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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

"American Inquisition": How The Government Got What It Thought Was "The Goods" On Japanese Americans

In my first post about the claims in my new book "American Inquisition:  The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II," I explained how, by early 1943, a complex set of pressures led the federal government to retreat from its initial view that sifting "loyal" from "disloyal" Japanese Americans was impossible.

Having decided to sift, the government then confronted an enormous logistical problem:  how to investigate and pass judgment on the more than 40,000 adult U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry who were languishing in the so-called "relocation centers" where they were detained?

It was military agencies that took the lead on gathering intelligence on Japanese Americans, and there was one thing that these agencies were quite convinced they could not do -- ask the Japanese Americans themselves, or people who knew them.  "Because of the inscrutability of the Japanese, their reticence, clannishness and other Oriental traits" said the officer training investigators, "[Japanese Americans] very rarely take white people into their confidence.  The result of the foregoing is that references, neighbors, employers and acquaintances  are not considered as good a source of information in the Japanese case as in the average case."

What's more, military investigators were instructed that "it is hard, very hard, for a citizen born of Japanese parents in this country, particularly on the West Coast, to feel loyal to the United States of America," whereas it was "easy for him to feel that he is at heart Japanese and not American even though he has never seen Japan."

The investigation of Japanese American loyalty went in two principal directions.  On the West Coast, investigators in the Western Defense Command pored over Japanese American newspapers, looking for articles naming people who'd been involved before the war in Japanese business and cultural associations, Buddhist churches, Shinto temples, judo clubs, and the like, and who had made donations to Japanese causes.  They also mined the seized records of West Coast branches of Japanese banks, listing every person who held a certificate of deposit in yen.

And in the camps themselves, military teams required all internees to fill out a four-page questionnaire that covered educational background, work experience, reading habits, religion, Japanese language abilities, hobbies, and the like.  The questionnaires also asked the American citizens whether they were willing to "forswear" allegiance to the Emperor of Japan (an allegiance they had never sworn in the first place) and whether they were willing to serve on combat duty in the U.S. armed forces "wherever ordered."

This was the raw data -- in rare cases supplemented with sketchy information from the FBI or Naval Intelligence -- that the government used to decide which Japanese Americans were "loyal" and which "disloyal."

But it was only raw data; the government then faced the problem of how to collate and process the data efficiently in more than 40,000 individual cases.  More on that later, or tomorrow.

Posted by Eric Muller on October 16, 2007 at 09:13 AM in Books | Permalink

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