Asian Americans: Japanese American as One of the Most Discriminated Minorities in US

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In the United States today, Asian Americans are seen as “model minorities” that prove minorities in the US can succeed. While Asian Americans today do tend to be very successful, there was a period in American history where they were one of the most discriminated groups in the United States. Natalie Ong, a Japanese American, has experienced both discrimination and success. Though she now lives a comfortable life and has been a part of the Houston City Council, as a child, she and her family were among the people sent to internment camps during World War II. The treatment Ong and her family received at Manzanar reflects what many other Japanese Americans faced at that time, and this treatment, along with later unclassified documents, showed a prejudice towards Ong and other Japanese American families.

Natalie Ong was born Kayo Natalie Hayashida on February 20th, 1941 on Bainbridge Island, nearby Seattle to Saburo and Fumiko Hayashida. The island was an agricultural community that grew berries. But this quiet life for her family was thrown into disarray when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. After hearing about this, Natalie’s family was not afraid at first “As an American citizen, Fumiko says she felt safe within the borders of her country” (Medlenka). This was a common sentiment held by second generation Japanese Americans, also known as “Nisei,” who saw themselves as American first. For a few months they went about life somewhat as usual, continuing to farm berries. That was until Executive Order 9066 was signed and their normal lives were changed completely. “On the authority of President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, signed on February 19, 1942, and Public Law 503, passed by Congress soon thereafter, some 120,000 Japanese Americans were placed in what Roosevelt without hesitation referred to as ‘concentration camps’” (Sundquist, 532). This order and the subsequent law put into motion the removal of many Japanese Americans, many of whom were natural born citizens, from areas on or near the western coast for what was claimed to be military purposes. A little over a month after this order was put into place, Bainbridge island was visited. “The FBI came. The armies with guns and rifles with bayonets on it, they said 'You're going,' they gave us seven days to close up our business” (Ong, 4). Being March now, it was two to three months before their current crop could be harvested, but since they were basically being forced out, that crop was left to fail. Finally, on March 31st, all people of Japanese descent were taken from Bainbridge Island and were sent to an interment camp in Manzar, California.

“The Manzanar Relocation Center was located in central California, about 220 miles north of Los Angeles” (“Manzanar, California”), and covered almost 540 Acres. It eventually housed around 10,000 internees in flimsy, wooden barracks. Life wasn’t terrible there, but it was not as nice as where they lived previously, “we had army rations, army blankets, army cots. She did say that they were issued a mop and a bucket. And of course, it was just a room, with the cots and the bedding” (Ong, 5). These barracks were cramped with Ong’s family only having two beds for her parents, her and her brother, and her soon to be born brother as well. These bare necessities showed the unreadiness of the Army for the rollout of these camps. But eventually, the camp started to become a town, “…there were varied shops, different shops, and people were assigned to do jobs either to sustain the, the camp” (Ong 5) people would have jobs in the mess hall, the carpentry shop, or in the few small factories in the camp. All of these produced items that improved the camps like cribs for the very young children or for the army itself like garments and mattresses. However, the fact that these people were taken away from their homes and forced to build necessities for themselves showed major oversight on the army’s part. In late 1943, all the families from Bainbridge were moved from Manzanar to Minidoka, Idaho where they would be kept till the end of the war. This camp had more families from the Seattle area. Since the camp had already been established for a year and a half, they did not face the same hardships they did when they first moved to Manzanar. After the war Ong’s family moved back to Bainbridge and were able to resettle with little blowback since it was a tight knit community before they had left and was still welcoming to the Japanese residents. This, however, was only able to occur because they were all born in the United States. “There was the exclusion, where you couldn't - not only marry, but become citizens or own property if you were not American-born” (Ong, 3). So, anyone who was a first-generation immigrant had nowhere to go back to after the war. Unfortunately, since the land had not been farmed for the past four years, the family was unable to make a sustainable living and Ong’s father had to go and work at the Boeing plant in Seattle.

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During the war, many didn’t question the internment camps. There were a few reasons for this. First, some Japanese Americans didn’t question the internment themselves. The Munson Report stated: “the vast majority were loyal to America. Most of all, those Nisei who belonged to the highly patriotic Japanese American Citizens League appeared ‘pathetically eager to show this loyalty” (Sundquist, 541). This was also corroborated by Natalie’s father, as he put it, “‘Well we just did what the government told us we should do, we were Americans, we wanted to be good Americans’” (Ong, 6). They saw listening to the government as just following a law like stopping at a red light and the government took advantage of that. Meanwhile, propaganda that was meant to demonize Japan ended up demonizing those who were in the camps. “In war propaganda and in public opinion, all of the Axis Powers, as well as their ethnic representatives in the United States, were vilified and caricatured” (Sundquist, 533). The Japanese interpretation mimicked the way the Yellow peril was displayed in cartoons. Even after they were out of the camps the government continued to be unfair to the internees. “The Evacuation Claims Act of 1948 paid ten cents on the dollar for losses of personal property, derisively referred to at the time as ‘pots and pans money,’ and precluded any future attempt to seek meaningful restitution.” (Abe 1090). Once again, the second-generation Japanese Americans accepted this and still saw it as the government have their best interest in mind and not as a way to sweep further request for restitution under the rug. It wasn’t until the 1970s that some third generation Japanese Americans that grew up as children and young adults in the camps began to act against the United States. This is when the true intention of the internment of these people came out. In 1942, Roosevelt requested a report on the internment of Japanese Americans which was written by General John DeWitt, however once John McCloy received these reports, he realized he could not present it. “Recognizing that the racist cast of the report contradicted accounts of evacuation procedure already on record and would likely harm the government's case before the Supreme Court … McCloy ordered Bendetsen [DeWitt’s superior] to rewrite the report, destroying the few released copies and doctoring the accompanying correspondence” (Sundquist, 543). This clearly showed that the government recognized that this was not a military action, but one out of racism. And this exposed cover up is what would eventually get Japanese Americans the compensation, recognition, and justice that they deserved.

But why does this matter in the context of this class. First, Executive Order 9066 is a very clear example of institutionalized racism which is a major issue in today’s society. The government only chose to target the Japanese based on their race alone. This was true even if they had very little connection to Japan itself, “All the Japanese American orphans in the West Coast evacuation zone, including half-Japanese babies living in Caucasian foster homes, were sent to Manzanar” (“Manzanar, California”). Even though it is wrong to assume so, saying that the adult Japanese-Americans might not be loyal is arguable, but the fact that they even took the children without parents and threw them in these camps show it was clearly targeting them based on their race and not a military necessity. This also can be seen when one looks at how the US government treated descendants from other Axis Powers. “I think they thought that a Japanese could not be trusted, whether it was your great-grandparents who, you know, was in Japan... and anyway. It didn't happen to the Italians in that way, it didn't happen to the Germans in that way, it happened to the Japan – Japanese” (Ong 5-6). At the time, the US was predominantly white, with many being German and Italian, too many to throw all them into camps. However, since the Japanese are a minority group, it’s easier to put them in camps and show that you are trying to make the homeland safer. This event also showcases the idea of what we consider a citizen. In fact, a majority of those who faced internment were citizens; “Close to 70,000 of the internees were United States citizens by birth” (Sundquist 532). In this case the government sees these people as Japanese before Americans. This can be compared to the immigration laws that allow law enforcement to ask immigration status, and much like how if a law enforcement officer were to ask for immigration status, they are more likely to ask someone who is Hispanic even if they are citizens because they see them as Hispanic first instead of American.

In conclusion, the story of Natalie Ong and her family reflects what a majority Japanese Americans on the west coast experienced during World War II. Although, since they were citizens by birth, they had a better experience than those who had immigrated after they were born. The internment and reasoning behind it also show, in a broader sense, institutionalized racism and the wavering on what citizenship actually entails. As Frank Abe says, “In sum, Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions that followed … were not founded upon military considerations. The broad historical causes that shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership” (Abe 1093). And despite those who suffered getting some compensation, it will never give them back what was unlawfully and prejudicially taken from them for those four years, freedom.

Bibliography:

  1. Abe, Frank. “Resistance, Resettlement, and Redress.” Case Western Reserve Law Review, vol. 68, no. 4, Summer 2018, pp. 1085–1095. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=130519663&site=ehost-live.
  2. Colborn-Roxworthy, Emily. ''Manzanar, the eyes of the world are upon you': Performance and Archival Ambivalence at a Japanese American Internment Camp.' Theatre Journal, vol. 59 no. 2, 2007, p. 189-214. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tj.2007.0120.
  3. “Manzanar, California.” Manzanar, Japanese American Veterans Association, http://www.javadc.org/manzanar.html
  4. Medlenka, Carla. “Reflections of a Patriot.” Bainbridge, Http://Hirasaki.net, 2014, http://hirasaki.net/Family_Stories/Bainbridge.html
  5. Ong, Natalie, “Natalie Ong oral history interview and transcript,” Houston Asian American Archive (HAAA) oral histories, accessed September 16, 2019, https://haaa.rice.edu/items/show/176
  6. Sundquist, Eric J. “The Japanese-American Internment: A Reappraisal.” The American Scholar, vol. 57, no. 4, 1988, pp. 529–547. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41211623
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Asian Americans: Japanese American as One of the Most Discriminated Minorities in US. (2023, February 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/asian-americans-japanese-american-as-one-of-the-most-discriminated-minorities-in-us/
“Asian Americans: Japanese American as One of the Most Discriminated Minorities in US.” Edubirdie, 01 Feb. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/asian-americans-japanese-american-as-one-of-the-most-discriminated-minorities-in-us/
Asian Americans: Japanese American as One of the Most Discriminated Minorities in US. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/asian-americans-japanese-american-as-one-of-the-most-discriminated-minorities-in-us/> [Accessed 15 Apr. 2024].
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