Second-Class Citizens

Monday, February 3, 2014

I am currently researching a historical middle-grade novel based on the Japanese-American incarceration during World War II, and I believe it is important for all Americans to understand the appalling things we did to loyal citizens in the name of patriotism. (A subsequent post will explain why I use the word “incarceration.”) Since it will be a while before the book is written and finds a publisher, I have decided to dedicate a number of posts to the subject.

It actually started before Pearl Harbor. First-generation Japanese Americans, called Issei, were not allowed to become U.S. citizens, no matter how loyal they were or how long they had been in this country. In the Pacific states they were also prohibited from owning land, although many got around it by buying the land in their children’s names. Those same states, and some others, also made it illegal for anyone of Japanese ancestry to marry outside their race.

The second generation, called Nisei, had it somewhat better. They were born in the U.S. and became citizens at birth under the terms of the U.S. Constitution. As mentioned above, they were also allowed to own land, but they still couldn’t marry outside their race.

The Nisei (and some of their parents) tended to be well-educated. They spoke English as well as other native-born Americans, and they often had advanced degrees. Getting an education was easier than finding a job, however, and the West Coast was populated with engineers working as dish washers and store clerks.

Why this prejudice? Some of it was undoubtedly economic. The Japanese were accepted in Hawaii, where Japanese labor and Japanese businesses were vital to the island economy. They were largely ignored in the Midwest and on the East Coast, where their numbers were so small that they had little effect on the workforce. But they were often hated on the West Coast, where their hard work and business savvy made them serious competitors to many Caucasians.

Still, it was probably more complicated than that. It takes effort to identify with people who are different than we are, and the Japanese stood out because of their looks as well as their work ethic.

Whatever the reason, the prejudice was felt most strongly by the Issei. The Nisei had Japanese ancestors but considered themselves 100% American. No, they didn’t just consider themselves 100% American. They were 100% American.

That’s why subsequent events hit them so hard.

Next week I’ll write about the reaction to Pearl Harbor.

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If you would like to learn more about the experience of Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast at the start of World War II, here are some books I recommend.
·         Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston;

·         Dear Miss Breed by Joanne Oppenheim;

·         Nisei Daughter by Monica Sone; and

·         The Children of Topaz by Michael O. Tunnell and George W. Chilcoat.

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The photograph at the top of this post was taken by Dorothea Lange in Oakland, California during March 1942. It appears to have been taken as part of her official duties while employed by the United States government, thereby placing it in the public domain.

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