An interview with Greg Robinson, author of A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America

Historians in the News

Q: Is there any need for a new book on Japanese Americans and World War II? Many have already been written, including one by you. Hasn’t everything important already been said about Executive Order 9066 and the camps?

Greg Robinson: Actually, this book contains a great deal of recently discovered material about Japanese Americans. Part of it is that new documents have been released on the wartime events, and books have not studied the period before and after World War II as an integral part of them. It changes your view of official policy toward Japanese Americans, for example, if you consider that the Army and Justice Department were already preparing to hold masses of enemy aliens—and building a set of what they called “concentration camps” for them—months before the United States entered the war. But what is even more new and vital about the book, I think, is that it is the first transnational study of the subject. It covers the removal and confinement of Japanese not just in the United States but in Canada and Mexico as well and also tells the story of the Japanese Latin Americans who were sent to the United States and placed in camps.

Q: Why should we care about the treatment of ethnic Japanese in other countries?

GR: What happened to Japanese Americans is part of a larger history, and it is useful to look at their experience alongside that of their counterparts elsewhere. Moreover, if we study events and official policies in Canada and Mexico, which are neighbors with certain similarities in their politics, culture and economies, we get a clearer idea of the causes and results of confinement in the United States. For example, in Canada the Army and Navy chiefs opposed mass removal, but it was ordered nonetheless. This tells us something about the importance of military opinion in the decision making process in those countries. In Mexico ethnic Japanese were ordered off the west coast in the beginning of January 1942, more than a month before Washington took similar action and several months before Mexico even declared war on Japan. If the Mexicans did this so quickly, why did the Americans wait?

Q: What do you feel is the most important single contribution of this book?

GR: I think that the section on wartime Hawaii is particularly compelling, because it tells a story that is unknown to most Americans yet has direct parallels with the present. After Pearl Harbor the U.S. Army pushed through a declaration of martial law in what was then the Territory of Hawaii, abolished the U.S. Constitution, and suspended the elected government. The Army also closed down the courts and created instead a set of military tribunals to judge all criminal cases, even those involving American civilians. Defendants had no due process or legal protections. Virtually all those accused were found guilty and often given harsh sentences. Eventually these military tribunals were challenged in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. While there was no mass removal of Japanese Americans in Hawaii, the Army held on to arbitrary power long after any threat of invasion from Tokyo had ceased and justified its rule by claiming that Japanese Americans needed to be controlled. So the events in Hawaii not only relate in fascinating ways to the removal of ethnic Japanese on the mainland, but they also offer a prelude for thinking about the current situation at Guantanamo and the military tribunals there.

Q: Why do you call the book “A Tragedy of Democracy”?

GR: It is my way of reminding people what is important about the wartime treatment of Japanese in North America. What these people went through is not in a class with the great crimes of the war years. There were no real atrocities: no mass murders, no deliberate torture, and some provision for schools and health care. Rather, what is most troubling about their confinement is the failure of democracy under pressure. The leaders of a group of free governments dedicated to fighting and winning a war against tyranny singled out tens or hundreds of thousands of their own citizens and long-term residents on racial grounds, removed them arbitrarily from their homes, and in most cases ordered them into internal exile and confinement.

Q: Why do you say “confinement” and not “internment” to describe the treatment of Japanese Americans and others?

GR: In technical legal terms, the word “internment” refers to the imprisonment of enemy aliens by governments in time of war. The Justice Department did intern a few thousand Japanese aliens, as well as a similar number of German and Italian aliens, in this manner. All such aliens were granted hearings soon after they were taken into custody, and only those individuals considered dangerous were actually interned. In Canada the federal government interned hundreds of Italian Canadian aliens in addition to some citizens and only later granted them hearings. However, this differs greatly from the shoddy treatment received by West Coast Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians, where entire populations consisting predominantly of native-born children were taken away with no hearings and locked away in remote areas despite the fact that they were citizens. The word “internment” is even less useful for Mexico’s treatment of Japanese since people were forced to move themselves. That there is no exact term to define these actions reveals how unprecedented and extralegal they were, although both governments invented euphemisms such as “evacuation” for them. In order to avoid confusion and promote understanding, I chose to use the words “removal” and “confinement” because they give a reasonable sense of what occurred and are also inclusive enough to cover the gamut of policies that were put in place in different countries.

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