The Japanese American Creed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the 1930s, relations between Japan and the United States deteriorated dramatically, as the military became an increasingly dominant force in shaping Japan's expansionist foreign policy. As Japan invaded Manchuria in China and expanded into the Pacific, the United States, along with the rest of the world, became increasingly concerned. In 1933, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations over international criticism of its actions. The militarism of the expanding Japanese Empire and the growing likelihood of war between Japan and the United States caused fear among some Americans that Japanese Americans, who had been a significant presence in both the Hawaiian Islands and California since the 1870s, might be more loyal to Japan than to their adopted nation. In an effort to demonstrate the loyalty of the Japanese American population, Mike Masaoka (1915–1991), a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and national secretary and field executive of the Japanese American Citizens League, wrote the Japanese American Creed, which was read before the US Senate on May 9, 1941.

Summary Overview

During the 1930s, relations between Japan and the United States deteriorated dramatically, as the military became an increasingly dominant force in shaping Japan's expansionist foreign policy. As Japan invaded Manchuria in China and expanded into the Pacific, the United States, along with the rest of the world, became increasingly concerned. In 1933, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations over international criticism of its actions. The militarism of the expanding Japanese Empire and the growing likelihood of war between Japan and the United States caused fear among some Americans that Japanese Americans, who had been a significant presence in both the Hawaiian Islands and California since the 1870s, might be more loyal to Japan than to their adopted nation. In an effort to demonstrate the loyalty of the Japanese American population, Mike Masaoka (1915–1991), a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and national secretary and field executive of the Japanese American Citizens League, wrote the Japanese American Creed, which was read before the US Senate on May 9, 1941.

Defining Moment

The 1930s were not the first time that Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans had faced discrimination in the United States. Japanese immigrants first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in 1855 to work on American-owned sugar plantations, and they arrived in California in the late 1860s as agricultural workers. Almost immediately, discrimination began, as evidenced by the San Francisco Board of Education's move to segregate children of Japanese ancestry. By 1907, the so-called Gentlemen's Agreement between the United States and Japan halted the segregation of San Francisco's schools (which was regarded in Japan as an insult to national pride), in return for Japan all but halting the immigration of Japanese laborers to the United States. Six years later, California passed the Alien Land Law, which prohibited Japanese and Japanese Americans from owning land. The Immigration Act of 1924, which established quotas for immigration from European nations, then ended all immigration from Japan.

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 only made things worse for Japanese Americans. With jobs in extraordinarily short supply, unemployment in the United States reached 23 percent in 1932. The numbers for minority groups were far worse, as many of them—including Japanese Americans—worked in industries, such as agriculture, that were not included in the official unemployment numbers. Many Japanese Americans who had established their own farms went bankrupt. Japanese Americans as a whole, along with many other minorities, became scapegoats and were seen as economic competitors by white Americans. It was in the face of this discrimination that the Japanese American Citizens League was established in 1929 by those seeking to resist discrimination and help their own community survive the Depression.

Magnifying the impact of the Depression on how Japanese Americans were viewed by white American society was the fact that Japan was engaged on a long-term war of conquest both in China and among the islands of the western Pacific. Over much of the first half of the 1930s, the Japanese military became instrumental in shaping Japan's foreign policy. Turning their back on Western-style democracy, Japanese military leaders favored unity in Japanese leadership, with the emperor and the military effectively governing the country. In 1937, Japan went to war with China, and the democratic reforms begun in the late nineteenth century came to an end, as the military gained control of both political and economic life in Japan.

Set between pressure to disavow Japanese expansionism and reactions against discrimination in the United States, Japanese Americans faced a difficult situation as the 1940s began. Anti-Japanese feelings among the white population on the West Coast were increasing yet again. Though a good number of the children of Japanese immigrants had earned college degrees at California's public universities, their occupational opportunities were still severely limited. Japanese Americans were caught between cultures, and a number of educated Japanese Americans, such as Masaoka, began to speak out and reinforce that they were just as American as anyone else whose ancestors had come from another part of the world.

Author Biography

After graduating from the University of Utah in 1937, Mike Masaru Masaoka quickly became a leading voice in the Japanese American community, especially when it came to relations with mainstream American society. After becoming national secretary of the Japanese American Citizens League, Masaoka did whatever he could to reinforce the idea that Japanese Americans were patriots, whose loyalties were with the nation to which their parents or grandparents had immigrated, not to Japan. Not all Japanese Americans agreed with all of Masaoka's political and social positions, however, as he unashamedly supported complete and total assimilation into American society. As the United States slid gradually toward involvement in the war that had been sweeping through Europe and the Pacific since the late 1930s, Masaoka encouraged Japanese Americans to cooperate fully with any measures that the United States might need to take in order to ensure the loyalty of its citizens—including following government directives to relocate to internment camps for the duration of the conflict. After the war, Masaoka continued his work advocating for the rights of Japanese Americans, and died in 1991.

Historical Document

I am proud that I am an American citizen of Japanese ancestry, for my Very background makes me appreciate more fully the wonderful advantages of this Nation. I believe in her institutions, ideals and traditions; I glory in her heritage; I boast of her history; I trust in her future- She has granted me liberties and opportunities such as no individual enjoys in this world today. She has given me an education befitting kings. She has entrusted me with the responsibilities of the franchise. She has permitted me to build a home to earn a livelihood, to worship, think, speak, and act as I please -- as a free man equal to every other man.

Although some individuals may discriminate against me, I shall never become bitter or lose faith, for I know that such persons are not representative of the majority of the American people. True, I shall do all in my power to discourage such practices, but I shall do it in the American way - above board, in the open, through courts of law, by education, by proving myself to be worthy of equal treatment and consideration. I am firm in my belief that American sportsmanship and attitude of fair play will judge citizenship and patriotism on the basis of action and achievement, and not on the basis of physical characteristics.

Because I believe in America, and I trust she believes in me, and because I have received innumerable benefits from her, I pledge myself to do honor to her at all times and in all places; to support her constitution; to obey her laws; to respect her flag; to defend her against all enemies, foreign or domestic; to actively assume my duties as a citizen, cheerfully and without any reservations whatsoever, in the hope that I may become a better American in a greater America.

Glossary

franchise: a privilege of public nature conferred on an individual, group, or company by a government

Document Analysis

As national secretary of the Japanese American Citizens League, Mike Masaoka certainly saw his role as a voice to reinforce the loyalty of Japanese American citizens at a time when many white Americans were questioning their trustworthiness. As the Japanese Empire swept through Manchuria and then the islands of the western Pacific, the discrimination that had always been a part of the Japanese American experience reached new heights. Certainly, many in the Japanese American community had ambiguous feelings about assimilating into a society that had never fully accepted them, but Masaoka's faith in the benefits of Japanese adaptation into American culture remained unshaken.

Masaoka's address, read in the chamber of the US Senate on May 9, 1941, only seven months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was an affirmation of his own patriotism, which he hoped would demonstrate the fidelity of Japanese Americans to the United States. Despite the discrimination he no doubt faced, Masaoka begins his address by stating of the United States, “I believe in her institutions, ideals and traditions; I glory in her heritage; I boast of her history; I trust in her future.” Nothing in his opening statement identifies him as of Japanese heritage, because to him, heritage did not matter in the United States.

Though Masaoka does acknowledge the existence of discrimination, he clearly defines it as an individual rather than a societal trait. To him, the institutions of the United States—as well as the majority of its people—do not discriminate against people of any race. It would be easy to argue with this assessment during the 1930s and 1940s, but to Masaoka, the promise of America is much more important than its realities. He is resolute in his belief that if Japanese Americans only go along with whatever laws are passed, opportunity and eventual acceptance by the white American majority would be the result.

Although most Americans wanted nothing to do with the wars that were overwhelming both Europe and Asia, many, such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, were gradually realizing that American involvement was becoming inevitable. Because of this realization, the loyalty of Japanese Americans was key to their being accepted as partners in democracy, and Masaoka's address calls on all of the typical American themes to try to persuade Americans that the descendants of Japanese immigrants were just as American as the descendants of European immigrants.

Essential Themes

Despite Masaoka's assurances that Japanese Americans were fully loyal to the United States, when war did break out between the Japan and the United States with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the loyalty of Japanese Americans, most of whom lived in areas of the American West near many wartime factories, was immediately called into question. On the recommendation of General John L. DeWitt, who was in charge of military production in the West, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which called for Japanese Americans in the western United States (excluding Hawaii) to be placed into internment camps for the duration of the war.

Though he disagreed with the decision, Masaoka's emphasis on going along with the wishes of the government remained. As a spokesman for the Japanese American community, he became an advisor to the War Relocation Authority (WRA) on how best to operate the camps. As the war progressed, the themes of immersion into American society that can be seen in Masaoka's 1941 address continued, as he recommended the formation of an all–Japanese American unit in the US Army, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Masaoka himself was the first of the internees to volunteer for the unit, which was not allowed to serve in the Pacific (where they would face Japanese troops), but fought with distinction in Europe over the course of the rest of the war.

Although a leader in the Japanese American community, Masaoka did not escape criticism for his extreme loyalty to the US government, regardless of the discrimination Japanese Americans endured or the years they would suffer in internment camps. In his role as an advisor to the WRA, he recommended the removal of internees considered disloyal to a separate camp, at Tule Lake, California. Masaoka remained a leader of the JACL after the war, starting a lobbying firm to represent Japanese American businesses in Washington, DC. His acquiescence in the internment of Japanese Americans has made him a controversial figure among some Japanese Americans, but his overall legacy, including pressing for citizenship rights for Japanese immigrants and his broader involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, made him a respected figure overall.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Kurashige, Lon. Japanese American Celebration and Conflict: A History of Ethnic Identity and Festival, 1934–1990. Berkeley: U of California P, 2002. Print.
  • 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. Rev. ed. Boston: Back Bay, 1998. Print.
  • Wu, Ellen D. The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2013. 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.
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