Witness for the Persecution

8 books that testify to one of America’s darkest chapters

Witness for the Persecution

President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously proclaimed December 7, 1941, a date that will live in infamy. He was conspicuously silent about another date that also deserves to live in infamy: February 19, 1942.

On that day, FDR issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal of all enemy aliens from areas of national security, making people of German, Italian, and Japanese descent eligible for “evacuation.” But it was only the Japanese who were ultimately rounded up to live for years behind barbed wire in harsh and isolated locations.

Like our Muslim population today with their head coverings, beards, and easily identifiable places of worship, the Nikkei — Japanese immigrants and their descendants — were open targets due to their distinctive facial features and black hair. In order to shield themselves from the rising racial hysteria, some cautious Chinese Americans wore buttons and signs that identified them as Chinese. Popular publications published handy guides on how to tell a Jap from a Chinese. Even Dr. Seuss got in on the race-baiting.

Hate does not happen in a vacuum. It is actively promoted by those who benefit from sowing division. Because the Japanese had such success in producing crops, many white farmers resented them. Politicians and business interests played to those ugly sentiments. Organizations such as the Native Sons of the Golden West (whose members included California’s attorney general, Earl Warren) and newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle and William Randolph Hearst’s publications whipped up fears of the “Yellow Peril.”

Patriotic Americans posted hateful signs outside their homes and businesses. When their Japanese neighbors were forced into internment camps, Caucasians swarmed to buy their goods at giveaway prices.

And yet, on this 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, many young Americans do not know of this shameful chapter of our history. Some newly ascended to power are even suggesting that Executive Order 9066 serves as a handy legal precedent for the establishment of a Muslim registry.

Human memory is short. We tend not to truly comprehend something unless we have experienced it ourselves. This is why we have books, which allow the individual to actually live what is written on the page.

For those who regard the Japanese internment camps with admiration and Executive Order 9066 as a blueprint to the unconstitutional infringement of the rights of American citizens, I have compiled a list of books that detail the heavy price an entire segment of American society (120,000 were incarcerated, almost two-third of whom were American citizens — none were ever convicted of aiding the enemy) had to pay in order for others to feel better about themselves.

There were 10 internment camps. Each camp presented its own unique miseries while providing similar stories of heartbreak, humiliation, tragedy, courage, and resistance.

  • Gila River: While incarcerated in Arizona, Kenichi Zenimura, who was instrumental in organizing the Japanese American Nisei Leagues, established a 32-team baseball league for the internees. His story is told in Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American Baseball Pioneer by Bill Staples Jr.

  • Heart Mountain: Loading his 35-millimeter Zeiss Contax camera with the latest technology in film, Bill Manbo photographed life at this isolated Wyoming camp. The jewel-toned photos in Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II beautifully capture honest moments of quotidian community life in living color.

  • Jerome and Rohwer: Delphine Hirasuna’s parents were first interned at Jerome, in southeastern Arkansas; when her father joined the U.S. Army, her mother moved to Rohwer, also in Arkansas. After her mother died, Hirasuna found among her possessions a lacquered wooden bird pin, which led her to seek out other examples of internment-camp art. The result was an art exhibition and its accompanying catalogue, The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-46.

  • Manzanar: Farewell to Manzanar is a staple of middle- and high-school curricula for a reason. In simple yet effective prose, authors Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston relate Jeanne’s story of internment in the California desert.

  • Minidoka: The painter Roger Shimomura was interned in this Idaho camp, an experience that helped shape his unique vision. Minidoka Revisited: The Paintings of Roger Shimomura presents a collection of Shimomura’s distinctive paintings, reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints, depicting life in a concentration camp and the harmful stereotypes of the Japanese that permeate our culture.

  • Poston: Kiyo’s Story: A Japanese-American Family’s Quest for the American Dream by Kiyo Sato details the misery of life in this Arizona camp which was nicknamed Roast ‘em, Toast ‘em, and Dust ‘em due to the extreme summertime temperatures and constant dust storms.

  • Topaz: The artist Miné Okubo’s graphic novel Citizen 13660 poignantly captures the indignities and hardships of living cheek to jowl in hastily constructed barracks in the arid Sevier Desert of Utah.

  • Tule Lake: In 1943, the government administered an ill-conceived loyalty questionnaire to the internees. Questions 27 and 28 asked for willingness to serve combat duty in the U.S. armed forces and to declare loyalty to America while renouncing allegiance to the Japanese emperor. Those who answered “no” to those two questions were called “No-no boys” and segregated in Tule Lake in an incarceration center inside the camp. The story of one of those Americans is told in the novel No-No Boy by John Okada.

To mark the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, the National Museum of American History is featuring a year-long exhibit, “Righting a Wrong: Japanese-Americans and World War II,” in the Documents Gallery.

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