Incarceration: New Book Depicts Japanese-American Internment


Even 82 years after the fact, the forced incarceration into concentration camps of American citizens of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast during World War II remains a bewildering shock. Over time, the imprisonment of American citizens and resident aliens without due process, and based solely on their racial origin, has come to be viewed as a gross violation of American principles. 

But not until the publication of this extraordinarily moving and informative volume, The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration, have we had the opportunity to really understand how devastating and confusing the forced internment of these Americans was to the Americans themselves. The book, edited by Frank Abe and Floyd Cheung, is a fascinating collage of writings by the incarcerated, arranged in chronological order and interspersed with official federal documents of the time, along with informative essays by the editors. 

Abe and Cheung are careful to explain the historical context preceding the incarceration. Those forced into the camps were of two types: The Issei generation, who were born in Japan,  emigrated here and were made subject to oppressive laws that denied them ever gaining citizenship or owning property; and the successive generation—the Nisei—who were American-born and thus had all the rights (theoretically, at any rate) of American citizens.

When the decree came out that all residents of Japanese origin were to be shipped off to the camps, the Issei and Nisei were treated the same. As Nisei James Omura testified at the time, “Are we to be condemned merely on the basis of our racial origin? Is citizenship such a light and transient thing that that which is our inalienable right in normal times can be torn from us in times of war?”

When San Francisco’s Mike Masaoka of the Japanese American Citizens League heard of the imminent removal of 115,000 Japanese Americans to concentration camps, “I heard all this in utter disbelief. I cannot remember ever feeling so desperately let down…. On top of it all, the Nisei were being lumped together with enemy aliens. We had been prepared for drastic restrictions on the freedom of the Issei generation. But we had remained confident in the sanctity of our rights as citizens.”

This book goes far beyond discussions of political policies and rights. There is poetry, haiku, fiction, and nonfiction reminiscences by the imprisoned that highlight the shock and dislocation experienced by people in human, often oddly mundane, terms. When UCBBerkeley student Charles Kikuchi, for example, was scrambling to get his affairs in order before shipping out, he “went over to the bank to close my account and the bank teller whom I have never seen before solemnly shook my hand and he said, ‘Goodbye, have a nice time.’ I wonder if that isn’t the attitude of the American people? They don’t seem to be bitter against us.”

Particularly moving is a plea for mercy written to Eleanor Roosevelt by Seattleite Nao Akutsu, asking the First Lady’s intercession in securing the release of her husband from a camp for Japanese Americans deemed particularly hostile to America. “[A]n old acquaintance of my husband had reported (to the authorities) that my husband was strongly pro-Japanese,” she writes.

He was summarily arrested after this Soviet-style anonymous denunciation and sent off to a camp in Montana. “In line with the principle of not breaking the home, I appeal to you to send him back, after examining the events of the past year. The father is necessary for the education of the children. I appeal to you to send back the father of these American citizens and my honest husband as soon as possible. If you do this, I shall not trouble you again. I beg this of you.”

Depictions of life in the camps by the imprisoned are fascinating. Not only were the camps grim, comfortless places; they also were rife with internecine tension. There was a great deal of disunity, political disagreement, and personal animosity in the camp communities that sometimes broke out into physical altercation and rioting. Perspectives on their experience range from outrage that drove some to renounce their citizenship and ask to be repatriated to Japan; to depression and despair; to eagerness to volunteer for the U.S. Army to prove their patriotism; to resistance to the draft when it was instituted in the camps. 

Among the more paradoxical episodes in this dismal history was the reaction of the Japanese American Citizens League to the federal government’s drafting of military-age men out of the camps when the volunteer rate proved disappointing. The JACL embraced the draft as a welcome development, as it conferred a “right” (albeit a dubious one) on the draftees…proof, after all, that Japanese Americans could be regarded as citizens.

For Frank Abe, this book is the result of a near-lifelong effort. He first started exploring Asian American writing when he was living in the Bay Area in the 1970s. He and the writer Frank Chin (both of whom would eventually move to Seattle) began researching and collecting material back when Asian American writing was effectively invisible. 

“I’ve been lugging these books around for 40 years, gathering other documents, poems, stories,” Abe said when I spoke with him recently. “A lot of the stuff was stuff that researchers sent to Frank Chin, who sent it on to me. Originally, I had no goal except to collect things; this anthology provided an opportunity to provide a slot of this stuff.”

Once in Seattle, Abe and Chin became part of a group of Asian American activists and writers who began gathering in David Ishii’s legendary Pioneer Square bookstore back in the late 1970s. “A lot of this is from hanging out in David’s bookstore. He was an influence on me to value the creative writing and literature of Japanese America.” Out of that epicenter came the country’s first “Day of Remembrance” in 1978, which that year took the form of a car caravan to the Puyallup Fairgrounds, where the first forced internees were taken at the beginning of the mass incarceration. 

Expecting a “kids-these-days” reply, I asked Abe how well-informed younger Japanese Americans are about this history, and got a surprising answer. “There is much stronger, more interest than when I was their age,” he said. “My generation had to recover the story of camp, writing it and publishing it so that successive generations can read it and appreciate it. “In the sixties and early seventies, there was no popular book about the incarceration you could lay your hands on that dealt candidly about it.””

Now there is – and it is a highly readable one at that, and only $20. 

Fred Moody
Fred Moody
Fred Moody, who wrote articles for Seattle Weekly and other publications as well as books, now lives on Bainbridge Island.


  1. I was in the 4th grade the year after the interned families returned from the camps. One of my classmates was a lovely Nisei girl, Vicki Tomasada(sp).
    Nobody spoke about the camps but her father had been lucky enough to recover the Antelope Valley California cantaloupe fields that had been in his family prior to the war. One Spring day he came to our school and treated the entire class to half a cantaloupe filled with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I have never forgotten that gesture of grateful forgiveness.

  2. Thanks, Fred. I look forward to reading this. It sounds like the stories of hardship and injustice told in “Facing the Mountain,” by Daniel James Brown. I can also recommend a visit to the Japanese Exclusion Memorial on Bainbridge Island, especially with a private tour by its founder Clarence Moriwaki who offers these at fundraisers. The injustices suffered by the island’s Japanese community were as disturbing as elsewhere on the West Coast but with the somewhat uplifting efforts by some neighbors of the incarcerated Japanese who protected their property for them until they were released after the war. The memorial is an easy visit for Seattleites from the Bainbridge ferry.


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