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Japanese American authors tell of WWII experiences in new collection

The cover of "The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration" and one of the editors Frank Abe. (Courtesy of Penguin Random House and Kayla Isomura)
The cover of "The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration" and one of the editors Frank Abe. (Courtesy of Penguin Random House and Kayla Isomura)

The new collection “The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration” features works by Japanese American authors impacted by the forced relocation of 125,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry by the U.S. government during World War II.

Host Scott Tong speaks with Frank Abe and Floyd Cheung who edited the collection.

Floyd Cheung is one of the editors of the collection. (Courtesy)

Book excerpt: ‘The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration’

Edited by Frank Abe and Floyd Cheung


The literature in this volume presents the collective voice of a people defined by a specific moment in time: the four years of World War II during which the United States government expelled resident aliens and its own citizens from their homes, farms, and businesses, and incarcerated more than 125,000 of them in American concentration camps, based solely upon the race they shared with a wartime enemy.

Bowing to popular fear after planes from the Imperial Japanese Navy bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawai‘i on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress denied Americans of Japanese ancestry any individual hearings or other due process before authorizing their mass removal and imprisonment. Government officials registered and numbered them by family, then subjected the captive people to a series of administrative orders, including a second registration with a loyalty questionnaire, a segregation based upon the results of that questionnaire, the military conscription of young men from the camps, and the offer of voluntary renunciation of American citizenship. By its own latter-day admission, the government had no military need for the mass exclusion—acknowledging that it was driven by a mixture of race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership—rendering the three-year incarceration that followed just as unnecessary as it was wrong.

This anthology reclaims and reframes the writing produced by the people targeted by these actions. You will hear many voices telling a shared story. It’s the story of the struggle to retain personal integrity in the face of increasing dehumanization.

The selections favor writing that is pointed rather than poignant. Not all are polished, but each conveys a central truth. We present these writings chronologically so that readers can trace the continuum of events as the incarcerees experienced it. This collection contains a mix of prose and poetry, of fiction and of nonfiction drawn from essays, memoirs, and letters, all anchored by the key government edicts that incite the action. The first two sections feature pieces written at the time or later in retrospect. The postwar section includes the work of the children of the camps, the third- and fourth-generation descendants who look back across the divide of time and memory to grasp the meaning of mass incarceration and its long- term consequences to themselves and the nation.

In place of familiar selections readily found elsewhere, this volume recovers pieces that have been long overlooked on the shelf, buried in the archives, or languished unread in the Japanese language. The number of new translations from the Japanese we present testifies to one of the long-term effects of camp: the loss of language and culture due to regulation, suppression, and the ongoing stigma of acknowledging any affinity to Japan. These selections focus on the incarceration of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government and as such do not address the incarceration of Japanese Canadians or the kidnapping of Japanese Latin Americans for a hostage-exchange program.

Our commentary for this volume avoids euphemisms historically used to describe the mass exclusion and incarceration, but these terms are left intact where they appear in the texts. “Evacuation” is a word best applied to humanitarian removal for safety from natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods. “Internment” legally applies only to the detention of those designated as enemy aliens, while the confinement of citizens and of resident aliens who were denied the opportunity of naturalized U.S. citizenship is properly called an “incarceration.” Euphemisms for the camps include “colony,” “project,” and “relocation center.” By definition, these were concentration camps—places where large numbers of a persecuted minority are confined under armed guard—and were regularly referred to as such at the time; they are distinct from the extermination centers or death camps of the Third Reich.

The original language of the texts is also preserved where it includes racial slurs and dismissive stereotyping, which reflects the ethnic prejudices and class hierarchies of the time but which some readers will find upsetting. Where the occasional profanity occurs, it is retained to convey the impact intended by the writer. Ellipses indicate excisions to enhance readability. Where chapters or excerpts do not come with a heading, we have taken the liberty of adding a title drawn from the text itself.

Many of the voices in this volume are those of protest against incarceration. Some are those of accommodation. All are authentic. Together they form an epic narrative with a singular vision of America’s past, one with disturbing resonances with the American present.

This excerpt originally appeared in “The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration,” published by Penguin Random House. Reprinted here with permission.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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