In the 1880s, scores of Japanese citizens made their way to the Hawaiian Islands and the western United States. Amazingly, they arrived after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Federal law prohibited Hawaiian plantation owners from hiring much-needed laborers from China, but nothing was to preclude them from engaging the Japanese. About half of the Japanese workers arriving in Hawaii eventually made their way to California, Oregon, and Washington. Within twenty years, around 100,000 Japanese had made their migration across the Pacific. This migration would not have happened without the permission of Japan’s Meiji Emperor, of course, but by 1924, Japanese immigrants to Hawaii and the western states exceeded 200,000. By 1920, around 40% of the population of Hawaii was Japanese.
The question is, why would so many Japanese want to immigrate to a land so foreign to them in language and culture? One explanation is that the Japanese government pushed many of its citizens out of their own country. The Meiji period was one of rapid industrialization and modernization. The only people suitable for such a shift were educated individuals willing to open their minds to a new way of living. But there was also a monetary cost to modernization — costs imposed on Japanese farmers in the form of high taxes. In the 1880s, more than 300,000 Japanese farmers lost their farmlands because they could not pay the Meiji taxes. When information arrived in Japan that Hawaiian pineapple producers needed laborers, it set into motion “netsu” fever — immigration fever.
Japanese who were of a mind to immigrate realized that if you snooze, you lose. Hawaiian plantation owners offered the unbelievably high wages of $30.00 a month. It was no sacrifice to the plantation owners, of course, who also had the advantage of circumstances that precluded the Japanese from forming labor organizations. Initially, the immigrants were mostly men who, without women, became a lonely, unhappy lot in Hawaii. This problem was solved when plantation owners devised a plan for “picture brides.” Picture brides were encouraged by the Meiji government because — well, in Japan, women have limited roles. Besides, the “picture bride” scheme fits somewhat nicely with Japanese traditional (arranged) marriages.
If the American people weren’t happy with Chinese folks, the die was cast when waves of Japanese people began moving to California, people who, in the eyes of that translated Oklahoma farmer looked the same as Chinese. In 1906, the San Francisco School Board excluded 93 Japanese students from attending public school. They should, instead, attend “Chinese schools.” Japanese parents first tried to change the mind of school board members, who were under pressure from the Asiatic Exclusion League (AEL). The goals of the AEL were simple enough: end Japanese immigration. When the school board refused to reconsider their idiotic ruling, Japanese parents kicked up a fuss, prompting diplomatic problems in Washington. President Theodore Roosevelt supported the Japanese, although not because he disagreed with racial exclusion, but because he was trying to broker a peace deal between Japan and Russia. Eventually, San Francisco rescinded their segregation order, which enabled Roosevelt to negotiate a “gentleman’s agreement” with the Japanese government to stop issuing exit visas to Japanese laborers.
Today, school segregation might seem appalling, but in 1906, some Japanese (or other Asians) might have been just as happy with that arrangement as were the whites. Asians value their culture and wish, whenever possible, to preserve it. The formation of Chinese or Japanese districts in California wasn’t something simply imposed upon them by whites. In 1906, Asians preferred their own company and still do. A considerable section of the Westminster section of Orange County, California, now caters to Vietnamese.
In 1913, California’s legislature passed the California Alien Land Law. The Webb-Haney Act prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning farmland or possessing long-term leases over it. The law applied to Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Korean immigrants — although the law was aimed directly at the Japanese farmer. Of course, limiting land ownership to people eligible for citizenship does appear reasonable even if the average Joe living in California didn’t care who owned the land. But white farmers cared. They preferred not to compete with Japanese farmers for a share of the agricultural market — and wealthy white farmers and industrialists have a tremendous influence in California politicians.
If there was any question about institutional discrimination in 1920, the federal government put that issue to rest with the Immigration Act of 1924. The Act was a combination of three federal laws that included a process of excluding Asians through quota limitations, by country, and through the creation of the US Border Patrol to enforce those limitations. The Japanese government was not particularly happy with the Immigration Act of 1924, but there was little they could do about it beyond adding this irritation to a growing list of complaints about American policies.
The federal government doubled down on the Japanese-American population on 19 February 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered 127,000 people of Japanese ancestry into internment camps. Around 112,000 of those people lived on the west coast. Roosevelt, by executive order 9066, ordered all of them to surrender to the War Relocation Authority. The federal government took most of those on the west coast to about a dozen internment camps located in California, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Arkansas, and Utah.
According to some (perhaps, even, many) proof of white racism in the United States was the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. There may have been racialists in the Roosevelt administration, and indeed, there probably were, but Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to act pursuant to the Alien Enemies Act (1798, amended) was legal — and prudent — on 12 December 1945. Under this authority, the President may apprehend, restrain, imprison, or deport any non-citizen enemy of the United States. President Roosevelt exercised this authority by issuing Executive Proclamations 2525 (Alien Enemies-Japanese), 2526 (Alien Enemies-German), and 2527 (Alien Enemies-Italian).
As for interning citizens of the United States, Executive Order 9066 does not mention any person whatsoever. It merely asserts the following: “Whereas the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national defense utilities […] authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the military commanders […] to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent […] from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave, shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War […] may impose in his discretion.”
Were the President to intern only Japanese-American citizens, then we could make a reasonable claim toward racist policies of a white president toward Asian citizens of the United States, but in fact, citizens of the United States of Japanese, German, and Italian ancestry were interned throughout the United States during World War II.
In 1940, there was no shortage of Americans who spoke fluent German, and there was no shortage of people who understood German culture. However, one article in early 1942 claimed that no more than 100 non-Japanese persons could speak Japanese with any fluency, and none of them understood Japanese culture. This is an essential aspect of language proficiency because culture often dictates linguistic nuances and facial expressions while speaking. It wasn’t long after the United States entered into World War II that the War Department realized that Japanese language specialists would become vital to winning the war against Japan.
Here’s what the War Department did know: that, beginning in early December 1941, Imperial Japan had handed the United States and its allies one major defeat after another, from the Japanese Navy’s attack at Pearl Harbor, to tossing the United States out of the Philippines. Japan’s assault was so sudden and unexpected that they destroyed nearly all MacArthur’s aircraft while they were sitting on numerous airfields. Japan also caused the British, French, and Dutch empires in Southeast Asia to fold like a deck of cards, and then on top of all this, the Japanese Empire threatened India, Australia, Alaska, Hawaii, and the West Coast of the United States. Everyone living in California expected a massive Japanese invasion following Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo.
American field commanders were desperate for information about Japanese intentions. Only one group of people in the United States could help answer these questions: Japanese-Americans. Despite the wholesale internment of Japanese-American citizens, there was not a single instance of any Japanese citizen acting against the United States’ interests in time of war. None.
Still, until May 1942, the concept of using Nisei (the children of Japanese-born parents) as language interpreters, translators, and interrogators was untested. The United States created the Fourth Army Intelligence School to test this hypothesis. The initial results were so successful that the War Department stepped up the training of Japanese-American intelligence specialists. The success in using Japanese linguists also led the War Department to employ Japanese as all-Nisei combatants in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) and 100th (Independent) Infantry Battalion.
On 1 May 1942, the first 40 Japanese-American intelligence specialists (and two officers) graduated from an old, dilapidated hangar at the Fourth Army Intelligence School at Crissy Field. But these graduates had no idea what awaited them after graduation — and neither did the War Department. When orders finally arrived for these young men, they still didn’t know where they were going. In a few weeks, the Navy would win two important sea battles, but only barely. A few weeks later, Marines would land on Guadalcanal, but their hold on that god-forsaken island would remain tenuous for nearly half a year. In mid-April 1942, even before class graduation, Army Lieutenant Colonel Moses W. Pettigrew, Head of the Eastern branch of the Military Intelligence Division, allocated one officer and five Nisei language specialists to the US 37th Infantry Division. However, the division commander would only accept them once Pettigrew certified that these men were reliable, useful, and trustworthy. Colonel Pettigrew had no hesitance in doing that.
But Pettigrew was hesitant to offer Nisei linguists beyond his capability to provide them. Forty recent graduates weren’t many, considering the size of the battlespace. In that first class, of 58 enrolled Nisei, only 40 graduated. The washout rate was even worse for Caucasian officers. Of 36 officers who volunteered for the course, only two graduated. It was a situation that forced Pettigrew into making tough choices about where to send his limited number of Nisei. One Caucasian officer and eight Nisei went to MacArthur’s headquarters in Australia. One officer and three Nisei ended up with the US 37th; six Nisei went to New Caledonia.
None of Pettigrew’s graduates went to Hawaii. The Military Department of Hawaii didn’t want any Japanese-American soldiers, no matter what their specialty. In fact, after the start of the war, the Selective Service Board of Hawaii suspended inductions of Japanese-Americans, even after 2,000 Nisei were already serving in uniform. Most of these men ultimately ended up in the 100th (Independent) Infantry Battalion. Still, in the meantime, as Army and Navy commanders struggled to meet the growing demand for Japanese language specialists, a couple of thousand Nisei in Hawaii found themselves performing engineering tasks and guard duty assignments.
In April 1942, the Army’s Military Intelligence Division dispatched Nisei Masanori Minamoto to Bora Bora, where he was assigned to the 102nd Infantry. Since Minamoto had no intelligence tasks and no prisoners to interrogate, the Army assigned him to drive a truck. Driving trucks, standing guard duty, and digging ditches are all these young specialists did through 1942; no one was sure what they were supposed to do. Occasionally, their commanders tasked them with translating Japanese magazines, books, and letters confiscated by residents — but beyond that, there were no “mission essential” tasks for them to perform.
In August, two American submarines carried a Marine raiding party to Makin Island in the Central Pacific to discover Japanese intentions. One of these Marines was Captain Gerald P. Holtom, who was born and raised in Japan. When the Marines returned to Hawaii, they had large quantities of captured Japanese documents, including Japanese plans, charts, orders of battle, and top-secret maps indicating air defenses, military strengths, methods of alerts, types of material, and so on forth. What these Marines did not bring back with them was Captain Holtom; he was killed and left behind on Makin Island.
The Marines had a handful of men who could speak Japanese when they went ashore at Tulagi and Guadalcanal, but no Nisei. While the Marines did capture a few prisoners, they could not extract any useful information. The Marines might have taken a few more Japanese prisoners, but at this point in the war, Marines were in no mood for it, and Marine officers had yet to learn the value of interrogating prisoners rather than shooting them. It wasn’t entirely the Marines’ fault.
On 12 August, the 1st Marine Division intelligence officer, Lieutenant Colonel Frank B. Goettge, led a combat patrol behind Japanese lines to capture enemy prisoners. Accompanying the patrol was First Lieutenant Ralph Cory, a Japanese language officer. Goettge and his Marines walked into a murderous ambush and had to withdraw. Goettge and Cory were among the wounded men the Marines, out of necessity, had left behind. Upon returning to friendly lines, the surviving Marines told their story of Japanese soldiers executing the wounded Marines in a most grizzly fashion. The account spread throughout the command, which convinced Marines that the Japanese were untrustworthy, treacherous bastards. Afterward, combat Marines were not inclined to take any prisoners. This attitude was not lost on the Army’s Nisei linguists; they tended to give the Marines a wide birth.
Six additional Nisei intelligence specialists arrived on Guadalcanal between September-November 1942 (and several more school-trained Caucasian officers). On Tulagi, Marines discovered a list of call signs and code names for all Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) ships and airbases. The G-1 flew this information to Noumea, where Nisei worked for several days to translate it. The primary translator, Shigeru Yamashita (California born but raised in Japan until the age of 19), testified to the task’s difficulty but stated that everyone realized the importance of their work and every Nisei wanted to prove their loyalty to the United States. This is undoubtedly true, but the Marines and soldiers in the forward areas didn’t know that.
The only good Jap …
Captain John A. Burden was born in Japan and rated as an excellent speaker of Japanese. The Army sent him to New Caledonia with three Nisei translators. There was little work for translators on New Caledonia, but elsewhere, field commanders were begging for Japanese language specialists. Despite this demand, Captain Burden languished on that isolated island. In December, Admiral Halsey visited with the US 37th Infantry Division. During his visit, the Division G-2 commented, “Sir, I understand you’re looking for a Japanese Language Officer.” Admiral Halsey replied, “They’re driving me crazy for one, but I don’t know where to find one.” The G-2 then introduced Captain Burden to Halsey, and the following day, Burden was en route to Guadalcanal.
On Guadalcanal, Burden found two Marine officers and five enlisted men working as interrogators. Of the seven Marines, only one had any proficiency in the language. To test their ability, Burden had each Marine interrogate every POW, but at the end of the day, the only information they had was the POW’s name and rank. What Burden learned was that none of these Marine really understood Japanese. Burden sent them back to the line. When he interviewed the POWs, there almost wasn’t enough paper to write down all these prisoners had to say.
On 17 December, the US 25th Infantry Division joined the 1st Marine Division and Army Americal Division on Guadalcanal. It wasn’t long before Captain Burden noted that soldiers were as reluctant as the Marines to take prisoners. Burden heard one regimental commander berating his men for bringing in prisoners. He told his men, “Don’t bother taking prisoners, just shoot the sons of bitches. The only good Jap is a dead Jap.” The standard excuse for not bringing in prisoners was that they were “shot while trying to escape.” Eventually, Burden convinced regimental and battalion commanders of the value of Japanese interrogations and translating documents. Afterward, field commanders promised ice cream and a three-day off-island pass to anyone who would bring in a live prisoner. Within a short time, Captain Burden was processing an astonishing amount of information, and what Burden learned from this was that the Japanese were nearly manic in their penchant for writing things down.
Early in the war, the War Department saw propaganda value in forming and maintaining segregated units, generally divided into African, Puerto Rican, Filipino, and Japanese units. Thus, during 1942, the War Department organized the 1st Filipino Infantry in California, battalion-sized units of Norwegians, Austrians, and Greeks. Henry L. Stimson complained to Roosevelt about such formations. He wanted to Americanize the U. S. Army, not segregate it. Roosevelt demurred, essentially telling Stimson, “I must be the one to determine the advantages, if any.” So, at the end of November 1942, the War Department decided to form a Nisei regiment. In announcing the new unit, the always political Roosevelt said, “No loyal citizen of the United States should be denied the democratic right to exercise the responsibilities of his citizenship, regardless of his ancestry.” The first Nisei volunteers reported to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, for training in April 1943. The catalyst for this entire process was the initial graduates of the Fourth Army Intelligence School. The Nisei of military intelligence may not have assaulted the German machineguns in Italy, but there is little doubt that these Japanese language experts saved American lives by providing critical information to field commanders on their march across the Pacific. The definition of someone who saves lives is … hero.
- Connell, T. America’s Japanese Hostages: The US Plan for a Japanese-free Hemisphere. Praeger-Greenwood, 2002.
- De Nevers, N. C. The Colonel and the Pacifist: Karl Bendetsen, Perry Saito, and the Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II. University of Utah Press, 2004.
- Glidden, W. “Internment Camps in America, 1917-1920,” Military Affairs, v.37 (1979), 137-41.
- Harth, E. Last Witness: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans. Palgrave, 2001.
- Krammer, A. Undue Process: The Untold Story of America’s German Alien Internees. Rowan & Littlefield, 1997.
 According to the 1940 census, 1.2 million persons identified as being of German birth; 5 million persons claimed German-born parents; 6 million persons claimed one parent born in Germany. A large number of these people had “recent connections” to Germany. The numbers involved and their political and economic influences explain why there was no “large scale” relocation and internment. However, an estimated 12,000 German-American citizens were interned during World War II.
 German-American citizens were similarly interned during World War I.
 Life Magazine, September 1942.
 This work was prepared as a collaborative effort with Mr. Koji Kanemoto, whose family endured the indignity of Roosevelt’s internment policies, and whose father served in the U. S. Army Military Intelligence Service.