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Intern(ment) Scandal

A PC “Day of Remembrance” forgets key facts.

A year ago, Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.), introduced House Resolution 56, which would make February 19 a National Day of Remembrance for those Japanese who were “interned” during World War II. It was on February 19, 1942, that President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, requiring the evacuation of Japanese aliens and American-born Japanese along with German and Italian aliens from the Pacific Coast. After a year in the House Committee on the Judiciary, the resolution has now been placed on the House calendar.

Honda’s resolution contains a series of misrepresentations that have passed for fact for so many years that they are now generally accepted without question. Moreover, the resolution posits President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment and its report, “Personal Justice Denied,” as the final authority on the subject. After “20 days of hearings” and “over 750 witnesses,” the commission concluded that E.O. 9066 was not justified by military necessity but was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” That conclusion, however, is contrary to the facts as revealed by MAGIC, the decryptions of coded Japanese transmissions. The commission ignored MAGIC entirely in its original report, as it did witnesses who were available to proffer information supporting Roosevelt’s order. The few witnesses who attempted to testify in support of E.O. 9066 were drowned out by an unruly mob of spectators.

John J. McCloy, the Assistant Secretary of War in 1942, who monitored the evacuation and relocation, said the proceedings were “a horrendous affront to our tradition for fair and objective hearings …. Whenever I sought in the slightest degree to justify the action … ordered by President Roosevelt, my testimony was met with hisses and boos such as I have never, over an experience extending back to World War I, been heretofore subjected to. Others had similar experiences … it became clear from the outset of my testimony that the Commission was not at all disposed to conduct an objective investigation.” The officer in charge of the evacuation, Karl R. Bendesten, was subjected to similar treatment and simply stopped in the middle of his testimony. “I knew it would be fruitless,” said Bendesten. “Every commissioner had made up his mind before he was appointed.”

Although the DOD released the ultra-secret MAGIC files in 1977, the commission, with its huge staff and millions of taxpayers’ dollars, was either ignorant of the files or chose to ignore them. What MAGIC reveals is stunning: hundreds of resident Japanese were acting as spies, feeding information to Japan. If the U.S. had arrested the individual spies, it would have revealed to Japan that her codes had been broken. Faced with a similar dilemma, Prime Minister Winston Churchill allowed Coventry to be bombed without warning.In 1942, some 112,000 Japanese were living on the Pacific Coast. About 40 percent were resident aliens and the remainder, by virtue of U.S. birth, were American citizens. The citizens, however, were mostly children, and when the U.S. declared war on Japan, their parents became enemy aliens. Moreover the Japanese emperor claimed all Japanese, wherever born, as subjects. They were referred to as doho, meaning countrymen. Japanese residents in the U.S. sent their children to “Japanese school” on Saturdays. A teacher in one of the schools told his American-born students, “You must remember that only a trick of fate has brought you so far from your homeland, but there must be no question of your loyalty. When Japan calls, you must know that it is Japanese blood that flows in your veins.”

Resident Japanese also sent their children to Japan for schooling. By 1940, more than 20,000 American-born Japanese had been educated in Japan. Known as kibei, they were fluent in Japanese, steeped in Japanese history and culture, and supporters of Japanese expansion in the Far East. They could hardly be distinguished from young militarists in Japan. Lt. Cmdr. K.D. Ringle of the Office of Naval Intelligence had been investigating the kibei for several months when the Japanese perpetrated their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. In January 1942, he submitted a report saying:

[T]he most potentially dangerous element of all are those American citizens of Japanese ancestry who have spent the formative years of their lives, from 10 to 20, in Japan and have returned to the United States to claim their legal American citizenship within the last few years. Those people are essentially and inherently Japanese and may have been deliberately sent back to the United States by the Japanese government to act as agents.

An example of war hysteria? Hardly. Kibei formed the Sokoku Kenkyu Seinen Dan (Young Men’s Association for the Study of the Mother Country) and the Sokuji Kikoku Hoshi Dan (Organization to Return Immediately to the Homeland to Serve) and called for all American-born Japanese to renounce their U.S. citizenship. Nearly 6,000 did. They became known as “renunciants” and were interned at Tule Lake Segregation Center in northeastern California. In camp they greeted the rising sun, cried “banzai,” blew bugles, drilled, celebrated on Pearl Harbor Day, rioted, and demanded expatriation to Japan.

Thousands of other American-born Japanese served in the armed forces of Japan. Several of them became infamous for their interrogations and tortures of American prisoners. The most notorious was California-born Tom Kawakita, known as “Efficiency Expert” for his diabolical methods of torture. When American bombers began hitting Japan and the prisoners suspected the war’s end was near, Kawakita told them, “We will kill all you prisoners right here …. I will go back to the States because I am an American citizen.”

Throughout 1941, the U.S. frequently intercepted reports of resident aliens and Japanese Americans providing information to Japanese agents. In a decrypted message on May 9, for example, a Japanese agent in Los Angeles reports, “We have already established contact with absolutely reliable Japanese in the San Pedro and San Diego area, who will keep a close watch on all shipments of airplanes and other war materials …. We shall maintain connection with our second generations who are at present in the [U.S.] Army, to keep us informed of various developments in the Army. We also have connections with our second generations working in airplane plants for intelligence purposes.”

In a decrypt on May 11, a Japanese agent in Seattle mentions intelligence concerning “the concentration of warships within the Bremerton Naval Yard, information with regard to mercantile shipping and airplane manufacture, movements of military forces …” The agent also said, “We have made arrangements to collect intelligences from second generation Japanese draftees on matters dealing with troops, as well as troop speech and behavior.” A “first generation Japanese,” who was a union committee chairman, is identified as providing a report on the labor movement. “[F]or the collection of intelligences with regard to anti-participation organizations and the anti-Jewish movement, we are making use of a second generation Japanese lawyer.” And so it goes for hundreds of pages.

When a Japanese spy was arrested, it was only under circumstances that would not compromise MAGIC. Richard Kotoshirodo, a Japanese-American working with a Japanese agent in Hawaii, was arrested shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The agent’s telephone had been tapped months before, making it clear that Kotoshirodo was supplying the agent with intelligence concerning the U.S. Navy. Through coded transmissions to an offshore ship, Kotoshirodo’s intelligence was relayed to Japan. Since a trial would have revealed that the U.S. had not only intercepted the signals but had decrypted them, Kotoshirodo was simply transported to Topaz relocation center in Utah.

Honda’s resolution follows the Carter commission in ignoring the critical revelations of MAGIC and mistakenly conflates “internment” and “relocation.” The great majority of Japanese were not interned but required only to relocate outside of the Western Defense Zone, an area that included California, the western halves of Oregon and Washington, and a small portion of Arizona. Those who were not able to move were eventually taken to relocation centers, built with the same materials and on similar patterns as Army bases.

Japanese could leave a relocation center if they could reestablish themselves outside of the Defense Zone, and some 35,000 did so. Those who relocated on their own by the end of March 1942 did not go to the centers. More than 4,300 Japanese left to go to college at government expense and thousands left to work on farms. Meanwhile, in the relocation centers the death rate was lower and the birth rate higher than that of the general American population. So, too, was the graduation rate from high school. At the time, the Japanese-American Citizens’ League (JACL) praised the government for providing the relocation centers. Dillon Myer, the director of the War Relocation Authority, said, “Nothing was done regarding the relocation centers without the approval of the JACL.”

If I were a loyal American of Japanese descent, I would not have been pleased with the evacuation order. Nor would I have been thrilled with having to uproot myself from my home on the Pacific Coast. However, as an emergency wartime sacrifice, it is hardly the greatest. Just ask those Marines who regard February 19 as their Day of Remembrance. On that date in 1945 they stormed ashore on Iwo Jima, where more than 6,000 of them died. That’s a sacrifice to remember—and honor.


Roger D. McGrath is an historian in California



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