The Suspect Americans: A Prelude to Japanese Internment During World War II

A large sign reading “I am an American” placed in the window of a store in Oakland, CA on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from certain West Coast areas. The owner, a University of California graduate, will be housed with hundreds of evacuees in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration of the war.

“If we ever have war with Japan,” Lail Kane told the Japanese American Citizens League, “and I have anything to say about it, the first thing I’ll do will be intern every one of you.”

At the time Kane’s comment appeared in a 1939 Post article by Magner White, it must have sounded ridiculous to many Americans. But Lail Kane, a World War I veteran and a prominent white citizen of San Francisco, spoke for many Americans who hated and feared the Japanese Americans living on the West Coast.

(Read the entire article, “Between Two Flags” by Magner White from The Saturday Evening Post, September 30, 1939.)

White learned of Kane’s comment when he interviewed Togo Tanaka, editor at the Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese-American newspaper in Los Angeles. When asked about white citizens’ resentment of Japanese Americans, Tanaka acknowledged anti-Asian racism was a serious problem. Yet he was confident white Americans would eventually accept Japanese Americans as equals. Until that time, he and other children of Japanese immigrants would work to win their approval.

For people like Lail Kane, though, there seemed to be nothing that could reduce their fear and suspicion. He was convinced Japanese Americans were spying for the Imperial Japanese government. The only solution, when war came, was to put every Japanese American in an internment camp, deep in the desert, for as long as necessary.

You get the sense reading the article that Tanaka simply couldn’t believe Kane’s comment. The idea! Imagine sticking American citizens into internment camps, without trial or right of appeal!

Japanese report for relocation
San Francisco, Calif., Apr. 1942 – residents of Japanese ancestry, in response to the US Army’s Exclusion order No. 20, appearing at the Civil control station and being registered for housing in War relocation authority centers for the duration of the war.

I can’t find much information about Lail Kane, but it appears he had some influence with the government. Either that or he happened to share the racist opinions of some powerful people on the West Coast. Because when war came, the government gathered up over 100,000 Japanese Americans and shipped them to camps in remote areas of Western states. Of this number, 80,000 were first- or second-generation Japanese Americans — U.S. citizens. Their parents, born in Japan, were not; American laws made them ineligible for citizenship.

What made Kane’s comment so shameful was that first-generation Japanese Americans were doing all they could to prove their loyalty to their country. The leader of the Japanese American Citizens League told White, “We are doing our best to educate ourselves for better American citizenship, and then in turn to present ourselves to the American public. No matter what handicaps we have to face, our place is primarily here in the United States and we must prove to America that we are good citizens. We shall simply bide our time and live down the things being said against us.”

Anti-Asian racism had a long history on the West Coast. Many white American settlers, themselves newly arrived in California, resented Asian immigrants, many of whom had come to build America’s railroads. The Japanese, and Chinese, were shunned by many American communities and so kept to themselves. The resentment grew, particularly when some white Americans saw Japanese immigrants’ businesses and farms thriving.

Hatred of the Japanese and their American-born children became mingled with fear in the 1930s, when white Americans worried that Japanese, and their foreign-born parents, were working for the Imperial Japanese government. Learning of the atrocities Japan was inflicting on China, many of these Americans looked accusingly at them.

“When the newsreels were showing the Shanghai bombings,” White wrote, “movie audiences in Los Angeles often showed their feelings. One evening, Fumiye Ruth Tanaka, a svelte, typical compact-carrying, fashionably dressed girl, was in one of these audiences. There flashed a bombing scene.” The scene, known today as Bloody Saturday, showed a baby crying near a railroad track amidst the ruins of Shanghai’s South Railway Station, the lone survivor in a scene of death. The movie crowd began to hiss and boo. A woman next to Tanaka turned on her, noted her features, and demanded, “Are you Japanese or Chinese?”

“Pardon me,” Tanaka said politely, “I’m neither! I’m an American!”

Tanaka was correct. But her innocence, and citizenship, wouldn’t have helped when, three years later, she was forced to leave her home and most of her possessions for a small room in wooden barracks in the middle of the desert.

There was surprisingly little outcry at the internment of Japanese Americans. In the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, most Americans were too enraged to consider seemingly fine points of law, which fortunately didn’t apply to them. Stalwart defenders of civil liberties, like Eleanor Roosevelt, said nothing. The American Civil Liberties Union, which normally would have taken up such a case, chose to remain mute on the matter of internment.

At some level, though, Americans must have recognized the inconsistency of defending freedom while suspending it for their own people. Even Lail Kane, who wanted all Japanese treated as hostile aliens, told White, “In case of war, I wouldn’t hesitate to intern them. On the other hand, we mustn’t forget that they are American citizens and have just as much right to be here as you and I.”

As for Togo Tanaka, despite his efforts to prove his loyalty, he was arrested the day after Pearl Harbor and held in jail for 11 days without any charge. He was released, but soon gathered up with the rest of the Japanese Americans and sent to Camp Manzanar in April 1942. His efforts to cooperate with the government authorities during his confinement won him the enmity of other detainees, and he was eventually relocated to another camp to escape reprisals from other detainees. Released in 1943, he moved to Chicago. He passed away in 2009, a successful businessman who finally gained the respect for which he had long worked.

Between Two Flags by Magner White
Between Two Flags by Magner White, September 30, 1939

Read the entire article, “Between Two Flags” by Magner White from The Saturday Evening Post, September 30, 1939.

Step into 1939 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post 75 years ago: