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From Internment to Containment: Cold War Imaginings of Japanese Americans in Go for Broke Edward Tang

Attributes of dependability and hard work applied as well to the domestic scene. One writer defended the interned Japanese Americans and their loyalty during the Second World War in similar terms as General Willoughby's when dismissing fears of sabotage. In 1950, Reader's Digest presented a story on a Nisei soldier, Frank Shigemura, who died in combat. Because of this ultimate sacrifice, the overall treatment of the Issei and Nisei by the U.S. government seemed unduly harsh. "After Pearl Harbor," the author observed within the broader context of racial prejudice, "wild rumors of sabotage made [the Japanese Americans] our most persecuted minority group. Exhaustive investigations by Army, Navy and FBI showed that not one act of sabotage was committed [by them]." [17] The figure of the Nisei soldier encapsulated the efforts and fidelity of the larger population of Japanese Americans, who because of their patriotism were incapable of subversive activities. Placed alongside General Willoughby's later assessment of Japanese behavior during the Korean War, Shigemura's heroism and death anchored a narrative that reassured American audiences of domestic and overseas loyalty to the United States.

Nisei soldiers who served in the Army's Military Intelligence Service as translators in occupied Japan embodied this link between their duty to the United States and the integration of Japan into an American-led alliance. During the occupation, Kan Tagami became the personal interpreter of General MacArthur. This high-level position gave Tagami opportunities to act as a liaison between the American military and the Japanese government. He even recalled meeting the Emperor Hirohito wherein the sovereign praised the young Nisei, stating, "You are a bridge between our two nations." Harry K. Fukuhara similarly noted: "Overnight, bitter enemies became close working-partners, and the Nisei linguist soldiers played an important role in cementing this relationship." Both Tagami and Fukuhara emphasized that as interpreters the Nisei significantly helped to restructure Japan by distributing food to the general populace, establishing school curricula that emphasized democratic ideals, reforming farming practices, and introducing baseball to villagers. That the Nisei performed such dedicated acts served to promote their model minority image as well as to convince the Japanese of American benevolence. Yoshito Fujimoto more directly associated the Nisei's role in Japan with the Cold War era. Arriving in Yokohama in 1945, he and two other American officers initially had to share a hotel room with three Soviet officers because of a lack of facilities in the war-torn area. "We decided to be friendly with [the Soviets] and offered to shake hands," Fujimoto recollected, "but surprisingly they turned their backs on us. Yes, you can bet that the cold war . . . started this day." On the other hand, the Nisei's mere presence in Japan advanced American interests against the communists in additional ways. Fujimoto recorded that as he toured Tokyo, the Japanese would stare at him because of his Japanese face and American army uniform. "The Japanese citizens had thought that Niseis never served in the U.S. Army," he observed, "and they were impressed by the U.S. Army's democratic system or policy in dealing with its own soldiers." [18]

Other periodicals continued to associate Japan's status with those of Japanese Americans. In 1957, Christopher Rand reported in the New Yorker on the rising popularity of Japanese Americans in light of Japan's new role in the Pacific: "In general, the [N]isei, the first crop of real Japanese-Americans, appear to stand well with the public at large, partly because of their fine war record, and partly, I believe, because of the recent switch in American sentiments toward Japan." [19] The writer invoked the 442nd regiment as a representative of the entire Nisei populace, correlating military service with "real" American citizenship. Rand's observation, however, both reveals and hides much of the nation's "sentiments" about Japan and Japanese Americans. The writer conflated American domestic and foreign policies by celebrating the nation's recruitment of Nisei soldiers while acknowledging the altered world of foreign relations in which Japan became an important U.S. supporter in Asia. At the same time, by focusing on the military accomplishments of the Nisei, Rand glanced over the greater issue of domestic racism entrenched within U.S. policymaking, specifically about internment.

Popular periodicals throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s did portray Japanese Americans as loyal citizens who had adjusted well to the trauma of internment. Articles, editorials, and other news features noted that the Nisei displayed such admirable traits as adaptability to demanding circumstances, fidelity in the face of suspicion, and forgiveness of those who wronged them. These were characteristics from which to take comfort against the backdrop of a surging communist menace. Starting in the late 1940s, magazines earnestly attended to the Japanese Americans' plight once the communist threat emerged in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. The Christian Century's editorial page for May 4, 1949 carried two headlines that made the connection clear: "Communists Invade South China" and "More Signs of Recovery From War Hysteria." While nervously recording the Chinese Nationalists' retreat from Mao's Red Army, the paper also found some hope in the world when U.S. state courts reinstituted citizenship to several previously interned Japanese Americans. [20] Others too saw the fundamental link between how the United States treated its own citizens and the growth of communist governments overseas. "In a day when democracy seems to be diplomatically on the defensive," the Saturday Review noted in 1947, "it is heartening to find proof of its vitality" in the case of Hawaii where Japanese Americans participated fully in daily life, and in the Japanese American soldiers of the 442nd regiment. Arguing that communism endangered the sanctity of democratic societies, the magazine put forth the Nisei's loyalty and service as proof of the nation's fairness and acceptance of ethnic minorities. But the Nisei war record provided the primary allure of democracy's strength. As the article noted, "The thing above all others that lifted the Japanese-Americans from the undeserved abyss of hatred and mistrust was their military record." [21]

In the mid-1950s, periodicals continued to admire the Nisei soldiers and their interned families as early versions of model minorities. In 1956, Reader's Digest praised the 442nd but did so by also privileging its exploits over the broader sufferings of interned Japanese Americans: "[T]he conduct of the evacuated Japanese and, above all, the superb military record of the Nisei had brought about a reversal in the feelings of most other Americans toward them." The article attempted further to diminish the meanings of internment by describing the mass of Japanese Americans as "evacuated" as opposed to interned or imprisoned, hinting that the forced removal to the camps were for their benefit and safety. But the writer avoided the implications of his word choice and ended with a now-familiar message: as model citizens the Nisei had earned their place in American society, whatever the setbacks, giving others optimism that hard work and self-sacrifice would still remain the bedrock ideals of a democracy. [22] By repeatedly emphasizing this message, the racial frenzy invoked against Japanese Americans would appear as incidental to, rather than fully embedded within, the nation's ideals, history, and social structure.

Yet the nation's attitudes toward the Japanese Americans and Japan were never this straightforward or simple. A few Japanese Americans contested or complicated prevailing Cold War memories that downplayed the significance of internment. Monica Sone's 1953 memoir Nisei Daughter and John Okada's 1957 novel No-No Boy recorded the tenuous existence of being both Japanese and American, an identity that cast the Nisei as perpetual foreigners in their native land. Artists such as Chiura Obata, Henry Sugimoto, Miné Okubo, and others left visual testaments of camp life through their paintings, sketches, engravings, and photographs.

Even in the travel magazine Holiday, a Nisei writer, Jobo Nakamura, disclosed in 1954 his ambivalence about his life in the United States when reuniting with relatives in Japan. During the Great Depression, his family lost its soda fountain business and labored in canneries and farms in California to make ends meet. Because of continual financial hardship, however, Nakamura's mother and sisters returned to Japan. The author and his father remained in the United States hoping to acquire some savings and consequently suffered imprisonment during the Second World War. Relocating to Chicago after the war, Nakamura earned a college degree and then returned to California. After a separation of seventeen years, he traveled to Japan to see his mother and sisters. Given its publication venue, the article contains much of the usual descriptions of customs and sights to see, but the tone is one of nostalgic loss and loneliness. The mother, remembering her difficult life in the United States, refused to go back. His former Issei neighbors who repatriated to Japan rather than face internment recalled bitter memories as well. At the same time, Nakamura's "heart fluttered red, white and blue" when seeing an American airbase near Osaka or attending a baseball game and hearing American music in Hiroshima. [23] He despaired of the destruction, poverty, and homelessness in postwar Japan, opining that in the United States, the resurging Japanese American community would have quickly relieved hungry beggars and orphans. Arriving back in California though, Nakamura mourned that his days were now "far lonelier" since his visit to Japan. He admitted to a less than satisfying existence when "trudg[ing] home from my workbench each evening" and eating "a glum meal in the little hamburger stand patronized by impecunious college students and single, lonely men." [24] With little hope of luring his mother and sisters from Japan, and not wanting to resettle there, Nakamura could only look toward an estranged life in the United States.

From another perspective, more than a few popular periodicals refused to accept unreservedly the new world order, expressing deep ambivalence about Japan as a new U.S. ally. Many writers viewed Japanese Americans as model minorities and Japan as a model ally to foster their sense of national destiny and cultural superiority in spreading liberty and democracy throughout the world. But they worried that Japan just as easily could reject the purported benefits of an American-style democracy and fall into the communist orbit.

One need search no further for this apprehension about keeping Japan under American dominion than in Look magazine's April 5, 1955 edition, which carried a piece entitled "Japan: Partner or Problem?" This short essay summarized some of the major concerns during the early to late 1950s that Americans expressed about their new relationship with Japan in the Cold War era. The writer, Eric Johnston, observed that Japan's economic renewal after the Second World War was imperative to U.S. interests. Not only was Japan needed as a global trading partner but also as an anti-communist ally. But the situation was becoming dire. Japan had enjoyed a brief period of economic growth during the Korean War when the United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars by its very presence in the Pacific region fighting against North Korea and China. Yet afterward, Japan's economy began to decline as it had done before the Korean conflict. Part of the reason for this financial instability was that Japan could not recover on its own. Before and during the Second World War, Japan had extended its empire throughout East Asia. But in defeat, Japan held few natural resources of its own to stimulate development since the loss of its colonial possessions in Manchuria and Southeast Asia. In turn, hardly any country wanted to buy products that postwar Japan offered. As a result, Japan recorded large trade deficits with Australia, Canada, and the United States for such necessities as cotton, wheat, rice, and other sundries. [25]

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Edward Tang is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama.

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