They Had the Face, Not the Mind of the Enemy
On October 9, 1990, Attorney General Richard Thornburgh kneels before the “six oldest living Japanese Americans, all over one hundred years old, who had been interned in concentration camps during World War II”.1 All six of them were “Issei”, first generation Japanese Americans who had arrived on the shores of America’s West Coast in the late 19th century. Their children were “Nisei”, second generation Japanese Americans. Their grandchildren were “Sansei”, third generation Japanese Americans. Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Nisei and Sansei started the redress movement. They first achieved success with federal responses in the 1970s with the creation of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Citizens (CWRIC). Attorney General Thornburgh presents them with checks for $20,000 and letters of apology signed by President George Bush, a fulfillment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.2 In Jewel of the Desert, Sandra C. Taylor examines the trial through the “framework of community, the network of associations and institutions that held together a group of people who were set apart from the majority by their ethnicity.”3

Before 1886, when the Meiji government legalized emigration to the United States, the first Japanese settlers were usually upper-class students or other travelers. They were a “’select group,’… [that were] viewed as healthy, literate, and upstanding people who would reflect well on Japan’s national honor,”4 and also few in number. In 1880, there were 86 Japanese Americans in California and only 148 in the entire country. Such a small number wasn’t enough to fuel a “Japanophobia,”5 but after 1886, there was a great flood of Japanese immigrants, mainly farmers dislocated by the political chaos of the modernization of Japan during the Meiji period. It was inevitable that the racism the Chinese had suffered would be extended to them. In spite of the challenge of coming to America without an understanding of English, and facing discrimination as “others,” the Issei managed to achieve relative prosperity and build a secure community for themselves. Most Issei were Buddhist, “but their institutional ties were not strong…Miyamoto suggested that Buddhism’s fatalistic approach…was not as well suited to life in America as Christianity was, which enjoined its members to struggle to improve life on earth as well as to prepare for the world to come.”6 This ended up with the Christian Japanese Americans greatly outnumbering Buddhists by the Nisei generation. Caucasian and Japanese missionaries quickly spread the gospel and established new churches. Taylor notes that the industries in which the Issei gained great success were domestic work and gardening. The Issei “quickly gained a reputation for reliability…and were soon also in demand as chauffeurs, chefs, caterers, and gardeners.”7 While gardening in California was and is still today, considered low-class work, gardening was prized by the Japanese. “Working with the soil had status in Japanese culture,”8 like the elaborate, Zen gardens that decorate traditional Japanese households. “The Japanese gardener, who was skilled and creative, became a feature of California life that continued after the war.”9 Small businesses also achieved success. Issei started their own hotels, dry cleaners, general stories, and fished. They formed their own labor unions and organizations to compete and cooperate with other groups such as the Filipinos, Caucasians, and Chinese. The number of immigrants rose dramatically at the turn of the century, and anti-Japanese sentiment rose with it. Anti-Japanese hatred only intensified after the San Francisco fire in 1906. The “Japanese Problem”10 had become an important political issue in the West Coast, and had enough power to influence President William McKinley to make federal decisions like the Gentlemen’s Agreement. The Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 between the United States and Japan was an informal agreement to reduce tensions in which the United States would not impose restriction on Japanese immigration, and Japan would not allow further emigration to the United States. There was a growing “perception of Japan as a growing military threat”11 in the 1930s because of Japanese fascism and militarism. “Many Americans sided with China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1937, and many joined in a boycott of Japanese-made goods.”12

Although Japanese-American relations had been steadily worsening, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 nevertheless came as a shock to the Japanese American community. The JACL promptly declared its loyalty, condemned Japan for the attack, and urged the Japanese American community to comply with evacuation as a sign of American patriotism. The vaguely worded Executive Order 9066 was announced on February 19, 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although nothing in the fine print referred to any specific group or ethnicity, it was obviously intended for the ethnic minorities of the Axis countries: Germans, Italians, and specifically the Japanese. Japanese Americans living on the West Coast and Arizona were among the first and most widely victims of “military necessity”. The relocation was poorly organized and rushed, sometimes only giving families 10 days to pack up and leave. This forced many families to sell their belongings, homes, and businesses at rock bottom prices, promptly destroying the prosperity Japanese Americans had been working for decades. The Tanforan Assembly Center was a converted horse racetrack hastily converted to hold the interned while the actual internment camps were being built. Not enough shelters were built; so many families had to live in horse stalls that stank of manure. The Caucasian administrators were also too confused, overwhelmed, understaffed, and undersupplied to competently deal with the situation before them. As a result, they had to rely on the interned to keep order and perform the most basic functions, such as serving food. The internment community eventually developed independently since the residents weren’t isolated into separate cells, nor were they strictly monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week due to the lack of staff. The interned remained patient, trying to prove they were model citizens, which was the reason for the lack of rebellions or violent uprisings. As if living with the stench of horse manure was bad enough, Japanese Americans accustomed to living on the West Coast had to suddenly adapt to the harsh, Arizona desert at the Central Utah Relocation Center: Topaz. Temperatures ranged from blistering hot to freezing cold. Dust stormed raged relentlessly and settled as a fine film on anything and everything. The shoddy dwellings did nothing to defend against the harsh elements. The walls were made of thin boards and full of leaks and cracks. Even at the official relocation center, there was still a housing shortage, like at the Tanforan Assembly Center had. Health problems were rampant as a result of poor food, alkaline water, heat exhaustion, freezing, mosquitos, and a lack of medical supplies and staff. There were actually several deaths, although these “evacuation centers” had never been meant to be death camps. The War Relocation Agency (WRA) appointed administrators that ranged from “very racist to extremely empathic”.13 Notable characters included Charles F. Ernst, George LaFabreque, and James F. Hughes. Charles F. Ernst was described as “kind and understanding”, “very dignified”, “a perfect gentlemen”, but he was also known as being “very status-conscious and preserved a distance even from the whites who reported to him.”14

The community in Topaz began to fall apart ever since what little self-government the interned were allowed was revoked, and frustrations grew over the registration and segregation. In order for the military to determine loyalty in order to draft those who were eligible, a peculiar questionnaire titled “Application for Leave Clearance” was circulated.15 The poorly worded questionnaire became controversial primarily for two statements: “Number 27, which asked draft-age males if they were willing to serve on combat duty in the armed forces of the United States, and Number 28, which requested the Nikkei to swear allegiance to the United States and forswear allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor.”16 Number 28 was unacceptable to noncitizen Issei, since it would turn them into “stateless persons.” Nisei felt betrayed by Number 27. After all, “how could they be asked to take arms and defend the country that had incarcerated them?”17 The Resident Council for Japanese American Civil Rights was formed, which “encouraged registration but only if Nisei civil rights were restored.”18 The controversy also sparked many “requests for repatriation and expatriation.”19 Those who answered “yes-yes” wanted to prove their patriotism. Those who answered “no-no” felt frustrated, betrayed, or had stronger connections to the emperor and Japan. This subsequently led to the segregation incident, where the military came to the conclusion that those who answered “no-no”, along with their families, should be separated from those who answered “yes-yes”, the loyal.

There were still lingering fears made apparent when in April 1945 naval intelligence, “whose curiosity about the returning Japanese Americans far outran any legitimate security interest,” prepared a “Counter-Intelligence Report” on the “Japanese Situation.”20 It “surveyed recent racial incidents, opposition to the return, and the role of the press, and it identified the groups that supported the Japanese.” The report was conducted out of fear that oppressed Japanese Americans and minority groups would be attracted towards the lure of communism, the “nascent stages”21 of the Cold War. The Native Sons of the Golden West, an anti-Japanese nativist group, opposed any return to California and favored having the Nisei’s citizenship revoked. The Pacific Coast Committee on American Principles and Fair Play, the most prominent pro-Japanese American organization, tried to provide housing for returning Japanese Americans who had had their property vandalized or confiscated and sold by the government. Many Japanese Americans suffered harassment upon their return, including threats, vandalism, and “denial of business licenses.”22 However, even as early as the late 1940s, anti-Japanese sentiment was beginning to die down. “There was no longer a reason to hate Japan or the Japanese, and political harmony was more important than catering to hate-mongering groups.”23

Taylor’s thesis is to “assess the price these victims [the interned Japanese Americans] of racism paid for official ignorance, prejudice, and intolerance… [and] understand many kinds of recovery demonstrated”24 through the lens of a community.

Taylor states in the preface that “as a Caucasian I feel compelled to clarify my positions in relation to a piece of American history about which no one can be neutral today. I... [believe that Japanese internment] was unjust, unnecessary, and illegal”25, which follows accepted interpretations of Japanese internment by contemporary historians. She has written other books on Japanese internment and the Vietnam War with a sympathetic view of the Asians and condemns Caucasian dominance and injustice. It’s likely that she is more liberal on the political spectrum and anti-imperialist.

Jewel of the Desert was published in 1993 in light of successful petitions by the Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR) and other organizations for financial compensation and an official apology for Japanese internment on October 9, 1990. But just 10 months later, the Gulf War began on August 2, 1990. Taylor had already foreseen how the Gulf War would affect the status of Arab Americans in just as Pearl Harbor has did for Japanese Americans. Official reparations by George H.W. Bush’s administration renewed some popular interest in the episode of interned Japanese Americans. All American feature films, as well as many documentaries and books about Japanese American internment, were made following the 1990 ceremony. Taylor mentions in the preface that feature films like Come See Paradise, directed by Alan Parker perpetuate a “vague image based on stereotypes and some factual errors,” 26 which means that the public still needs to be educated on what happened.

Sucheng Chan of the University of California and Paul R. Spickard of the Brigham Young University both agree that the rich detail and focus Taylor offers on Topaz and the Bay Area is the Jewel of the Desert’s greatest strength, but while the prose is “smooth enough” or “clear and succinct”, it is “hastily written”, “leaden”, and contains various errors such as wrong dates or important books left out of the bibliography. Chan praises Taylor’s innovative approach to using “community” as a lens to examine Japanese American internment. Spickard says Taylor “fails to break much new ground” in her “resolute refusal to make historical judgments…a flat account that asks none of the critical questions that need to be asked of the people who made this episode in imprisonment.”27 28

Jewel in the Desert has smooth and easy to understand prose that is not slowed down by superfluous amounts of romanized Japanese phrases and terms such as gannenmono (“first year people”) and ken (prefecture) or too many laws that would need lengthy explanations to make sense. While the prose is sufficient, the organization can be erratic sometimes. An example is when Taylor discusses the WRA’s resettlement policy controversy, she suddenly adds a comically placed paragraph that briefly discusses how the “mounting tension over resettlement affect people’s health. [There was] an increase in cases of high blood pressure and gastric ulcers.” 29 It wasn’t necessary nor was it integrated more elegantly as an amusing fact, making it a non-sequester. It was interesting to follow the stories of several Topaz residents, but focusing on a smaller number would have helped to avoid confusion and cluttering.

Racial discrimination during war is not unusual, and America in the middle of World War II was not immune to “the hatreds of war fever.”30 Japanese internment may have been a “blessing in disguise”31 in hindsight as dispersed Japanese Americans “established small communities all over the city rather than a single enclave, and they shared these areas with other minority groups.” Although the previous communities and “ethnic economies”32 were uprooted, many Nisei managed to rebuild their lives and economic successes. An example is the Takahashi family, an exemplar of the Japanese American success story, “which established a prosperous importing firm in San Francisco”33 40 years after resettlement.

World War II is often remembered fondly as an era where bad guys were bad guys and good guys were good guys. But it was also an era where our country betrayed its own citizens based on fear and fallacy. Learning to control our sometimes destructive instinct to foster “us” and alienate “others” is especially important in the post 9/11 landscape, where America is again challenged with the same question as it was in 1945.

1. Taylor, Sandra C. Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, 1993. 1.
2. Taylor, Sandra C. 1.
3. Taylor, Sandra C. xii.
4. Taylor, Sandra C. 2.
5. Taylor, Sandra C. 19.
6. Taylor, Sandra C. 5.
7. Taylor, Sandra C. 18.
8. Taylor, Sandra C. 18.
9. Taylor, Sandra C. 18, 19.
10. Taylor, Sandra C. 46.
11. Taylor, Sandra C. 32.
12. Taylor, Sandra C. 32.
13. Taylor, Sandra C. 99.
14. Taylor, Sandra C. 101.
15. Taylor, Sandra C. 148.
16. Taylor, Sandra C. 148-149.
17. Taylor, Sandra C. 149.
18. Taylor, Sandra C. 149.
19. Taylor, Sandra C. 150.
20. Taylor, Sandra C. 265
21. Taylor, Sandra C. 269.
22. Taylor, Sandra C. 270.
23. Taylor, Sandra C. 271.
24. Taylor, Sandra C. xvi.
25. Taylor, Sandra C. xv.
26. Taylor, Sandra C. xii.
27. Chan, Sucheng. Western Historical Quarterly. Santa Barbara: University of California, 1994. 1811 - 1812.
28. Spickard, Paul R. American Historical Review. Hawaii: Brigham Young University, 1995. 605-606.
29. Taylor, Sandra C. 209.
30. Taylor, Sandra C. xii.
31. Taylor, Sandra C. 275.
32. Taylor, Sandra C. 273.
33. Taylor, Sandra C. 277.