around, why not make the best of a bad situation? If the camps aren't great, but they're also not the worst, you can have self-governance, you can participate in a democratic system. You can get new skills, you can go to school, you can have all of these things. And so they are kind of surprised to hear just how deep-seated, especially among the young Japanese-Americans. And you say, especially among them, they're kind of taken aback by how bad this has actually gotten and again... Yeah, when I was reading through this, I'm like, well, how can you... How can you be surprised at the fact that Americans, especially like teenagers, like 18, 19, 20-year-olds, how would you possibly be surprised if they're not gonna have low morale because they were ripped away from their homes and put in these camps.

But I think it's the level of deep cynicism that is very unsettling, and the other thing too is there were Japanese-Americans who assisted the social scientists and the sociologists who served as the research assistants. And so there were some of them who were also a little taken aback by just how bad things had actually gotten and it's a... Incarceration was a mixed experience. I'm certainly not gonna say that it was good. And for all my talk about coerced labor, there were Japanese-Americans who really did see themselves as benefiting from this. Again, young women, especially young Nisei women, the opportunity to serve as a secretary, learn how to have skills that could help them if, whenever they got out of the camps. That was something that was very beneficial to them.

So it was a mixed bag. It's really all over the place. Taking the larger view of it, which may be the sociologists were not able to do, is this is still a form of imprisonment. We can pretend it's a social experiment, we can pretend whatever it is, but it's still imprisonment.

Sankey: Because it's imprisonment, a lot of the documents you worked with were censored, either after they were written or before they could be published in a camp newsletter. So how did you tease out letting all of these people speak for themselves when the documents you were working with had some limitations.

Hinnershitz: Yeah, the camp newspapers are very challenging, and there's almost like a whole subset, subfield of how do you deal with the camp newspapers because they're such an important source, but they are censored and so... It's really interesting, I had to do a lot of research and I had to read a lot of scholarship from communication scholars who are historians by training, but they know how to understand and get it, how do you make use of a censored newspaper.

So it's pretty interdisciplinary, it's really interesting, and what I came away from this is when you read the newspapers, you're not necessarily getting the 100% honest opinion of the author, whomever is writing or even the editor. But what you are getting the sense of is what kind of environment and atmosphere the prisons created, and the whole point of the newspaper. The government would say again, is to keep morale up, it's important to have a sense of community, but it was also this... They're throwing the Japanese-Americans a bone here and saying, freedom of press, we are gonna allow you to publish this newspaper. And there are certainly articles in there that we might be surprised an editor or whoever reviewed the publications and make sure that they were within the bounds.

We might be surprised that they let Japanese-Americans publish this stuff, but it's all part of the like, well, we gotta make it look like basic rights are not being violated, so it's... For me, I learned how to read them as like this give and take between the Japanese-American prisoners and the administrators. And so if you approach it like that, it's kind of a middle ground between the two and you understand that you're probably not getting the exact opinion. Because we get those later from the sociologist who do the interviews, so we can kind of know and see like, "Okay, these are how teenagers are really feeling about this." You have to treat it as like this is a very specific kind of communication, it's a negotiation, it's a back and forth between the prisoners and the administrators, it took a little bit of work to figure out how to deal with these.

Now, the other documents that I use, which are fascinating, and I think is what makes my book a little bit more of like a study of institutions than maybe necessarily the exact experiences of the Japanese-Americans are the official documents. So those communications between army officials between the WRA administrators, that's where you get a lot of very honest opinions of what's going on among the different leaders. And then another really great source was from the letters that were sent from the beet laborers to the employee representatives at each of the camps.

Those... Again, you never are entirely sure you're getting the full story or not, but they're pretty... They're pretty raw when they describe their experiences, they're varied, they're nuanced. I would say they're very direct, kind of always have to take things with a grain of salt, but looking at it from in this meta view, any form of communication, there's something that someone wants to accomplish. Some idea that they want to get across and they're figuring out how best to do that. So whether it's a letter back to the employer, whether it's the camp newspaper, the levels of censorship, there's still something to be drawn out of there, and so... It was hard, it was challenging to trying to figure out how to do that, and I hope I did communication scholars justice by trying to do this. [chuckle] But it was hard.

Sankey: Another aspect of this, which I had just never considered, is where this intersects with yet another marginalized group, and that is Indian Reservation. Certainly during the 1930s, the new deal included a kind of new Indian deal, a lot of advances were made in terms of relationships between the tribes and the federal government. But those had been really sharply curtailed as you point out, a lot of BIA administrators saw Japanese incarceration as a way to kind of shore up some of the advances that they've made pitting one group against another, that was really stunning for me.

Hinnershitz: Yeah, it's a really complex part of the story, but also a really promising... And there's starting to be a lot more work done on this because the Japanese-Americans, the BIA sees them as an opportunity to complete some of the infrastructure programs that got put on hold for the Native American communities because of the war. So when budgets shifted, one of the key reasons for the lobbying so hard to get the camps in Arizona was we can use reservation land. Because it's already government-controlled, so we don't have to worry about dealing with governors, we don't have to worry about any of that. It's already controlled, overseen by the government. Now there is sovereignty there among the tribes, and the government does have to work with the tribes, but that's another coercive story for another day, but it's seen as kind of this easy solution.

We have Japanese-Americans, they're gonna want to work, they're gonna want to prove their patriotism, they need to do something. We have reservations. We had big plans for the reservations, things like irrigation ditches, schools. Why not bring them together? It seemed almost like such a clear-cut solution. But the problem is, there's a couple of problems in using coerced Japanese-American labor to complete infrastructure for another marginalized coerced group, which is very...

Trying to pull all that out. But also Japanese-Americans, there were interviews conducted with them by the sociologists who went to go study incarceration, and a lot of them had interest in Native American culture as well. They gathered a lot of interviews with Japanese-Americans who've resented being put on reservations and resented being treated like Native Americans. They often said, "I can't believe I'm being treated like an Indian." There's like an internalized anti-Native sentiment there. Japanese-Americans, they don't want to be considered as part of this Native American system. They're resentful of the fact that they have to go... One of the phrases is, they have to go basically work as slaves for the Native Americans. It's very complicated. You have two different government systems kind of like intersecting and overlapping because of the war, and it creates all these very weird opportunities. But both Native American and Japanese-American histories with the Federal Government go back a long way, and so it's kind of like this meeting ground. But yeah, it's a really interesting part of the story, and...

There are a lot of scholars who are starting to do more with the idea of that, at this point, the American government used Japanese-Americans to further colonize the West by having them go out and be the ones to settle the land. And certainly, they sold it to Japanese-Americans that way. "You're pioneers. You're going out and doing the jobs that other people couldn't do." So yeah, pitting two groups against each other. They're already the ideas that Japanese-Americans had about Native Americans. A lot of Native Americans didn't want camps on their land because it was, one, just another form of coercion from the government about they're sovereign but not at the same time. But also, they don't want any more involvement. They don't want anything to do with this; it has nothing to do with them. It's a really complicated story, but an interesting one.

Sankey: Some of your other publications, and I hope that we can figure out how to link them, have been about Japanese-Americans who incarcerated then volunteered to fight. So you have... I know you've mentioned the No-No Boys, and the No-Yes Boys. Could you talk a little bit about that? 

Hinnershitz: Yeah, there were certainly Japanese-Americans, young men, and women. So actually, Nisei women ended up serving as well, being intelligence. They get into that angle, so they serve just like Japanese-American men do. It was a big question. When the military decided that they were going to once again allow Nisei men to be drafted or to enlist in '43. This is something that the Japanese-American community has to grapple with. And it's almost like an unfair burden that's placed among young Nisei men, because everyone's looking at them. Their own communities are looking at them, Americans are looking at them to see, what are they gonna do? It's almost like this moment of truth where they have to decide, are they gonna go fight? Are they going to enlist? Are they going to be okay with being put wherever it is that they may be needed to fight, no questions asked? And there are... Actually, not terribly a lot, [chuckle] but there were certainly Nisei men who 100% go forward and say, "Yeah, I'm gonna do this, because I'm an American, I love this country, I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna go fight."

There were other men, the No-No Boys, who, when they get given questionnaires, which are created by the War Department, and there's two questions that are kind of problematic. One being, do you renounce your loyalty to the Emperor of Japan? And then the other one being, do you agree to serve wherever you might be needed? And so No-No Boys, in an act of protest, would answer no to both of those. So one, of course, how can they denounce their loyalty to the Emperor when they're American citizens? And so, yeah, "Hell no, I'm not gonna go fight wherever you tell me to, because look at where I am." There were members of the 442nd, who... They're not called Yes-Yes Men, but they agreed to do it. And then there's the interesting category of the No-Yes Men, who basically say, "Yeah, I'll renounce... If you think I have any kind of loyalty to the Emperor, I'll renounce that, but I'm not gonna go serve wherever you tell me to go serve, because... " Some said, "I'm not gonna go overseas. That's not my problem. My problem isn't with Japan. My problem is here, with the fact that my family and... We're all imprisoned." And it creates a lot of divides in the Japanese-American community for decades.

The No-No Boys are seen as heroes by some, but in other ways, they are seen as disrespectful, not just to the United States, but to their parents, to their families, or dishonorable. Of course, the 442nd are, rightfully so, held up as the pinnacle. "Look at these young men who willingly are going to do this." And then the No-Yes Men have fallen into obscurity, but it's a really tough thing. It was an ethical, kind of moral decision, where do their loyalties lie? It was hard. A lot of unfair weight placed upon young Nisei men at the time.

Sankey: Also, if we're going back to the high school textbook version of this, the names that American... The history buffs might know the couple of Japanese-Americans who pursued responses to incarceration through the court system. Do you speak to the Korematsu and Endo cases? 

Hinnershitz: The Korematsu case is often referred to as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions of all time. So it's put right up there with the Dred Scott decision; it's seen as really bad, and the reason for that is it's so racial. It's so blatantly racialized, there's really no way of getting around it. So, the Korematsu case involves a man who tried to resist the curfew that was placed along these military zones. And it goes all the way up to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court basically rules that in these conditions, because of the war, curfews are... They're a fact, they have to happen, and Japanese-Americans, because of who our enemy is at the time, there's nothing wrong with this. This is pretty cut and dry. Of course, later on, it is overturned. I think it was 2018, 2019 is when finally, the Supreme Court says this was... "No, this cannot stand."

And then the Endo case was about a young woman, Mitsuye Endo, who... Typically, the case has been interpreted as... Sort of grouped in with Korematsu and Hirabayashi as just a general challenge to incarceration, but hers is a little bit more interesting. That's why I decided to focus on it in the book, is because she really... She wants her job back. So before she was in prisoned, she worked for the State of California, she worked in the equivalent of the DMV, she was a clerk. Good paying job, especially for a young woman. She was very happy with her job, of course. Once she's in prison, she loses her job, and the State of California basically says, "All Nisei who work for us, you're fired, because you're disloyal, so we can't have disloyal people working for us. That's it." And so that's what... When she's recruited by ACLU lawyers who are looking to challenge incarceration, she eventually agrees to do this along with others because they have lost their jobs. Of course, they don't like being incarcerated, but they want their jobs back, but they can't get their jobs back because they're excluded from the West Coast. So they're not allowed to even think about going back there.

So I kind of use the Endo case as a part of the labor story. Of course, it's a protest against incarceration, but she also wants her job? She wants to be able to make money; it's a really good job at the time. And this is something that she sees and others have seen as sort of her right. Her case is often grouped in with the others, but I think it's important to, again, think about what she actually wanted. And she was very interesting, because she kept to herself for most of her life. She actually didn't talk about the fact that she was "Oh, that Endo?" She didn't see herself as this great civil rights activist. She didn't want a lot of attention drawn to herself. She certainly didn't identify as some kind of hero, which I think is also really important... Ask her... As people did, "What do you want? What were you fighting for?" And she would have said, "My job. I want my job." [chuckle]

Sankey: As the war started to wind down, the government gets the sense, in late '44, early '45, that the camps will eventually need to be dissolved. That the incarcerated people will leave, but they also seem to have the sense that they've created a lot of problems for how to reintegrate people. Will they get their jobs back? What will that look like? What sort of property restitution might there be? What sort of official correspondence is there about "Oh no, what do we do now?" 

Hinnershitz: This is a great example of just how completely jacked up the whole incarceration project was. It was, apart from being unconstitutional and a terrible violation of rights, it was a bureaucratic nightmare. It was a mess nearly from day one. Every worst aspect about a government project was wrapped up in incarceration, and then threw the military in there, and it was just... It was horrible. And so, it starts to become very clear, to even a lot of Americans, that... What is all this money going for? Because they're hearing about strikes, they're hearing about riots, they're hearing about... They are hearing stories about little kids who have to celebrate Christmas behind barbed wire. Again, the propaganda is working because they're seeing images of hard-working Japanese-Americans. These are patriotic people, like "Can we start to maybe let 'em out?" There's a huge turn against the WRA, and about... It begins in 1943, where there's a backlash, especially when Americans start hearing that the military needs to be called in to put down strikes and riots, and they're saying, "Why are we even... Why even have the WRA? It's bloated government bureaucracy. Just have the military take it over." Which, of course, no one wants, because then, it looks like they're prisoners of war. 

So the budget is gonna get cut. The WRA is gonna have its budget cut, which is the first uh-oh that the administrator would see. Then they start to say, "Okay, how can we spin this?" And so they start to think about morale, and they start to make the argument that this is not good, especially for the young Japanese-Americans. We keep this up, they're gonna become so cynical and prone to crime, and when we let 'em out, they're not gonna want to work, so we gotta start pushing them out." And of course, publicly, it's sold as a resettlement program. "We're gonna resettle Japanese-Americans away from the West Coast," because, at first, they can't even go back there. The military order still stands, "But we want to help Japanese-Americans to move further east to break out of those ethnic enclaves and kind of fully Americanize." Meanwhile, internally, if you look at some of the communications, it has a lot to do with money.

The WRA, after its budget is cut, is trying to do what it was doing almost on like a shoestring budget. And then once they start resettling all the able-bodied Japanese-Americans who can go work they're being used for the war effort. In that sense, what they're left with are really elderly Issei, or first generation Japanese-Americans who are elderly. They can't grow the food that the younger Japanese-Americans were growing. People who are sick and just physically can't do that kind of hard labor. So the camp... All of the camps start to kind of... They really go downhill. In fact, the sociologists themselves refer to the period after... Between 1943 and 1944 as starving times, because there's just... There's not as much food to go around as there was before, when you had all the Japanese-Americans there to kind of make sure that everything was self-sufficient. There's a lot of scrambling. A lot of the WRA administrators, they like being government bureaucrats.

They don't want to lose their government jobs. They start to see which way the wind is blowing, and the WRA is becoming very unpopular. So they're trying to get out. You have... Just trying to juggle with the budget, you start to have infighting. The army and the war department and the WRA never really got along very well to begin with. There was a lot of miscommunication, a lot of mission creep, not understanding who was responsible for what, having different goals...

That becomes really bad as early as 1943, when the WRA wants to start pushing Japanese-Americans out and putting them into war work. The War Department and the army is horrified at how just kind of loosey-goosey the WRA is being with letting anyone and everyone go. And so they're saying, "We need to slow this down a little bit, or you're gonna start putting people who are potentially subversive in these positions where they're working for wartime industries." So that's another factor that will lead to the downfall of the WRA. A lot of conflict with the military. So yeah, late '43, '44, and certainly into '45, the whole incarceration thing is proving to just have been one big mistake. I liked your point earlier about, at the time, there were plenty of people who were saying, "This is wrong. We shouldn't be doing this."

There were plenty of people before... Well before the war is over, who were looking around and saying, "This whole thing is pointless." And especially if you're, as early as 1942, allowing Japanese-Americans, who were just removed from the West Coast, to go back to the West Coast to work for... Very, very bizarre. And so the whole thing starts to be exposed as just another weird New Deal [chuckle] kind of government project that costs a lot of money, doesn't seem to be doing any good, interfering with the military being able to do its job. It starts to become very unpopular, and the administrators have to start dealing with that.

Sankey: In 1946, the Truman administration has some plans for redress, but they're really limited. It's the Evacuations Claim Act, and it's very hard for people to document what they lost, even in terms of tangible property, and then there's nothing. So, what do activists do in those long decades of the government not paying attention to this to try to address lost opportunity, lost education, the years that are missing from their lives? 

Hinnershitz: One explanation that has to be dealt with by activists who do want to see something done about this is just having the people who survived incarceration tell their stories. So that's a big piece of the puzzle, and for... Understandably, for decades after incarceration, the people who can remember it, so the teenagers, the adults, they don't necessarily want to talk about it for a variety of reasons. Any traumatized group of people not wanting to talk about that experience, whether it's just too raw, whether there's a sense of... We've moved past that, we're Americans now, we don't need to go back to that. It's just there weren't a lot of recorded experiences.

By the late 60s, you're seeing a growing Asian-American rights movement. And so a lot of younger activists start to look back and say, "We don't know anything about the experiences of what this was like. Our family members don't necessarily want to talk about it. The only things we do have are government accounts and propaganda." So this is part of this movement, this social history movement, to get at the stories that weren't often talked about, so a lot of oral histories. There's a lotta colleges on the West Coast that started to create oral history programs to start interviewing the former incarcerees who felt like they could talk about their experiences. And what they find is, it's nothing, really, like the propaganda. It's the property losses, the lost wages, which is never fully addressed. It's based largely on property losses.

It's the physical harm that's done. There's a lot of records of this, because when it goes before Congress, you have activists giving their full testimony. When Congress is investigating this, and there's a lot of heartbreaking stories of something as simple as, the elderly had to eat really starchy food, and they had diabetes, or they had health conditions; they had not eaten hot dogs. That was something that they weren't exposed to, and it makes them ill. They get sick, their health deteriorates. Unfortunately, some die. Not just some, many die in the camps. It's a lot of work of young historians trying to get the evidence that they can to put a human face on this. When all we had before was what the government said, records weren't easily accessible, if we're talking about the '60s and the '70s, in those decades between '46. And then '86 -'87 when restitution is paid to the survivors. It's just the matter of getting the evidence, getting the evidence together to take it before some kind of government body to try and get some kind of recognition for this. And that really is... That really is what it's about.

It's always interesting, trying to put a monetary price on something, and the government does. So the government tries to take property losses and kind of average that out. So $20,000 ends up being the amount. And on one hand, there are a lot of people I know who say, "Well, that's a lot of money. I didn't get that." Or what about other groups who didn't get that? And it's not so much a matter of the government necessarily deciding that this is a particularly wrong case. It's because it was so bureaucratic. It was such a bureaucratic process that they can go back and try, and they can calculate things on property losses. They can... It's incredibly bureaucratic, that's one of the reasons why. So there's also this idea that Japanese-Americans are the model minority that develops in the '60s, in the '70s. If they're able to overcome incarceration, any minority group can overcome anything. And so there's this kind of push to reward Japanese-Americans for bouncing back so well from it. There's a lot of contextual reasons for why... It'll be Reagan who will sign off on this, but it had been growing for a while.

Sankey: Your last chapter suggests some and highlights some innovative attempts to highlight the contributions of incarcerated people. I found it really striking that some of the improvements they made to the landscape end up being credited to "Look, the government has made this nice postwar suburb for you." And Japanese-Americans who had done the shovel work are left out. And so the things that you focus on in those last chapters that aren't the repayment but are the kind of reweaving of the people back into the places where they were, is really fascinating.

Hinnershitz: Yeah, I think it's always tricky when you get into money. The argument from the government for not taking into consideration things like lost wages is two-fold. So on one hand, there are scholars who have crunched the numbers and have suggested that in some instances, because of incarceration Japanese-Americans may have come out having more earning power than when they came in, so that's something to grapple with. How do you reconcile that? The other argument given by the government is that it would be far too difficult try and calculate lost wages. I don't buy that. I think it actually wouldn't be that hard, considering that we know how much Japanese-Americans were paid, we know what the average salary was, but we're not really ever gonna get anywhere with that. We're not gonna somehow go back and recalculate the wages, so I think one of the better things that we, as a country, can do is take some government funding through the NEH or another program and create a grant program that would be just for this topic. If we want to look at labor, like different ways to highlight exactly just how widespread incarceration was, I don't...

I think... Like you mentioned, incarceration is becoming more of a common topic. I think today's kids are learning more about it than I certainly did. But I don't know how many Americans know that there were camps in Arkansas, and why they would have been there, and what kind of improvements were made, and looking at all of these different... The massive irrigation systems that made it possible to settle certain areas of the West. I don't think they're well-known, and so I think there needs to be some kind of, I don't know, program recognition of this, whether it's signs or museums or exhibits or something. I think helping people know that incarceration had a very lasting impact, and that... How central it was to not just the war, not just World War II history, not... Certainly not just Asian-American history, but to American history in general, I think, would be, for me, as a historian, a really useful way to go about it.

Sankey: The past is never really just the past either. Sometimes, students are interested in past incarceration because of a contemporary awareness of the degree to which, say, California relies on incarcerated fire crews for a really vital public service, and the extent to which... How those folks are paid, and the degree to which there's a coercive element to putting them in danger. This is not at all a settled ethical or legal concept.

Hinnershitz: Right, no, it's not, and it's... I think what I tried to do... I tried to do lot of things with my book. But one of the things I tried to do is also think about prison labor in a more nuanced way, and to think of it as not just one thing that comes to mind. I know, when I first started to work on this project, I had a colleague who will remain nameless who insisted that I stop referring to this as prison labor. They said, "Well, they don't have to wear uniforms. They're not in chain gangs," and it's like, "Well, that's not what this looks like all the time, anyway. It's... " So I think, putting this on a spectrum and thinking about how prison labor works in ways that we might not think it does, or might not be able to see it...

One of the other things that... I don't know if people know how common it is, there's contracts with, in certain states, with certain public entities. If they purchase furniture, the furniture has to be purchased from prison labor. It has to be purchased by prisoners who made it, the private companies who contracted with them... That happens... That was happening during Japanese-American incarceration. So I think it's not just this gut reaction, like "Well, we can't call incarceration incarceration, or the labor the Japanese did prison labor, because it doesn't look like X, Y, Z." Well, it's not always gonna look like X, Y, Z anyway, and I think there's a lot of parallels. Not saying that there's... The experiences of a young Nisei woman working as a secretary in the Manzanar Camp is exactly the same as a prison laborer today who has to go fight fires, but they're on that same... There are parallels. They're on that same exploitative... Whatever continuum that you... Whatever word to use that I think needs to be explored, and I think it would really open things up and open different ways to talk about coerced labor in general.

Sankey: It was a privilege to get a preview of your book. This has been a great discussion, and I want to thank you for your time and expertise. Is there anything that I forgot to ask? 

Hinnershitz: I don't think so. I think we covered... I think we covered a lot of ground.

USAF Comments Policy
If you wish to comment, use the text box below. AF reserves the right to modify this policy at any time.

This is a moderated forum. That means all comments will be reviewed before posting. In addition, we expect that participants will treat each other, as well as our agency and our employees, with respect. We will not post comments that contain abusive or vulgar language, spam, hate speech, personal attacks, violate EEO policy, are offensive to other or similar content. We will not post comments that are spam, are clearly "off topic", promote services or products, infringe copyright protected material, or contain any links that don't contribute to the discussion. Comments that make unsupported accusations will also not be posted. The AF and the AF alone will make a determination as to which comments will be posted. Any references to commercial entities, products, services, or other non-governmental organizations or individuals that remain on the site are provided solely for the information of individuals using this page. These references are not intended to reflect the opinion of the AF, DoD, the United States, or its officers or employees concerning the significance, priority, or importance to be given the referenced entity, product, service, or organization. Such references are not an official or personal endorsement of any product, person, or service, and may not be quoted or reproduced for the purpose of stating or implying AF endorsement or approval of any product, person, or service.

Any comments that report criminal activity including: suicidal behaviour or sexual assault will be reported to appropriate authorities including OSI. This forum is not:

  • This forum is not to be used to report criminal activity. If you have information for law enforcement, please contact OSI or your local police agency.
  • Do not submit unsolicited proposals, or other business ideas or inquiries to this forum. This site is not to be used for contracting or commercial business.
  • This forum may not be used for the submission of any claim, demand, informal or formal complaint, or any other form of legal and/or administrative notice or process, or for the exhaustion of any legal and/or administrative remedy.

AF does not guarantee or warrant that any information posted by individuals on this forum is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. AF may not be able to verify, does not warrant or guarantee, and assumes no liability for anything posted on this website by any other person. AF does not endorse, support or otherwise promote any private or commercial entity or the information, products or services contained on those websites that may be reached through links on our website.

Members of the media are asked to send questions to the public affairs through their normal channels and to refrain from submitting questions here as comments. Reporter questions will not be posted. We recognize that the Web is a 24/7 medium, and your comments are welcome at any time. However, given the need to manage federal resources, moderating and posting of comments will occur during regular business hours Monday through Friday. Comments submitted after hours or on weekends will be read and posted as early as possible; in most cases, this means the next business day.

For the benefit of robust discussion, we ask that comments remain "on-topic." This means that comments will be posted only as it relates to the topic that is being discussed within the blog post. The views expressed on the site by non-federal commentators do not necessarily reflect the official views of the AF or the Federal Government.

To protect your own privacy and the privacy of others, please do not include personally identifiable information, such as name, Social Security number, DoD ID number, OSI Case number, phone numbers or email addresses in the body of your comment. If you do voluntarily include personally identifiable information in your comment, such as your name, that comment may or may not be posted on the page. If your comment is posted, your name will not be redacted or removed. In no circumstances will comments be posted that contain Social Security numbers, DoD ID numbers, OSI case numbers, addresses, email address or phone numbers. The default for the posting of comments is "anonymous", but if you opt not to, any information, including your login name, may be displayed on our site.

Thank you for taking the time to read this comment policy. We encourage your participation in our discussion and look forward to an active exchange of ideas.

Wild Blue Yonder Home