Revising citizenship in times of crisis: Lessons (un)learned from the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II

A sign outside a Japanese American-owned store in Oakland, California (March 1942). (Shutterstock)

The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is now regarded as a national embarrassment that must never be repeated. However, the mistreatment of Muslim Americans post-9/11 and of Asian Americans during the Covid-19 pandemic both utilise a strikingly similar and exclusionary rhetoric – sentiments the present British government has also chosen to echo. This leads one to wonder: How will future generations view contemporary perceptions of citizenship in the US and UK?

Background: The internment of US citizens during WW2

In February 1942, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, a document which enabled the US military ‘to prescribe military areas […] from which any or all persons may be excluded’. In doing so, he allowed General John DeWitt to redefine the American West Coast as a military exclusion zone and to forcibly remove all people of Japanese descent from California, Washington, Oregon, and Arizona.

The targets of this new law included first-generation (issei) migrants who had moved to the USA during their lifetime, but also second- (nisei) and third-generation (sansei) Japanese Americans. In total, 120,000 people (two-thirds of whom were US citizens) were displaced from their homes and sent to ‘assembly centers’ – and later, one of ten ‘relocation centers’ (commonly known as internment camps).

Internment was justified on racist assumptions that anyone of Japanese heritage would be loyal to Japan in wartime. The West Coast, the closest region to Japan and home to the majority of Japanese Americans, was reimagined as an ambiguous borderland during the ensuing conflict – one in which nobody of Japanese origin could be trusted. This logic was legally upheld by the Supreme Court three times, including Korematsu v. United States (1944), in which the Court concluded that the threat Japanese Americans posed to national security far outweighed their rights as citizens.

Extending borders, revising citizenship: from wartime America to contemporary Britain

It was, in effect, ‘an extension of the border beyond the point of immigration’, to quote Nisha Kapoor and Kasia Narkowicz. Writing about Britain in the twenty-first century, Kapoor and Narkowicz explore how governments can change the requirements for citizenship in ways that maintain ‘raced and classed structures of exclusion’, framing citizenship as a ‘privilege not a right, granted selectively and withdrawn from some’.

This is a troubling sentiment the current UK government has now extended through the Nationality and Borders Act, legislation which allows for the deprivation of citizenship without prior notification. In this sense, the Act bears a startling resemblance at times to the treatment of nisei and sansei victims of internment, who saw the terms of their citizenship revoked amid the political furore of World War II, purportedly in the interests of national security. Their rights as Americans simply did not matter to the US political hierarchy, with Colonel Karl Bendetsen arguing ‘if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must go to camp’. Internment is one of far too many examples of how ethnic minorities remain legally vulnerable even as citizens; it represents what Justice Frank Murphy called in his dissent in Korematsu v. United Statesa legalization of racism’, the deliberate targeting of non-white groups with origins overseas. 

Different crises, similar responses

In terminating Executive Order 9066 in 1976, President Ford called upon the American people to ‘resolve that this kind of action shall never again be repeated’. Twelve years later, the government passed the Civil Liberties Act, granting reparations to the victims of an internment process ‘motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership’.

Internment was now regarded as an aberration, with the government promising to never again make vast assumptions about the characteristics of minority groups. Nevertheless, this same rhetoric has repeatedly re-emerged during times of widespread panic. In the two decades since 9/11, for example, policies like the Patriot Act have been used to target Muslims under the guise of the ‘War on Terror’. In 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump even defended his proposed ban on Muslims entering the USA on the grounds that it was ‘no different from FDR’.

Protestors at an anti-Asian hate crimes march in Seattle, Washington (March 2021). The sentiment bears a striking resemblance to those seen in 1942. (Shutterstock)
Protestors at an anti-Asian hate crimes march in New York City (April 2021). The sentiment bears a striking resemblance to those seen in 1942. (Shutterstock)

Such sentiments are seen not just in the political sphere, but in the everyday as well. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the West Coast again became a hotbed of anti-Asian sentiment. From March-May 2020 alone, Asian Americans in California reported 832 cases of discrimination and harassment relating to Covid-19, an average of 10 per day. One clear sentiment that tied all these incidents together was a view among the perpetrators that Asian Americans should ‘go back to China’. California had been recast in the minds of many as a borderland, one where people of Asian descent (17.8% of the state’s population) posed a threat to the American way of life and were thus no longer welcome. Covid-19 had been conflated with the character of all Asian people, who naturally had to go.

This disturbing viewpoint will likely become more widely rejected and regretted in time. Sadly, however, Ford’s contention that it ‘shall never again be repeated’ – whether in the US or here in the UK – seems woefully optimistic.

Ollie Imray is a postgraduate student at SOAS, working towards an MSc in Development Studies. He has a background in international development and education, and is a member of the Programmes Team at United World Schools.

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