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Just Americans: How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad By Robert Asahina

Book on the 442nd and 100th sheds light on Japanese Americans at home and in battle during World War II

Just Americans: How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad By Robert Asahina Gotham Books, $27.50

In researching materials on the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Robert Asahina came across a curious truth. The author of Just Americans: How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad, a newly released book on the celebrated Japanese American band of brothers in the 100th and 442nd, discovered that Executive Order 9066, which had been issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, did not, as had been commonly believed, order the relocation of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans. It was a falsity that Asahina himself had come to accept as fact.

‘The amazing thing about 9066 is that it doesn’t mention Japanese Americans. It doesn’t mention any other group of ethnic citizens. It doesn’t mention military necessity. It doesn’t mention internment. It doesn’t mention relocation. It doesn’t mention evacuation,’ says Asahina, a former editor of George, Harper’s and The New York Times Book Review, of the circumstances under which the celebrated men of the 442nd and 100th lived prior to their enlistment in the war against the Axis Powers. ‘Before I began this research, like everybody else, I thought that 9066 authorized the military to round up Japanese Americans. In fact, it did no such thing.’

Robert Asahina

The ‘slippery and evasive’ wording of the executive order, Asahina says, allowed Roosevelt’s secretary of war, Henry Stimson, to ‘determine what are called exclusionary zones,’ areas ‘ near military installations, new ports, new airports’ where ‘suspected people were not allowed to live.’ In essence, Stimson was able to decide what were war zones within the U.S. and who should be allowed to live in them. It was understood that this order applied to Japanese Americans–not German Americans or Italian Americans–and Japanese Americans alone.

Asahina also takes issue with the use of the term ‘internment.’ According to the author, Executive Order 9066 did not allow the secretary of war to intern U.S. citizens. Doing so would have been illegal since only foreign nationals and enemy aliens could be interned. The 100,000-plus people of Japanese descent who were uprooted from their homes were anything but. They were U.S. citizens, and the right to grant or revoke citizenship was not Stimson’s to have. ‘There has been a tendency since then to call that whole process an internment. Actually, that is a mistake because internment is a right government has,’ Asahina says. ‘It was not an internment because what they were doing was acting against their own citizens and in fact treating them as aliens.’

The West Coast of the United States was more or less one of these designated exclusionary zones, and, as Asahina says in his book, the ‘Japanese Americans throughout California and in substantial parts of Oregon, Washington and Arizona were ordered to leave behind their houses, businesses, farms and personal property’ and enter the care of the U.S. Army. Hawai’i, even though it was the sole portion of the United States to withstand an attack, was not one of these areas, which Asahina explains in more detail later. The circumstances behind Hawai’i’s exclusion, the author says, dispelled the wisdom of the day that Japanese Americans posed any more threat to the U.S. war effort than any other ethnic group.

Times like these surely tested a man’s metal. And as the men of the 442nd and 100th proved, they were more than up to the challenge, not only to defend their country, which had effectively stripped them of their rights, but to prove to those very powers that they and their families were as worthy of being called Americans as anyone else born in the United States.

While their families and friends were being herded illegally into relocation camps where they would be under the supervision of armed soldiers, they chose to join the military in its struggle to defeat the nation’s enemies, even though they themselves had been virtually branded as such. ‘We have to remember that many of these men were really boysÖThey were making then what would be the most important decision of their lives at gunpoint,’ Asahina says. ‘Roosevelt called it an opportunity for Japanese Americans to prove their loyalty. Well, it’s a peculiar opportunity when somebody has a gun to your head and says, ‘Are you loyal or are you disloyal?”

As for why some enlisted, Asahina discovered that the reasons for signing on to the service varied from man to man. ‘Some of them were very patriotic. Some of them wanted to get out of the camps. Some of them wanted to go to war. Some of them were defying their parents. There was no single reason why people did that,’ says Asahina, who conducted countless interviews, pursued government archives and read through the oral histories of the men of the 442nd and 100th. ‘What they did was pretty remarkable. To come out of the camps, particularly on the mainland, to volunteer for a country that was depriving you of your rights, throwing your family into camps, was pretty astonishing.’

Whatever their motivations may have been, the men of the 442nd and 100th were united in their message to the United States government. ‘In taking up armsÖ,’ Asahina says, ‘the men of the 100th and 442nd were saying, ‘We are citizens. It doesn’t matter what you say. We are acting as citizens. We are willing to accept the responsibility of going to war. It doesn’t matter that you have stripped us of citizenship. It doesn’t matter that you treat us as enemy aliens. It doesn’t matter that you have thrown our families into camps. We are going to behave as citizens and force you to recognize us as American citizens.”

However, not all members of the 100th and 442nd came out of the relocation camps. Compared to their brothers and sisters on the mainland, the Japanese Americans from Hawai’i had not been denied their basic rights as free citizens. They were spared the indignity of being forced into relocation camps. The reason Japanese Americans in Hawai’i were left alone: Simply put, it wasn’t practical.

‘Japanese Americans at that time after Pearl Harbor were close to 40 percent of the total Islands’ population. They were already bound up in the politics and the economy of the Islands. Doing something as disruptive as relocating all of them just out of suspicion that some of them might be disloyal made no sense. And in fact, would be counter productive as far as the war effort was concerned,’ Asahina says.

The idea of rounding up Japanese Americans in Hawai’i, however, was considered, albeit briefly. ‘They had this idea that Japanese Americans initially could all be transported to Moloka’i,’ Asahina says, adding that the advisors to the calm and sensible Lt. Gen. Delos Emmons, ‘quickly pointed out that the number of ships required to ferry the Japanese Americans back and forth between the islands would essentially cave in, it would destroy, it would undermine, the war effort. It was more important to have people working as they were.’

A young evacuee waits to be sent to a relocation camp.

It was under these circumstances that the two groups of Japanese Americans, those from Hawai’i and those from the mainland came together. It was not always an easy mix between the laid back Islanders and their more collected cousins stateside. ‘The cultural differences were very, very intense. They got into fistfights. They formed cliques that would hang on together and make fun of the other side. It really wasn’t until they got into battle that they became united as a group,’ Asahina says. ‘The Hawaiians made fun of the mainlanders and called them katonks, which is a word they made up to describe a coconut hitting the ground and cracking open. And the mainlanders made fun of the Hawaiians by calling them buddhaheads, which is a play on the Japanese word for pig, buta, as well as Buddha.’

Despite their differences, the two groups came together on the battlefields of Europe, with the 100th merging with the 442nd. The sacrifices were great, and the struggle was difficult.

But by the end of the war, the Japanese-American regiment had become heroes with their hard fought rescue of the so-called Lost Battalion of the 36th Division behind enemy lines in France. And they were, to quote Gen. George Marshall, acknowledged as ‘the most decorated unit in American military history for its size and length of service.’

‘They had a very extreme version of what military theorists and historians call small-unit, or small-group, cohesion. That is one of the things that the Army tries to do is to break you down as an individual and build you back up so that your primary loyalty is to attach first your squad and then your platoon and then your company and so forth. That is a very difficult process because you are bringing together men of very different backgrounds and races and so on,’ Asahina says. ‘The Japanese Americans had a lot more in common going in, not withstanding the difference between the katonks and the buddhaheads. They were all Japanese Americans, and they all understood that they had been subjected to injustice, and I think that gave them a loyalty to the guy next to them in the foxhole that other troops hadÖto be created artificially.

He adds, ‘Because they were segregated units, in many cases there actually were brothers fighting alongside brothers and cousins fighting next to cousins.’

While many in the Islands remember the achievements of the 442nd and 100th and treat the story of the men and the men themselves with reverence, on the mainland the tale of the men who rescued the Lost Battalion, once the subject of a Hollywood movie, has been largely forgotten.

Asahina has his own particular theory as to why. ‘Since the Civil Rights Movement, we’ve come to look at minority groups as victims essentially. And we believe the way they advance in society is to identify a grievance, mobilize around that grievance and to hold demonstrations and protests and to lobby for legislative change and finally to file constitutional challenges and that is how they get ahead in this society,’ Asahina says. ‘The argument that I’m trying to make in the book is that Japanese Americans advanced themselves by taking on the responsibilities of citizenship not just by insisting on their rights. And rather than being victimsÖthey didn’t respond to that by demonstrating or protesting. Their response was by going into the Army.’