An Interview with an Older Nisei Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As the United States' involvement in World War II unfolded in early 1942, certain influential military officials—especially General John L. DeWitt—focused on what they perceived to be the threat of subversive activity by people of Japanese birth or ancestry living in the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt followed DeWitt's recommendation and signed Executive Order 9066, which stated that anyone deemed a potential threat to national security could be detained in internment camps. Typically given only one or two days to put their affairs in order, Japanese Americans, such as the “older Nisei” interviewed in this document, had to leave their lives behind to be transported to detention facilities in remote areas of the American West for the duration of the war.

Summary Overview

As the United States' involvement in World War II unfolded in early 1942, certain influential military officials—especially General John L. DeWitt—focused on what they perceived to be the threat of subversive activity by people of Japanese birth or ancestry living in the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt followed DeWitt's recommendation and signed Executive Order 9066, which stated that anyone deemed a potential threat to national security could be detained in internment camps. Typically given only one or two days to put their affairs in order, Japanese Americans, such as the “older Nisei” interviewed in this document, had to leave their lives behind to be transported to detention facilities in remote areas of the American West for the duration of the war.

Defining Moment

Not referred to by name in the interview, the “older Nisei” was one of more than one hundred thousand Japanese internees, many of whom could have told similar stories. Japanese immigrants began coming to the United States in very small numbers in the decades after the Civil War; as of 1890, there were only a little more than two thousand. But in the early part of the twentieth century, as Japan began to modernize, immigration to the United States increased to the point that there were about seventy thousand immigrants from Japan by 1910 and more than eighty thousand by 1920—a small but growing number compared with other ethnic groups. In 1930, about 70 percent of the Japanese population in the United States lived in California. (Though Hawaii had a longer-established and sizable Japanese population, it was not yet a state.)

Japanese immigrants (Issei) and their American-born children (Nisei) faced much discrimination in California, and they were often targets of racial epithets, demeaning behavior, segregation, and even violence. The vast majority worked in agriculture for extremely low wages, and some worked as railroad construction labor and in the canneries along the Pacific coast. During the early twentieth century, however, a number of Issei and Nisei went into business for themselves. As of 1909, there were between three thousand and thirty-five hundred Japanese-owned businesses in the West, many of which catered to the specific needs of the Japanese community. Others began to farm for themselves, either purchasing, leasing, or signing share-crop agreements. As the desire for fresh produce increased in the West Coast's burgeoning cities, Japanese farmers thrived, purchasing more and more land.

In order to live successfully in the United States, Japanese Americans banded together. They purchased goods from Japanese-owned businesses. Japanese farmers formed cooperatives to purchase goods at reasonable prices. Though many Issei dreamed of returning to Japan once they had enough money, the Nisei, soon outnumbering their parents, considered the United States their home country and had no plans to move to Japan. Laws passed during the 1910s made it impossible for the Issei to become citizens or to own land, so they depended upon their children to act as the landowners in their families. With the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, the influx of new Issei almost completely ceased, while the Nisei became more numerous.

When World War II commenced, and the United States joined the conflict after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, life became even more difficult for both the Issei and Nisei. Though the US government commissioned a study that showed the loyalty of the Japanese American community, louder voices such as that of General John L. DeWitt did not trust Japanese in the United States and called for them to be confined for the duration of the war. In early 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, setting the stage for both first- and second-generation Japanese to be relocated to remote detention camps.

Author Biography

Though the “older Nisei” interviewed is never identified, his interviewer, Morris E. Opler, is. Born on May 16, 1907, in Buffalo, New York, Opler was an anthropologist who began his fieldwork chronicling American Indian life after earning a PhD from the University of Chicago in 1933. During World War II, he conducted anthropological analysis at the Japanese internment center in Manzanar, California, where this interview was conducted in 1943. After the war, he advocated for Japanese American rights, authoring two legal briefs in their defense, heard by the Supreme Court. For the rest of his career he worked as a professor at several universities, including Cornell. He died on May 13, 1996, in Norman, Oklahoma.

Historical Document

If this country doesn't want me they can throw me out. What do they know about loyalty? I'm as loyal as anyone in this country. Maybe I'm as loyal as President Roosevelt. What business did they have asking me a question like that?

I was born in Hawaii. I worked most of my life on the West Coast. I have never been to Japan. We would have done anything to show our loyalty. All we wanted to do was to be left alone on the coast.… My wife and I lost $10,000 in that evacuation. She had a beauty parlor and had to give that up. I had a good position worked up as a gardener, and was taken away from that. We had a little home and that's gone now.…

What kind of Americanism do you call that? That's not democracy. That's not the American way, taking everything away from people.… Where are the Germans? Where are the Italians? Do they ask them questions about loyalty?…

Nobody had to ask us about our loyalty when we lived on the coast. You didn't find us on relief.… We were first when there was any civic drive. We were first with the money for the Red Cross and the Community Chest or whatever it was. Why didn't that kind of loyalty count? Now they're trying to push us to the East. It's always “further inland, further inland.” I say, “To hell with it!” Either they let me go to the coast and prove my loyalty there or they can do what they want with me. If they don't want me in this country, they can throw me out.…

Evacuation was a mistake, there was no need for it. The government knows this, Why don't they have enough courage to come out and say so, so that these people won't be pushed around?…

I've tried to cooperate. Last year I went out on furlough and worked on the best fields in Idaho. There was a contract which said that we would be brought back here at the end of the work. Instead we just sat there.… We had to spend our own money. The farmers won't do anything for you. They treat you all right while you're working hard for them but as soon as your time is up, you can starve.… When I got back to [Camp] Manzanar, nearly all my money that I had earned was gone.…

Glossary

furlough: a vacation or leave of absence granted to an enlisted person

Document Analysis

The older Nisei interviewed in July 1943—a little over a year after the Japanese American community was forced into detention centers—was a resident of the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar, California. The man's answers focus on two themes: his loyalty to the United States (and, by extension, the loyalty of all of the Japanese Americans being interned), and his disillusionment and anger with the fact that all Japanese Americans had been deemed disloyal and forced to abandon their entire lives.

During the interview, the Nisei says he was born in Hawaii, which was a US territory at the time, and has never been to Japan. He says he moved to the West Coast and built a family and a life. He has never done anything that might demonstrate disloyalty to the United States or allegiance to Japan. He also states that his wife owned a beauty parlor, he was a successful gardener, and they owned a home before being interned. Because of their displacement, he says that he and his wife have lost everything they had, including their life savings. He is frustrated and angry, asking “What kind of Americanism do you call that? That's not democracy. That's not the American way, taking everything away from people.”

The man is indignant; he asks, “Where are the Germans? Where are the Italians?”—seeming to question why US residents from nations of the other Axis powers were not interned at the same rates as the Japanese. For the most part, Germans and Italians were interned because of their political affiliations or actions, while all Japanese Americans were rounded up based solely on their ethnic identity.

Essential Themes

The feelings expressed by the man in this interview were by no means unique to the Japanese Americans occupying the internment camps. The Supreme Court heard a number of cases that challenged the constitutionality of the internment, including Hirabayashi v. United States (1943) and Korematsu v. United States (1944).

In the Hirabayashi case, a University of Washington student defied the curfew associated with Executive Order 9066 and challenged the constitutionality of both the curfew and the order excluding Japanese Americans from the Seattle area. When the case got to the Supreme Court, the justices decided upon only the constitutionality of the curfew order, not the exclusion itself (or the removal of Japanese Americans to the camps), upholding the authority to place such curfews on specific ethnic groups.

The following year, the Korematsu case forced the Supreme Court to address the exclusion order and the internment of Japanese Americans in the camps. Fred Korematsu, a Nisei man born and raised in California who intentionally ignored the evacuation and exclusion order, was arrested and convicted of defying the law. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion order and the internment camps. Justice Felix Frankfurter, in a concurring opinion, clarified the court's position, stating that such actions as internment are justified only in the context of the war, under the war power authority of the president.

Although the Korematsu v. United States decision was never explicitly overturned, public opinion has changed radically since World War II, and the internment of Japanese Americans is generally viewed as a dark part of the nation's racial history. As late as 2014, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia declared that the Korematsu decision had been incorrect, but he was quick to add that such a decision could happen again if the nation were once again faced with a war.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Takahashi, Jerrold Haruo. Nisei/Sansei: Shifting Japanese American Identities and Politics. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997. Print.
  • Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Back Bay, 1989. Print.
  • Weglyn, Michi Nishiura. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1996. Print.
  • Yoo, David K. Growing Up Nisei: Race, Generation, and Culture among Japanese Americans of California, 1929–49. Champagne: U of Illinois P, 2000. Print.
Categories: History Content