For Matthew Weisbly, the period of Japanese internment during World War II is a crucial part of history often overlooked in school curriculums. Weisbly, a junior majoring in history, first heard about the internment when he was 12 or 13 years old from watching the film Come See the Paradise and remembered how his high school history class only spent one day on the topic. He soon realized the severity of these policies when he learned about his family’s history: Weisbly’s grandfather was a third-generation Japanese American who was detained to an Arizona internment camp.
“Ever since then, I went off and learned all I could about [the internment], and then I decided to become a history major in high school.” Weisbly said.
“When I came to USC, we had to choose a field of study for history, so I was going to do Asian and Asian American history.”
Weisbly, along with a dozen other students, are in a new history class called “War, Race and the Constitution,” which specifically concentrates on World War II Japanese internment and its present legal ramifications. Taught by Susan Kamei, USC Dornsife’s associate dean for advanced and professional degrees, it is the first class at USC that solely focuses on the internment.
Lon Kurashige, a Dornsife history professor, reached out to Kamei to teach the class since Kamei was involved in the Redress Movement, which calls for apology and reparations for Japanese Americans’ treatment during World War II.
Kamei emphasizes that the popularized term — internment — is legally incorrect, since the U.S. technically incarcerated over 120,000 people, two-thirds of whom were Japanese Americans.
“Internment refers to alien enemies,” Kamei said. “Legally, you don’t intern American citizens. But because that’s the way it’s known, that’s a term that we can’t get around. I avoid using the word internment and talk about the different euphemistic terminology that was used by the government, [like] relocation camp or evacuation. In the course, we refer to it as incarceration.”
In the class, students examine the U.S. Constitution and relevant Supreme Court cases. The class visited the Japanese American National Museum and interacted with guest speakers such as Duncan Williams, a Dornsife professor of religion and East Asian languages and cultures.
Students also have the chance to converse with Holly Yasui, the daughter of lawyer Min Yasui who fought the legality of Japanese exclusion, and Jay Hirabayashi, the son of sociologist Gordon Hirabayashi who was the plaintiff in the Hirabayashi v. United States case.
Mai Mizuno, a junior majoring in international relations and philosophy, politics and law, is a first-generation Japanese American who did not have family members incarcerated in World War II. In fact, she had never learned of the Japanese internment camps in her hometown in Manhattan, Kan., until she arrived at USC.
“It’s a very Japanese thing I think to suppress and not discuss things that were very painful in the past,” she said. “It was this crazy moment because I grew up in a very patriotic town in the Midwest, in a small town that was composed of farmers and military families. I would religiously stand up for the flag and every single day, recite the Pledge of Allegiance to this country and truly believe that it had done its best in the past to advocate for the values that were enshrined in the Constitution: equality and justice for all. To discover this in my 20s was such a shock.”
According to Kurashige, the issue is not only the lack of awareness, but also a narrow perspective on Japanese incarceration among students. He argues there is a complexity to it that is often overlooked.
“[Students] tend to see it as the equivalent for Asians to slavery,” Kurashige said. “They know it’s not the same, but in terms of what’s the worst thing that could happen or had happened to Asian Americans, the internment is just this complete utter violation of humanity … There’s an element of truth to that, and it’s not all fiction and made up, but it’s exaggerated. It’s distorted in a way that washes out the complexity of not just the experience, but of human capacity.”
Russel Hash, a senior majoring in political science and president of USC Nikkei, a Japanese American culture club, said he would have taken the class if he had had the chance. Like Weisbly’s grandfather, his grandfather and many other family members were incarcerated during World War II. Even though Hash talked with his grandfather about the experience, he still struggles to bring the topic up in conversations with those who were interned.
“How do you not talk to them about that? It’s impossible to describe,” Hash said. “You know you’re not supposed to, but you know you should. There are less and less of them every single day. If we don’t have this appropriate history, it’s going to be gone, and the moment we forget that this happened is the moment it happens again.”
Today, the legacy of Japanese American internment continues, especially through the tension between national security and civil liberties. In Kamei’s opinion, the targeting of race and ethnicity during internment has transformed into the targeting of religion, evidenced by the Muslim travel ban and the president’s suggestion for a registry system.
“After 9/11, there were cases and new congressional acts that expanded the government’s national security powers,” Kamei said. “The travel ban cases that are winding their way through circuit courts of appeal and to the Supreme Court [and the proposal] of a Muslim registry, these are issues that have come up in the past and they’re in our political landscape now. They will continue to come up in the future.”
Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni noted the similarities between the World War II internment and the scope of policies enacted by the Trump administration. Although the U.S. is currently not at war with a state actor, Soni sees that the same sentiment of alienation persists.
Keeping these issues in mind, Soni believes students have an essential role in preserving history to ensure that the future will be different.
“I would hope that as students study history broadly can see, not just the Japanese American internment, [but] think deeply about why they’re studying history,” Soni said. “It’s not just to learn about the past. It has to be also how we inform the future … That’s the power of education, that’s the power of this class, and that’s the opportunity that we have here at USC.”