Prisoners Without Trial

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Roger Daniels. Prisoners Without Trials: Japanese Americans in World War II New York, Hill and Wang, 2004. 21pp. $12.00 ISBN 0-8090-7896-1.


Summary

In this small book political historian Roger Daniels reviews how and why 120,000 Japanese Americans were singled out and sent to internment camps. Once characterized as America’s worst wartime mistake, the internment, as Daniels details it, did not result from a mistake or an error in judgment (p1). In Daniels’ opinion the wartime internment of the Japanese was another link in a chain of racism against Asians on American soil. To make his argument Daniels show the long historical pattern of prejudice against Asians who immigrated to America, starting with the Chinese who first came to the Pacific Coast to help build the transcontinental railroads and then worked in the gold fields of California. The Chinese contributed significantly to the economic growth of the West in agriculture and industry. Because the Chinese weren’t white and came from a foreign culture, many Americans felt that the Chinese presented a threat to the nation’s standard of living and racial integrity (p4).

Japanese started to arrive in the Pacific Coast around 1890 and steadily grew. Given that most Americans couldn’t tell the Asian races apart, the Japanese met the same problems as the Chinese. Most of the anti-Japanese movement started with labor leaders who didn’t want the Japanese in California. The next anti-Japanese movement started in 1909, this time centering on the amount of land the Japanese owned. By 1909 Japanese farmers controlled nearly 150,000 acres of land. In years to come the total would grow to 450,000 acres, or about one tenth of California agricultural land (p13). The Japanese controlled a huge amount of the state’s crops. Many argued that the Japanese farmers had driven out the white farmers. This was far from the truth: The hard working Japanese had opened up new lands using their labor-intensive, high-yield agriculture.

As with many immigrants, the first generation of Japanese, the Issei, tried to recreate the world they left behind. Since they were segregated, many of the Issei never learned to speak English and clung to more traditional ways. However, their children, the Nisei, were exposed to American culture and society through the public schools. Many excelled in school and soon faced the dilemma of how to be successful when they were ostracized from society in California because of their race

When discussing the “Jap” hysteria on the West Coast after the Pearl Harbor attack, Daniels looks at all the different views contributing to it. He mostly refers to the political and military leaders at the time. Many wanted the Japanese away from the West Coast and feared a fifth column attack from the Japanese community. He shows how the Japanese civil liberties were further taken away with curfews and restrictions on how much money they could withdraw from the banks every month. During this period, as Daniels points out, there was not a single incident of Japanese Americans doing anything against the United States. When the Executive Order 9066 was signed into law, many of the Japanese thought it was wrong, but went to the internment camps when ordered. Many American citizens of Japanese ancestry would spend the next four years in the camps.

The last chapters of the book look at what happened to the Japanese after the war, when they returned to the West Coast. Many had to start over, since they had lost everything during the war years. In a short chapter Daniels looks at the possibilities of something like this happening again. Daniels believes it can happen again if all the right conditions are in place. In an epilogue added since 9/11 Daniels looks at how Americans reacted at first to 9/11 and how the security establishment asked for many exemptions from the law to investigate American citizens in the name of the war on terror.


Commentary

Pat Kelly Fall 2007

Again this is a small and thought-provoking book, not only on what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II, but how Americans look at race. The major question Daniels asks is, can Americans accept people of brown skin or dark skin who don’t necessarily believe in the same God as most Americans. Given the events of 9/11 it is a very interesting question. Could the internment of Americans on American soil happen again? At first many Americans might say no. However, if another terrorist attack equal to or bigger in scale than 9/11 occurred, many might change their views. The book is also very relevant to the current debate on immigration. Many of the first generation Issei were not American citizens. Daniels refers to the Issei as having rights, yet many of the Issei never applied for citizenship, preferring not to break the connection with their homeland like many Hispanics immigrants today.

Another problem with the book is the title. The book doesn’t talk about prisoners – the people involved – but their imprisonment. Daniels has written a book that is about the white politics of the period. The first ten or more pages are completely about whites and their politics. When he finally gets around to it, Daniels does a great job of describing what it must have been like to be pulled from one’s home, tagged, and carted off to an internment camp for four years behind barbed wire; then after the war was over to be thrown out into the world to start over after you had lost most all of your worldly possessions. Daniels does have a few Japanese talk about the end of the war, but the descriptions are bland. Although the book has a pictorial essay at the end, it still needs more voices of Japanese themselves describing in their own words what happened to them and how it affected them as citizens. Can anyone imagine the emotions of coming back to the town or city where they used to live and seeing someone else working farm land or businesses that your family lost just because they were Japanese? Comments from and descriptions from actual camp detainees would have helped the book. Overall the book is still worth reading because it does ask questions and makes one think.

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