Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II by Roger Daniels. (Revised Edition)
Hill and Wang, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2004. (Orig. pub. 1993)
Nonfiction, 162 pages including index, appendices, and further reading.
An overview of the unlawful imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WWII, including anti-Asian prejudice before the war, and eventual reparations 50 years after the camps.
Every American should read this book. Daniels distills decades of scholarly research on this and related topics into a succinct and incredibly readable overview. Nonfiction normally takes me much longer than fiction, but I suspect that I could have read this in one day had other obligations not interfered.
The text is broken down into seven chapters. The first gives us information about feeling toward Asian Americans and Japanese settlement patterns in America. Daniels also explains why this event was incarceration and not internment (as most American schoolchildren have learned to call it). Racist immigration and naturalization policies which barred Japanese Americans from citizenship allowed them to be more easily mistreated.
The Issei were first generation immigrants who could not gain citizenship and mostly lived in rural ethnic enclaves, while the Nisei were second generation Japanese Americans with citizenship who saw themselves as fully American despite the incarceration (many were minor children at the time). I found these specific Japanese words for each generation of immigrants fascinating.
Chapter two deals with the behind-the-scenes maneuvers that allowed the removal of basic rights from citizens to become law even as America was fighting a war supposedly on the basis of these rights. Normally I dislike books with a lot of political information, but I felt he was very fair and balanced, and the information was presented in an easy-to-understand way. Throughout the book, Daniels doesn’t hesitate to call out racism and bigotry, but he also looks at both sides, even pointing out a few potential benefits arising from the incarceration.
Chapters three and four talk about the actual conditions within the camps and the conditions of release. These chapters take place within the same time (1942-1946) as prisoners were being released through various means even as new families were being processed. One of the major methods of getting out of the camps was through work-release. Many of the rural high-yield farmers imprisoned in the camps were crucial to food production. Chapter four also covers how the Supreme Court upheld the incarcerations.
Finally, chapters five through seven take us from the redress period, when Japanese Americans were coined the “Model Minority” (a term later extended to other Asian Americans) and a reversal of feeling about Japan all the way to the post 9/11 2000s.
The back matter is excellent, with a photo essay on the mass incarceration, a few important documents, and an extensive recommended reading list. There aren’t as many citations as normal, because as the author points out, supporting documents not cited in the text are from the nine volume series he edited.
There were so many aspects that I never knew or considered. For instance, did you know that Aleutians were removed from their homes under the same act? There was a little more rationale behind their removal as Japan had attacked the islands, but they were held in appalling conditions. Daniels also contrasts the situation in Hawaii with treatment of mainland Japanese immigrants.
Although intense research and scholarly efforts stand behind this book, Daniels has written a concise and readable account of the incarceration. It may be a difficult read for white Americans, but is definitely worthwhile. The best non-fiction book I’ve read all year, highly recommended. Although I’ve marked this as an adult read, only the reading level would prevent it from being suitable for teens.