The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is a well-known dark chapter in American history. What is less known today is how Japanese Americans responded to such injustice at the time. Daniel James Brown’s new book, Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II, fills this gap in our understanding.
Before WWII, many first-generation Japanese immigrants in the United States, known as “Issei,” already endured racial discrimination. President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Naturalization Act of 1906, limiting naturalization to someone who was a “white person” or had African nativity and descent. Therefore, Isseis couldn’t become naturalized U.S. citizens, even though their children, called “Nisei,” were born U.S. citizens. A set of anti-Asian laws also prohibited Asian immigrants, including Issei, from owning land.
Despite this bigotry, many Japanese American families still thrived in America. Their Nisei children grew up with a typical American life, such as performing in school marching bands and playing on high school football teams. Brown’s book focused on the experiences of four ordinary young Japanese men and their families: Kats Miho’s family owned a hotel in Maui, Hawaii; Fred Shiosaki’s family operated a laundromat in Spokane, Washington; Rudy Tokiwa’s family ran a farm in Salinas, California; and Harry Madokoro was the only child of a widow from Watsonville, California.
Their relatively peaceful and content lives were disrupted on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese navy attacked the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor. Soon after, the United States declared war on Japan. Two months later, in February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued the notorious Executive Order 9066, authorizing the secretary of war and military commanders to remove all Japanese Americans deemed a national security threat from Hawaii and the West Coast to internment camps inland.
Consequently, about 120,000 Japanese Americans, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens, were forcefully relocated and incarcerated in camps primarily in the western part of the country, in states such as California, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, and Montana. (The outliers were two internment camps in Arkansas.) Many of those interned had never been to Japan and didn’t speak Japanese.
Going for Broke
Brown’s book gives detailed and often heartbreaking accounts of the forced relocation and lives inside those camps. The relocation order came so sudden and the pace was so hurried that many Japanese Americans’ lives were turned upside down overnight: Employees couldn’t go to work; farmers had to abandon their farms; businesses halted their operations; and parents pulled kids out of schools.
Some husbands and wives were ordered to go to different camps. Many families were forced to sell their assets for a fraction of their actual values because they were given only six days to dispose of their belongings other than what they could carry to the camps.
Inside the camps, the harsh living conditions, the isolation, and the presence of military guards all took psychological tolls on those incarcerated. At least two Japanese Americans were shot and killed. Guards claimed these men were trying to escape, but people inside the camps said those two suffered nervous breakdowns.
As the United States expanded its involvement in WWII, the U.S. Army needed all the men it could get. So it asked young Nisei men first to volunteer and later to answer the draft to join the U.S. Army.
Understandably, a small portion of the Nisei men refused to serve, asking why they should fight for a country that doubted their loyalty, deprived them of their livelihoods, curtailed their rights, and locked their families behind barbed wire, all because of their ancestry. But the majority of Nisei men chose to answer the call. As Americans, they believed they had the moral responsibility to defend America and American values. They also wanted to prove their loyalty and regain the trust of the U.S. government and the general public.
The Nisei formed an all-Japanese American unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT), almost exactly one year after President Roosevelt signed EO9066. They were deployed to Europe mainly because military brass and civilian leaders still doubted these Americans’ loyalty and weren’t comfortable sending Nisei soldiers to the Pacific theater.
The motto of the 442nd RCT was “Go For Broke,” meaning putting everything on the line to win big. They lived up to that motto. Not long after the 442nd RCT arrived in Italy, they fought with such valor that the Germans had come to respect and fear what they regarded as “the little iron men.” Unfortunately, as one of the best fighting units in the U.S. Army, the 442nd RCT were often asked to fight in impossible battles and take on missions that seemed almost suicidal.
One of their best-known battles was to rescue the “Lost Battalion,” the Texas infantrymen trapped by the German army in the Vosges Mountains between France and Germany. The 442nd RCT accomplished its mission, but paid for it in blood. Out of 180 men in K Company, only 17 were still alive after the battle. One of the strengths of Brown’s book is that he is a master at describing vivid details of battle scenes. The book is long and detailed, but it is a page-turner.
The 442nd RCT, with 18,000 Nisei men, became the most decorated unit in the U.S. Army. Although the 442nd represented just more than 0.11 percent of the U.S. military, they earned “over 4,000 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Bronze Stars, 560 Silver Star Medals, 21 Medals of Honor, and seven Presidential Unit Citations” and more. Texas Gov. John Connally made the entire 442nd RCT honorary Texans on October 21, 1963.
Not all courageous fighting took place on battlefields. Brown’s book also traced a different battle fought back on American soil by a young Nisei named Gordon Hirabayashi, a student at the University of Washington and a Quaker. Gordon refused to register for the forced “relocation.” Instead, he turned himself to the FBI, challenging the government’s action of incarcerating Japanese Americans without due process of law.
His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Rather than ruling on the constitutionality of President Roosevelt’s EO, the court convicted Gordon for disobeying war-time curfew. Gordon was sentenced to jail for 90 days.
Shortly after his release, he got into trouble again by refusing to comply with the draft board. In a letter, Gordon explained he couldn’t comply because only Japanese Americans were required to answer additional questions in the Selective Service process. Since this requirement singled out Japanese Americans based on race alone, it was unconstitutional. Gordon ended up serving one year in jail for the Selective Service violations.
America is imperfect, but what truly makes America great is that it has been willing to confront its mistakes and take action to right the historical wrongs. In 1952, the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act meant Japanese immigrants were finally allowed to apply for citizenship. In 1988, President Reagan signed a bill to award restitution payments of $20,000 to Japanese-American survivors of World War II civilian internment camps.
In 2000, when President Clinton awarded Medals of Honor on 20 members of the 442nd RCT, he acknowledged that “Rarely has a nation been so well served by people it has so ill served.” On May 29, 2012, President Obama awarded Gordon posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He quoted Gordon’s own words: “Unless citizens are willing to stand up for the Constitution, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”
Brown’s book about Japanese Americans’ experiences in WWII is timely because racism and how to address past racial injustice are some of the most debated topics of our times. Critical race theory activists regard America’s founding principles as racist and claim America has made little progress in racial equality. Ibram Kendi, the high priest of CRT, advocates for fighting past racism with racism, responding to past discrimination with discrimination today.
Brown’s book reminds America there is a much better approach. A generation ago, Japanese Americans responded to injustice and discrimination with patriotism and valor.
Whether on the battlefields or in courtrooms, Brown wrote that those young Nisei men “were the living embodiments of the spirit that has always animated America – the striving, the yearning, the courage, the relentless optimism, the willingness to chip in and lend a hand, the fair-mindedness, the inclusiveness. They knew that they had been called upon to defend a set of simple but profound ideas – the highest ideal of America and the Western democracies – and having heard the call, they answered it, as did millions of young men in the first half of the 1940s.” Many of them laid down their lives for it, so today, we can live in a far better country than the one they were in.
After he lost his brother Calvin on the battlefield, George Saito wrote to his father in 1944: “In spite of Cal’s supreme sacrifice, don’t let anyone tell you that he was foolish or made a mistake to volunteer. Of what I’ve seen in my travels on our mission, I am more than convinced that we’ve done the right thing in spite of what’s happened in the past. America is a damn good country and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” George made the ultimate sacrifice himself shortly after this letter.
Let’s not forget George’s words, “America is a damn good country.” America’s founding principles are not racist but represent universal ideals and truth worth fighting for today, just like those courageous young Japanese Americans did in WWII. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.