A conversation with professor Lon Kurashige: Why the U.S. government interned the Japanese
Lon Kurashige pivots his computer’s aux monitor and points to a spreadsheet of public opinion polls from mid-December of 1941 — just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In high school, students are often taught Japanese internment was a direct response to Pearl Harbor. But these polls suggest a more complicated picture.
Asked whether there were “very many or only a few aliens around here who are not loyal to the U.S.,” 73 percent of the respondents of the National Opinion Research Center’s survey said no. And of those who said there were enemy sympathizers living in the United States, the majority said it was Germans or Italians who were spies — not the Japanese.
And yet, only the Japanese were interned. Why? Kurashige, a professor of history and spatial sciences, is working on unraveling the complicated attitudes Americans held toward Japanese immigrants and ethnics in the early 1940s. Kurashige suggested that the conventional historical understanding of internment lacks sophistication.
According to Kurashige, it was partly a matter of pragmatics. Japanese Americans constituted a smaller population than German or Italian Americans; it was not politically costly to lose the Japanese vote. Furthermore, Japanese Americans were concentrated on the West Coast and lived in segregated communities, so it was possible to round them up, Kurashige argued.
Anti-Japanese hysteria was a factor, too, but it didn’t kick in directly after Pearl Harbor. Instead, Kurashige said, it was in the weeks after Pearl Harbor, when Japan began to lay waste to European and American colonial possessions.
“What happens between Pearl Harbor — Dec. 7 — and late January is the Japanese do their own Blitzkrieg, all throughout Asia,” Kurashige said. “On the same day as they’re attacking Pearl Harbor, they’re attacking Hong Kong. They take the Philippines — something from the Americans. So, Japan is very successful in a very short period.”
While racism had framed the Japanese as powerless toadies before, these military victories demanded American attention. Americans began to apply a term to Japanese Americans that had previously been widely used to describe communist and Nazi sympathizers: “The fifth column.”
“The fifth column were traitors, were spies — espionage. That was a big concern throughout the ‘30s, throughout the world, of fifth columnists,” Kurashige said. “They would apply it to anybody who was seen as suspicious; we would call them terrorists today, or traitors or spies.”
By late January, popular support for internment had completely flipped. Most Americans were anti-Japanese. And the bus rides began.
Kurashige’s research suggests in any political climate, the perfect storm can convert seemingly benign forms of racism into plainly unjust policies — like internment. Throughout the interview, Kurashige hinted at parallels between the social atmospheres of the early 1940s and today: deep-seated fears of espionage fed growing opposition to immigration. And that opposition persisted when the FBI and other intelligence agencies advised FDR that internment was unnecessary.
But Kurashige maintains there are some important differences in political leadership that we must take into account before claiming that today’s political trends forecast a second interment on the horizon.
Take the America First movement — a popular isolationist movement to keep the United States out of World War II.
“FDR’s countering against that, trying to get America into the war, for its own benefit. And FDR has a reputation for being inclusive and creating a ‘new deal’ for everybody,” Kurashige said. “I think that’s very different from Trump trying to have this exclusive sense that this is America only, not for immigrants, not for a certain population. What’s parallel is not necessarily the men, but the times.”
It’s that latter parallel that motivates Kurashige to conduct research on Japanese internment today. While he doesn’t feel that historians should be beholden to specific political views, he said the privilege of academic freedom inclines him to study material that’s relevant to modern concerns.
“There’s certainly an independence to the role of the scholar that I take very seriously,” Kurashige said. “I see the role of the scholar as kind of like the role of the artist, and that’s to innovate and to create, and see things differently in ways that are meaningful.”