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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The New Sinophobia and the Japanese American Incarceration

“It may be tempting, in such circumstances, to believe that being good—the quintessential model minority—and patriotic towards America will spare us from the worst. But neither amounts to a foolproof shield against racism.”

Anti-Chinese sentiments in the United States are on the rise. While the Republican Senator Cotton has called for barring Chinese college students from studying STEM on American campuses, ads for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have accused President Donald Trump of  “rolling over for the Chinese,” and associated the rise of Covid-19 with Trump letting in “40,000 travelers from China.” Not to be outdone, Trump has on multiple recent occasions referred to Covid-19 as the ‘Chinese Coronavirus’ and ‘Kung Flu.’ Inflaming the power of this talk is a growing consensus among Americans that China and the Chinese Communist Party has become the greatest geopolitical rival to the U.S. since the Soviet Union. Whether this animosity towards the East precedes recent attempts to tie the pandemic to China is irrelevant. More crucial is the mutually reinforcing relationship between racist rhetoric and policymaking in the government, and racist acts and rhetoric on the streets.

Hate crimes against Asian Americans are rising steadily. Between March and August 2020, the Stop AAPI Hate Report recorded more than 2,500 incidents of racism against people of Asian ancestry. The attacks vary from verbal to physical. To be included in the report, the incident must fall under one of four categories: racial slurs, racist characterizations, scapegoating of China, or virulent animosity. Respondents have alleged being called names, spat upon, physically assaulted, and discriminated against, among other attacks. A recurring theme of these racist abuses has been the pandemic, and blaming East and Southeast Asians for it. Never mind that most Chinese people in America are not members of the Chinese government, who may have indeed mishandled the pandemic early on. What matters to perpetrators of racist violence isn’t the external enemy so much as the enemy within, permanently an outsider, a trope with deep roots in American history and one which has fueled wars and justified countless acts of violence against minorities. Many of us Asian Americans can easily recall experiences where other Americans presumed that either we, or our parents, were foreigners—no matter how long our families have lived in the United States. As General John DeWitt, the commanding officer of the Western Defense Command, famously summed up in 1941: “a Jap is a Jap.” And although few figures in contemporary media or politics have been brazen enough to deride Chinese Americans so publicly and directly, an ideology that paints Asians as both innately subversive and threatening is still being propagated.

It may be tempting, in such circumstances, to believe that being good—the quintessential model minority—and patriotic towards America will spare us from the worst. But neither amounts to a foolproof shield against racism. Such attitudes all too often ignore that the Asian diaspora in the United States is on much more fragile footing than it may care to admit. Acceptance here is neither a durable nor a linear affair. On the contrary, it’s common for  a minority to be tolerated and recognized as equal members of society one day, and perceived as security risks the next. For a clear example of how rapidly the tides can turn against the enemy from within, we again have to look no further than the experience of Japanese immigrants and descendants in this country. As then California Attorney General and future Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren told Congress in 1942: “Undoubtedly, the presence of many [Japanese people] in their present locations is mere coincidence, but it would seem equally beyond doubt that the presence of others is not a coincidence.” This same paranoia about infiltration would lead to the mass incarceration of thousands between 1942 and 1945.
I use the word ‘incarceration’ deliberately. The persistent use of ‘internment’ is an unhelpful and absolving euphemism for the illegal imprisonment of more than 120,000 men, women, and children. It mirrors the American people’s clouded collective memory towards its government, as if the construction of these prisons—not camps—was a tragic anomaly born from a misunderstanding, rather than a deliberate assault on an entire population’s rights. Muddling this reality has served to rehabilitate the perpetrators while aiding those intent on redeploying fearmongering and racism for their own gain. In a frightening echo, the bipartisan political consensus has hyperfocused over the past few years on Chinese sabotage and spying, extending its suspicions and searching for scandal in the fields of military technology, industry secrets, and academia. This week, Newsweek spewed the notion that there are ‘600 community groups with links to the Chinese Communist Party,’ citing only entities funded by the U.S. State Department.  In August, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to rally the European Union against China during a trip to Czechia, where he proclaimed that “[t]he CCP is already enmeshed in our economies, in our politics, in our societies in ways the Soviet Union never was.” Referencing the Chinese Communist Party, rather than “Chinese people” more generally is one effective way to dodge accusations of racial bias. But the point is clear as day: The enemy is already within our ranks and its face is yellow.

As we near the 75th anniversary of the end of the Japanese incarceration, it would be prudent to look back on this dark chapter of American history for lessons. Chief among them is the fact that citizenship is not a shield against discrimination. Two decades before the incarceration, in the 1922 case of Ozawa v. United States, the Supreme Court decided that naturalization was reserved for ‘free white person[s]’ at the exclusion of the entire population of Issei, first-generation immigrants from Japan. The ruling left the Issei completely vulnerable. But their U.S.-born children, the Nisei, hoped to be safer by virtue of their citizenship. This, too, proved naive. In the months after Pearl Harbor, the FBI rounded up and detained prominent Issei community leaders. The arrests were sensationalized by the American press, which then generated panicked calls for even broader incarceration.

Citizenship did not stop the American authorities from sending Japanese descendants to prison and forcing them to either sell their possessions significantly below value, or abandon their homes and farms at the risk of being looted and desecrated. Nor was the law of much recourse. In the infamous case of Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court found the state’s anti-Japanese discrimination to be constitutional. Meanwhile, the ACLU showed a mixed degree of enthusiasm for challenging the government, fighting internally before throwing itself in the fight more dedicatedly. (Korematsu was only overturned in 2018; tellingly, that case authorized the Trump administration to enforce a travel ban targeting Muslims.)

The legislature was hardly a stop-gap, either. Nearly all political parties of the time supported the Japanese incarceration. It was liberal President Franklin D. Roosevelt who issued the executive order to round up Issei and Nisei, with the support of conservative and liberal legislators alike. As bigoted sentiment spread like wildfire, the Communist Party evicted members like Karl Yoneda, the Japanese American activist who helped found the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Yoneda was far from the only exilee. Government at all levels, from municipalities to the federal agencies, endorsed and implemented Roosevelt’s carceral policy. Some even rallied behind more drastic policies, such as deporting Japanese American residents after the war. In all this, strong agricultural interests—who had long lobbied for Japanese exclusion—profited from the removal of competition from the market. Some successfully seized Japanese farmland and equipment for little to no compensation. Publishers like William Hearst profited immensely too, diminishing the abuses in the prisons and sensationalizing Japanese resistance, all the while calling for deportation or continued imprisonment. In the ensuing panic after Pearl Harbor, decades of racist propagandizing came to a crescendo as the American public was bombarded with imagery of insidious Issei teachers, priests, and community leaders leading cells of Japanese insurgents. And although it was grounded entirely in lies and racist ideology, the narrative became so dominating that even some Nisei papers and organizations denounced “Japanist propaganda” within their community. This ought to be a troubling reminder of how quickly support for horrible acts can be cultivated with sufficient fear and prejudice, and how complementary racist ideology and organized greed are to each other. 

Despite the gaping hole that the history of Japanese incarceration pokes into politics of assimilation, this has not stopped the tech titan and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang from writing in the Washington Post that Asian Americans need to “embrace and show their Americanness” during the current crisis. By doing so, Yang claims, our communities would be “being part of the cure.” Of course, this mindset ignores the facts. Acts of patriotism and displays of American culture such as Fourth of July parades in Japantowns by Japanese Americans were very common before World War II. But as Emily Roxworthy recounts in The Spectacle of Japanese American Trauma, the press mostly ignored these events or framed them as performances intended to lull America into a false sense of security. 

Japanese Americans also engaged in resistance during the incarceration. The Heart Mountain Fair Committee, for instance, was arrested for demanding that civil rights be restored to incarcerated Japanese before any draft. Thousands of others were segregated to Tule Lake Segregation Center for refusing to pledge loyalty to the United States after their rights had been egregiously violated. In their own way, the resisters were demonstrating a kind of patriotism of dissent—one that expected their home, America, to be a better version of itself. Yang’s mode of thought, however, falsely limits patriotism to quiet submission, as though legitimate resistance can only take the form of red, white, and blue patriotism. It also implies, if very subtly, that being too proud of one’s non-American culture and ethnic identity is partly blame for any ensuing discrimination.

This is not a new idea. Many Japanese American resisters were shunned by other members of their community, and found themselves used by racist media and politicians to justify the incarceration. Versions of Yang’s argument were also used to denaturalize thousands of U.S.-born Nisei, and later frame them as traitors worthy of being stripped of their rights and abused in prison camps. The performance of patriotism is an insidious standard for citizenship that we must vigorously reject, along with standards that require Asian Americans to limit their freedoms of political and cultural expression to a uniform patriotism and Americanness. Failing to do so fractures our diasporic communities and legitimizes suspicion towards Asian people and cultures.

The timing of this call to action may feel counter-intuitive, particularly if you believe, as many do, that the prevailing questions about racism in this country must precede action or discourse on sinophobia. One of the great lies about the Asian American experience is that, somehow, the nature of our acceptance and prosperity in this country is divorced from the acceptance and prosperity of other people of color. But this could not be further from the truth. The force of white supremacy is the constant to all forms of racial oppression in America. Our struggles are inherently reliant on one another to durably succeed.

The War Relocation Authority, the government agency charged with the authority of the majority of the prisons from 1942 to 1945, is a reflection of this fact. Most WRA employees came from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In fact, many of the prisons were either built on or near reservations. This connection was not lost on the incarcerated Japanese; many wondered whether their allegedly temporary imprisonment would also become permanent segregation. And though they did not, their cages would eventually be repurposed for a new ‘other.’ One of the most overtly fascist acts by the Trump administration has been the detention of migrant children at Fort Sill, a former prison for Japanese Americans. Many Japanese Americans have also spoken out against these abuses, as they did in the wake of September 11th, when attacks against Muslim Americans ramped up as they had against Asian Americans after Pearl Harbor.

The parallels between the anti-Japanese paranoia and racism in the run-up to and aftermath of Pearl Harbor, and the China-bashing that is increasingly prevalent today, have haunted me for the past year. But solidarity will be of absolute necessity as we continue to resist racist attacks against all marginalized people. Solidarity is the cure for the challenges that modern boba liberalism has posed for Asian American identity—that is, a predisposition for the immaterial and unreachable status of equality with whiteness. The more we center solidarity in our analysis, the better we will be at identifying and uprooting attacks against all people of color. This will require us to remember the connection between past attacks and the growing prejudice and fear towards China and Chinese people in this country, as well as the horrific consequences that can develop from all of this. We must be willing to examine how rhetoric could cultivate resentment towards Asian Americans, and to clearly delineate critiques of governments from xenophobic tropes. We cannot be afraid to criticize those in our own ideological or partisan camps for falling into these traps, even at the risk of being accused of sympathizing or aiding an alleged enemy. History has shown us how easily, and how swiftly, jingoistic rhetoric can be deployed to justify or escalate conflict. The onus is on us to restrain our political leaders from dragging us down a path of prejudice-breeding conflict. 

As for us Asian Americans, I believe an internal repudiation of the politics of assimilation is essential. Human value is not and must not be defined in the line of Americanness or disingenuous standards of patriotism. To seek safety for ourselves to those notions would be a great disservice to history.

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