Japanese Americans in World War II lived a curiously ironic experience. Most felt the same sense of belonging and patriotism that ordinary Americans did and a desire to support America against her enemies, both German and Japanese. "I had no doubt about my allegiance to the United States. This was my country. This was my home," said Tomi Kaizawa. Yet most found themselves viewed, in one way or another, as enemy aliens, responsible in some way for the catastrophe at Pearl Harbor. Whether they were emigrants from Japan, living legally but without U.S. citizenship (the Issei) or their children, born in the United States and with full citizenship (the Nisei), the government and the rest of the American public did not believe them part of the American nation.
Ethnic Japanese had been treated with some suspicion before the war. Along with other Asian countries, immigration from Japan was severely restricted in the early 1920s. Aware of their ambiguous status, Nisei often went out of their way to be more American than Americans. They joined the Boy Scouts. They played baseball.
When Pearl Harbor came in 1941, it was thus a startling shock for Japanese Americans made worse because of their ties to both sides. Tomi Kaizawa remembered her reaction on December 7th: "Everything had changed. Japan, which had been such a strong influence on my life, was now the enemy. I churned with anger and shame that a nation of people related to me had done something so horrible." Horrible as it was, the situation rapidly became worse. Japanese Americans found themselves the targets of an American populace who, unable to strike directly at their attackers, took the Issei and Nisei for a ready substitute.
Akira Nakamura, who was going through basic training in December 1941, found that out: "All Nisei soldiers were marched to the front of the Ft. Lewis base headquarters, escorted by MPs [military police]. The Ft. Lewis commanding officers looked upon [us] as though [we] were POWs and announced: 'If any of you soldiers should make a suspicious or false move or activity while at my command, you are ordered to be shot at sight.'" The reaction continued in the weeks and months after Pearl Harbor. In Hawaii, the number of ethnic Japanese was too large to be locked up, but in California and the other western states, there was a growing sentiment to confine the Nisei and Issei. The result was Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on 19 February 1942, which ordered the segregation of ethnic Japanese in internment camps to be built in the interior west, away from the coast.
Those affected by the order were given little time to comply. The result was "near-panic," as thousands of ethnic Japanese tried to deal with homes, cars, and possessions. "Human vultures" descended, offering insultingly low prices for furniture, appliances, and anything else. "Some [Japanese Americans] . . . smashed their stuff, broke it up, right before the buyers' eyes because they offered such ridiculous prices." From processing centers, they were sent to camps in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. The camps themselves were thrown together; rough wooden barracks with little in the way of amenities, surrounded by barbed wire fences, and patrolled by guards with rifles.
Despite the treatment, the Nisei sought military service to help defend the United States. First, in Hawaii, came the 100th Battalion, formed in June 1942 from Nisei volunteer soldiers. Kaoru Watanabe volunteered, a decision that his father, an Issei, supported: "We were born and raised as Americans and wanted to be treated as Americans. My father fully supported my volunteering, saying that America was my country and I must defend it, even if I [was] sent off to the Japanese war and must fight Japanese relatives." This was not always the feeling. Mituso Usui's parents pointed this out to him in no uncertain terms: "At first, my parents were against me for volunteering. They felt that evacuation was a 'kick in the pants' and now you are going to volunteer?" Usui volunteered anyway, as did thousands of his compatriots. In recognition of this determination, Secretary of War Henry Stimson in early 1943 established an all-volunteer unit for Japanese Americans, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Once in the military, the Nisei behaved, in many ways, like typical soldiers. They were young men, away from their parents. During basic training in Wisconsin, Peter Kawahara remembered, as any soldier might, "the nightly quota of beverages" and the "big blonde women." They were often treated like ordinary soldiers, especially in theater. Kawahara remembered that the Iowa 34th National Guard Division, went out of their way and helped the 442nd "wisen" up to combat in Italy. Wallace Nunotani remembered that "like all military personnel, we all griped about everything."
In many ways, the Nisei experience of combat and the enemy echoed that of every other American soldier. Kawahara respected the German soldiers but not the Italians, and was particularly wary of the German 88mm antitank gun. He was scared going into combat, while much of his noncombat life centered on the mail, and he was frequently homesick. For him, the main job of a soldier was to "to dodge shells, bombs, machine gun fire, booby traps, cold, snow, wind, dust, rain, hunger, pain, everything in the books."
But the Nisei could not escape their delicate situation. There was a strong sense that they were there not merely to defend America, but to demonstrate themselves to it. "Everyone in the 100th and 442nd Combat Team [was] out to prove that we were 100% Americans," Kiyoshi H. Shimizu recalled. Kawahara thought that America was a "sacred land," that he was willing to defend, even though there was so much "hatred, greed, and intolerance practiced in the sacred land of liberty and freedom and justice."
Peace meant a return to racial business as usual. Racial slurs became more common, and Japanese American soldiers found themselves subject to hostile treatment. Peter Kawahara remembered, after the war ended, getting "involved in a lot of interracial scraps and fights with 'white' American soldiers." The return home was bittersweet. Kawahara remembered with joy his first sight of Hawaii after years away, but then found that the "Red Cross at the port in Honolulu did not give us donuts or coffee—the gray old ladies in Honolulu could not conceive of us 'yellow' boys being American soldiers."
And that perhaps sums up the experience of ethnic Japanese in World War II. They spent the conflict lost between two nations, asserting and proving their right to belong to one, whether as residents or citizens, while still feeling the tug of the other. And the war became a war to prove themselves, however unwillingly. They might resent what was being done to their families and friends and selves, but they saw little other way to serve than to fight for their nation, even if their government dispossessed them of land, despoiled them of possessions, and caged them behind barbed wire.
Daniels, Roger. Prisoners without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993.; Duus, Masayo. Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and 442nd. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007; Kashima, Tetsuden. Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment During World War II. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004; Masuda, Minoru. Letters From the 442nd: The World War II Correspondence of a Japanese American Medic. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008; Muller, Eric L. Free to Die for Their Country. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001; Tanaka Shinichi. Tanaka Sakusen Bucho no Kaiso. Tokyo: Fuyo-Shobo, 1978.