Guilty by Association

Monday, February 10, 2014

Hopefully everyone who reads this blog knows what happened at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Japanese-Americans were as shocked and angry as their Caucasian neighbors were. But the government saw only what it wanted to see and reacted quickly to suppress imaginary threats in Hawaii and the continental U.S.

On that same day, December 7, 1941, the FBI began arresting Japanese-Americans who maybe might have possibly had either an opportunity or reason—however slight—to cooperate with Imperial Japan. Most of the people arrested were Issei (first generation in America) men, but some were women and there may have been a few Nisei (second generation) as well.

How could the FBI act so quickly? Paranoia about the threat from Japan had begun months and even years earlier, and the government already had a list of those Japanese-American aliens (the Issei) who maybe might have possibly had either an opportunity or reason—however slight—to cooperate with Imperial Japan. Most had emigrated to America decades earlier and would have applied for citizenship if the law had allowed it.

The arrest list included:

  • commercial fishermen (because they had short-wave radios and could theoretically make contact with submarines off the coast),
  • community leaders and journalists (who might have influence in the Japanese-American community),
  • Buddhist priests and Japanese-language teachers (i.e., those who worked to maintain Japanese religion, tradition, and culture),
  • Issei employed by U.S. branches of Japanese businesses, and
  • those who had visited Japan within the last few years.
Although many people were rounded up that first day, the arrests continued for several weeks. All of those arrested were sent to prison without a trial. Some of them were “released” after months or a year to join their families in incarceration camps, but many were not released until the war ended. And none of them were ever proved to be disloyal to the U.S.

You can imagine the effect this had on innocent men and their families. Many households were now fatherless, and some were even parentless. In the Kikuchi family, for example, a teenager was left to care for her four siblings, ranging in age from eight to twelve, after both her parents were taken away.* And all Issei bank accounts were immediately frozen, leaving many families with neither a wage-earner nor access to their savings.

These arrests occurred in Hawaii as well as in the continental U.S. The military also imposed martial law in Hawaii as part of an earlier plan on what to do if the U.S. was attacked. But most Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii were spared the worst of what was yet to come.

That began with Executive Order 9066, which I will cover next week.


* See page 27 in Dear Miss Breed by Joanne Oppenheim.

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