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When Can We Go Back to America?

Voices of Japanese American Incarceration during WWII

Foreword by Norman Y. Mineta
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About The Book

In this dramatic and page-turning narrative history of Japanese Americans before, during, and after their World War II incarceration, Susan H. Kamei weaves the voices of over 130 individuals who lived through this tragic episode, most of them as young adults.

It’s difficult to believe it happened here, in the Land of the Free: After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States government forcibly removed more than 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific Coast and imprisoned them in desolate detention camps until the end of World War II just because of their race.

In what Secretary Norman Y. Mineta describes as a “landmark book,” he and others who lived through this harrowing experience tell the story of their incarceration and the long-term impact of this dark period in American history. For the first time, why and how these tragic events took place are interwoven with more than 130 individual voices of those who were unconstitutionally incarcerated, many of them children and young adults.

Now more than ever, their words will resonate with readers who are confronting questions about racial identity, immigration, and citizenship, and what it means to be an American.


Chapter One: Day of Infamy CHAPTER ONE Day of Infamy
All of a sudden, three aircraft flew right overhead. They were pearl grey with red dots on the wing—Japanese. I knew what was happening. And I thought my world had just come to an end.

—The Honorable Daniel “Dan” Ken Inouye, male, Nisei, Honolulu, Hawaii, age 17 when Pearl Harbor was attacked2

Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, just before 8:00 a.m. Hawaii time. A pearl-gray Mitsubishi A6M Zero “Reisen” carrier-borne naval fighter and a Nakajima B5N “Kate” carrier-borne torpedo bomber with red dots on the wings launched from one of six Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carriers. As soon as they reached the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor—a natural lagoon on the island of Oahu—they began dropping bombs and torpedoes.

Minutes later Rear Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, sent out a radiogram to all navy ships in Hawaii: “AIRRAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NO DRILL.” But Kimmel’s urgent alert could not stop the onslaught of approximately 360 Imperial Japanese bombers from raining down on Pearl Harbor and nearby army bases and airfields for almost two hours. Kimmell and the other commanders watched helplessly as the daring Japanese raid devastated the Pacific Fleet and crippled the defense of the naval base in a single attack.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisers had been anticipating imminent war because diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States had completely deteriorated. But no one had imagined Pearl Harbor to be Japan’s likely first strike. Everyone had assumed that Japan would hit closer targets first, like the Philippines or the Malay Peninsula; they’d discounted Japan’s capacity to carry out a long-range assault on Hawaii’s fortified naval base. Believing that the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet would be needed at full strength against the Japanese in the Pacific, the US military had amassed eight of the nation’s battleships and other support ships together at Pearl Harbor. Likewise, Lieutenant General Walter C. Short, the local army commander, had ordered the planes at nearby Hickam and Wheeler airfields to be clustered together on the ground. He figured the planes could be more easily guarded against sabotage by local Japanese residents this way. But those fears were unfounded, and the battleships and aircraft in Hawaii were sitting ducks.

As a consequence, the Japanese forces were able to hit all eight battleships at once, destroying the USS Arizona and USS Oklahoma, along with 149 American airplanes. And the human toll was gruesome: 2,340 Americans killed and 1,178 others wounded. Among the American servicemen who gave their lives that day was Japanese American Private Torao Migita of Company D, 298th Infantry Battalion, killed tragically not by Japanese bombs, but by friendly fire as he was reporting for duty. Japanese American civilians were also among those killed in the attack, most by friendly fire. In contrast, Japan lost only 29 planes and 64 servicemen.

Around the same time on the mainland, ten-year-old Sam Yoshimura was riding his bicycle in his small hometown of Florin, California. Twenty-one-year-old Miyo Senzaki was working at her family’s produce stand in Los Angeles. Twenty-two-year-old Fred Korematsu was relaxing in the Oakland hills with his girlfriend. And ten-year-old Norman Mineta had just come home with his family from services at their Methodist church in San Jose when they heard the radio blasting news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It was the first time Norm had ever seen his father cry.

“I can’t understand why the land of my birth attacked the land of my heart,” his father said.

Then Joyce Hirano, his neighbor and close friend, came running over, “yelling, screaming and crying that the FBI was there to take her father away.”

Norm’s father rushed over to the Hirano home next door, but by the time he got there, Joyce’s father was gone.

I was attending St. Mary’s Episcopal church on the Sunday morning that the war broke out.… When I reached home later that day, I found my mother in hysterics, crying and trying to pick up after the FBI had searched the house.

“They took Papa!” Mama shouted. “They chained him and numbered him like an animal!”

—Mitsuo “Mits” Usui, male, Nisei, Los Angeles, California, incarcerated age 25, Santa Anita Assembly Center, Granada (Amache) Relocation Center3

On a peaceful Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Henry, Sumi and I were at choir rehearsal singing ourselves hoarse in preparation for the annual Christmas recital of Handel’s “Messiah.” Suddenly Chuck Mizuno, a young University of Washington student, burst into the chapel, gasping as if he had sprinted all the way up the stairs.

“Listen, everybody!” he shouted. “Japan just bombed Pearl Harbor… in Hawaii! It’s war!”

The terrible words hit like a blockbuster, paralyzing us. Then we smiled feebly at each other, hoping this was one of Chuck’s practical jokes. Miss Hara, our music director, rapped her baton impatiently on the music stand and chided him, “Now Chuck, fun’s fun, but we have work to do. Please take your place. You’re already half an hour late.”

But Chuck strode vehemently back to the door. “I mean it, folks, honest! I just heard the news over my car radio. Reporters are talking a blue streak. Come on down and hear it for yourselves.”

With that, Chuck swept out of the room, a swirl of young men following in his wake. Henry was one of them. The rest of us stayed, rooted to our places like a row of marionettes. I felt as if a fist had smashed my pleasant little existence, breaking it into jigsaw puzzle pieces. An old wound opened up again, and I found myself shrinking inwardly from my Japanese blood, the blood of an enemy. I knew instinctively that the fact that I was an American by birthright was not going to help me escape the consequences of this unhappy war.

One girl mumbled over and over again, “It can’t be, God, it can’t be!”

Someone else was saying, “… Do you think we’ll be considered Japanese or Americans?”

A boy replied quietly, “We’ll be Japs, same as always. But our parents are enemy aliens now, you know.”

A shocked silence followed.

—Monica Kazuko Itoi (Sone), female, Nisei, Seattle, Washington, incarcerated age 23, Puyallup Assembly Center, Minidoka Relocation Center4

I still remember turning on the radio Sunday morning [and] heard the announcer say, “We have been attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, we are at war.” I thought, hold on, this must be another radio play. Have you ever heard of that Orson Welles “The War of the Worlds”? It was so realistic, people running all over, getting their guns ready to fight the Martians. Well, I thought it was one of those radio plays, so I didn’t pay much attention to it.

—Frank Seishi Emi, male, Nisei, Los Angeles, California, incarcerated age 26, Pomona Assembly Center, Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Leavenworth Penitentiary5

The news hit us like a bomb.

—David Masao Sakai, male, Nisei, San Jose, California, incarcerated age 25, Santa Anita Assembly Center, Heart Mountain Relocation Center6

The wreckage in Pearl Harbor was still smoldering a few hours later when FBI agents fanned out all along the West Coast. The FBI had already targeted thousands of Japanese Issei men for arrest: prominent community and business leaders, members of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, Buddhist and Shinto priests, newspaper editors and reporters, leaders of flower-arranging and bonsai societies, principals and teachers of Japanese-language schools, martial arts instructors, farmers, business executives, travel agents, donors to Japanese charities, those who had recently visited Japan, and those who’d been denounced as potential traitors by neighbors they might never have met. The agents knew exactly where these Issei men lived.

The full impact of this day was realized that night when my grandfather was taken away by the FBI without reason or cause. This gentle man was a scholar, poet, and educated as a librarian.… He had bookcases full of books. He was a master calligrapher, and I used to sit by his side and watch him paint with a [Japanese] paintbrush.… He won the Emperor’s poetry contest. He could write beautiful poetry.

—Aiko Grace Shinoda (Nakamura), female, Nisei, Los Angeles, California, incarcerated age 15, Manzanar Reception Center, Manzanar Relocation Center7

They got [Papa].… FBI deputies had been questioning everyone, ransacking houses for anything that could conceivably be used for signaling planes or ships or that indicated loyalty to the Emperor [of Japan]. Most of the houses had radios with a short-wave band and a high aerial on the roof so that wives could make contact with the fishing boats during those long cruises. To the FBI, every radio owner was a potential saboteur. The confiscators were often deputies sworn in hastily during the turbulent days right after Pearl Harbor, and these men seemed to be acting out the general panic, seeing sinister possibilities in the most ordinary household items: flashlights, kitchen knives, cameras, lanterns, toy swords.… Two FBI men in fedora hats and trench coats—like out of a thirties movie—knocked on [the] door and when they left, Papa was between them. He didn’t struggle. There was no point to it. He had become a man without a country.… About all he had left at [that] point was his tremendous dignity.

—Jeanne Toyo Wakatsuki (Houston), female, Nisei, Santa Monica, California, incarcerated age 8, Manzanar Reception Center, Manzanar Relocation Center8

The FBI came to our house and searched everything. It was awful, just awful. They even ran their hands through our rice and sugar bowls looking for guns and radios or anything with Japanese writing.

—Hisaye Yamamoto (Desoto), female, Nisei, Oceanside, California, incarcerated age 20, Poston Relocation Center9

It made me positively hivey the way the FBI agents… continued their raids into Japanese homes and business places and marched the Issei men away into the old red brick immigration building, systematically and efficiently, as if they were stocking a cellarful of choice bottles of wine.… We wondered when Father’s time would come. We expected momentarily to hear strange footsteps on the porch and the sudden, demanding ring of the front doorbell. Our ears became attuned like the sensitive antennas of moths, translating every soft swish of passing cars into the arrival of the FBI squad.

—Monica Kazuko Itoi (Sone), female, Nisei, Seattle, Washington, incarcerated age 23, Puyallup Assembly Center, Minidoka Relocation Center10

At Sumi Okamoto’s wedding reception in Spokane, Washington, the FBI led away four Issei men who had gathered there for the celebration. Most of those arrested were husbands, fathers, and breadwinners who were forced to leave their wives, children, and elderly relatives to fend for themselves. In many cases, their family members would not know what happened to them after their arrest, and the families would not be reunited for months or years—or ever.

Donald Nakahata’s father worked for the Japanese Association of San Francisco and San Jose. Nakahata remembers walking him to a bus stop on either December 7 or December 8, and that was the last time he saw his father. Later he would find out that his father died in a Department of Justice (DOJ) internment camp.

Also swept up in the first wave of arrests were nearly all of the Japanese fishermen on Terminal Island—an area just five miles long and largely man-made—in Los Angeles harbor. These fishermen were part of a thriving, close-knit community of approximately 3,500 Japanese residents whose fathers and grandfathers had grown a prosperous industry in canned tuna and sardines. Unfortunately for the Japanese Americans who had established their homes and livelihoods there, the small island was next to a naval shipyard where warships were under construction. Many fishermen were arrested as soon as they docked their vessels and were prevented from even saying good-bye to their families. They were treated like criminals, placed in temporary Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention centers or county jails, then transferred to internment camps operated by the US Army or the DOJ.

In some cases, families were able to obtain permission to visit the men at the local detention centers before they were moved farther away. Yoshiko Uchida was lucky she could see her father, Takashi “Dwight” Uchida, before he was sent to an internment camp in Missoula, Montana, with ninety other men. From there he was able to write letters home that were censored, and send telegrams identified as “internee telegrams.”

Don’t forget to lubricate the car. And be sure to prune the roses in January. Brush Laddie every day and give him a pat for me. Don’t forget to send a monthly check to Grandma and take my Christmas offering to church.

—Takashi “Dwight” Uchida, male, Issei, Berkeley, California, incarcerated age 58, Fort Missoula Alien Detention Center, Tanforan Assembly Center, Topaz Relocation Center11


Leaving a city of everlasting spring.

I am buried in the snow of Montana.

In the Northern Country.

You in San Diego, I in Montana

The path of my dream

is frozen.

—Kyuji Aizumi, male, Issei, San Diego, California, incarcerated age 56, Fort Missoula Alien Detention Center, Santa Anita Assembly Center, Poston Relocation Center12

In the wake of this dragnet, the West Coast Japanese Americans panicked that they might be caught with possessions that would cause the authorities to question their loyalty.

My mother told us to bring all the books out that were Japanese. She had a big bonfire. I saw all my children’s books and records go up in flames. I was crying. She said, “We can’t keep them here. The FBI may come, and we don’t know what is going to happen.”

—Dollie Kimiko Nagai (Fukawa), female, Nisei, Fresno, California, incarcerated age 15, Fresno Assembly Center, Jerome Relocation Center13

We knew it was impossible to destroy everything. The FBI would certainly think it strange if they found us sitting in a bare house, totally purged of things Japanese. But it was as if we could no longer stand the tension of waiting, and we just had to do something against the black day. We worked all night, feverishly combing through bookshelves, closets, drawers, and furtively creeping down to the basement furnace for the burning.… It was past midnight when we finally climbed upstairs to bed. Wearily we closed our eyes, filled with an indescribable sense of guilt for having destroyed the things we loved.… As I lay struggling to fall asleep I realized that we hadn’t freed ourselves at all from fear. We still lay stiff in our beds, waiting.

—Monica Kazuko Itoi (Sone), female, Nisei, Seattle, Washington, incarcerated age 23, Puyallup Assembly Center, Minidoka Relocation Center14

I remember… yanking our pictures from our family album and burning them. We removed all Japanese calligraphy hangings from our walls, even though we could not read them. In short, we tried to deny our very culture and origins.

—Minoru “Min” Tamaki, male, Nisei, San Francisco, California, incarcerated age 24, Tanforan Assembly Center, Topaz Relocation Center15

On the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) issued Presidential Proclamation Nos. 2525, 2526, and 2527, which authorized the United States “to detain potentially dangerous enemy aliens” from Japan, Germany, and Italy:

Whenever there is a declared war between the United States and any foreign nation or government, or any invasion or predatory incursion is perpetrated, attempted, or threatened against the territory of the United States by any foreign nation or government, and the President makes public proclamation of the event, all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of the hostile nation or government, being of the age of fourteen years old and upward, who shall be within the United States and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured, and removed as alien enemies.

The next day FDR addressed a joint session of Congress and referred to December 7, 1941, as “a date which will live in infamy.” Japan had not publicly declared war against the United States, so the words “Pearl Harbor” were now synonymous with a surprise or sneak attack. The president received from Congress a declaration of war on the Empire of Japan. As a result, all Issei residing in the United States were classified as enemy aliens. Two days later, on December 10, Italy and Germany declared war on the United States and became allies of Japan.

As news of the destruction at Pearl Harbor spread, Americans reacted with shock and anger. The White House was inundated with telegrams and phone calls from people everywhere demanding revenge. From then on, anyone with a Japanese face, no matter where they’d been born or whether they were US citizens, was viewed as the enemy: Their mail would be censored, their fishing boats grounded, their food markets closed, their Japanese-language press shut down, and all of their bank accounts frozen.

I felt like everybody and their uncle was looking at me, so I hurried home. When I got to Japantown the place looked as though it was deserted. No one was out in the streets and some of the stores were still open, and as soon as I got home my parents said, “Stay home, we don’t want you to be wandering around,” and as I looked out the window, I could see extra police cars in the area. And suddenly I began to see, I guess they could either have been detectives or FBI agents.… I suddenly felt insecure. I don’t know quite how to describe it but it was a funny feeling, it was the funniest feeling I ever had.

—Katsumi Thomas “Tom” Kawaguchi, male, Nisei, San Francisco, California, incarcerated age 21, Tanforan Assembly Center, Topaz Relocation Center16

I went to [high] school on Monday. We used to eat lunch with other kids, but all of a sudden it just slammed down on us. None of the kids would associate with us. Before Pearl Harbor, I had good friends who were Caucasians—an Italian kid, a Jewish kid, an Okie, and a couple of Mexican kids. We all used to hang around together. I was the one Japanese. The day after Pearl Harbor, they were civil with me, you know, but they weren’t that friendly. The son of the junior high school principal and I used to run around together. I had had dinner over at their house. Not after Pearl Harbor.

—Ben Toshihiro Tagami, male, Nisei, Los Angeles, California, incarcerated age 17, Fresno Assembly Center, Jerome Relocation Center17

My eldest brother was a practicing dentist in Gardena, having just graduated from USC [University of Southern California] Dental School in 1941.… He volunteered for the U.S. Army immediately after Pearl Harbor but was turned down. He was told that the U.S. Army did not need any Japanese American dentists.

—Mary Sakaguchi (Oda), female, Nisei, Los Angeles, California, incarcerated age 22, Manzanar Reception Center, Manzanar Relocation Center18

Meanwhile, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was on an airplane bound for Hawaii. He knew he’d be facing a congressional inquiry; one US senator was already calling for his resignation. He needed to find a way to deflect attention from the military’s lack of preparation, so he falsely cast blame on the Japanese Americans living in Hawaii, further inciting the general public’s growing paranoia. He claimed that Japan was enlisting agents and sympathizers from within the United States to engage in “fifth column” espionage in preparation for a second all-out attack on the California coast. Knox’s term “fifth column” refers to Americans who are considered traitors because they engage in espionage or sabotage against the United States on behalf of US enemies acting within the country. In short, he was claiming that Japanese Americans were secretly plotting disloyal acts against the US government on US soil. He included his fifth column accusations in his December 14 report to the president and then announced them in a press conference to more than two hundred reporters the next day.

Even after the FBI and army intelligence concurred that there had been no such sabotage by Japanese Americans during or after the attack, Knox continued to repeat these false charges without ever offering any evidence. Intelligence officials in Washington and Hawaii disputed his claims in private but not in public. Before joining the Roosevelt administration, Knox had been an executive with the Hearst media empire, which was well known for spreading “Yellow Peril” rhetoric in its newspaper pages. He knew what would play in the headlines: SECRETARY OF NAVY BLAMES FIFTH COLUMN FOR THE RAID and FIFTH COLUMN TREACHERY TOLD.

Knox became the first official of the US government to put his weight and office behind a frenzy of baseless allegations against Americans of Japanese ancestry. He energized long-standing prejudice against them from some of California’s most prominent industries, especially the large agricultural organizations that wanted to eliminate Japanese American farmers from the US market entirely. Charles M. Goethe, a member of the California Joint Immigration Committee, put it openly: “This is our time to get things done that we have been trying to get done for a quarter of a century.”

Ironically, Japanese American farmers operated only 2 percent of all farms in California. In 1913, California had passed the first of its Alien Land Laws, which prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship”—meaning the Issei farmers—from owning land or holding long-term leases. In addition to California, other states, including Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming, had similar laws. The Issei worked around the restrictions of the Alien Land Laws by buying land in the names of their American-born Nisei children, or sometimes in partnership with Caucasian friends. But even with those work-around arrangements, by 1940 only 1,290 of the 5,135 Japanese American farmers in California were landowners, and 3,845 (roughly 75 percent) were managers and tenants.

In terms of scale, Japanese American farmers were in direct competition only with other small farmers, not the White growers who farmed wheat and potatoes on enormous tracts of land. Nevertheless, White farmers resented their productivity; Japanese Americans far excelled in growing labor-intensive crops by using high-yield techniques such as crop rotation. Issei farmers became especially adept with strawberries, which required backbreaking stoop labor. In California the Issei farmers were soon outproducing all other farmers in the state on a per-acre basis, causing a sizeable increase in the value of their land over the land of White farmers. In 1940 the average value per acre of all West Coast farms was $37.94 (with one out of every four acres planted in crops), while Japanese farmland averaged $279.96 per acre (with three out of every four acres actively producing crops).

In contrast, White agribusiness had a resource-intensive, low-yield approach. As a result, by the 1940s Japanese American farmers were producing an astounding 40 percent of California’s commercial vegetable crops. They dominated the production of truck crops: 73 percent of the snow peas, 50 percent of the tomatoes, 75 percent of the celery, and 90 percent of the strawberries. Japanese American farmers were considered “the most important racial minority group engaged in agriculture in the Pacific Coast region.” Consequently, White farmers saw them as serious economic rivals.

A constellation of agricultural groups, including the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association, the California Farm Bureau Federation, the White American Nurserymen of Los Angeles, and the Western Growers Protective Association, joined up with the California department of the American Legion, the Native Sons of the Golden West, and the Native Daughters of the Golden West to lobby federal authorities to remove Japanese Americans from their farms. They saw the post–Pearl Harbor racial climate as a golden opportunity for a land grab, not only to eliminate this unwanted competition from the state’s most productive family farms, but also to confiscate the land from Japanese American farmers as soon as they were removed.

Austin E. Anson, managing secretary of the Salinas district of the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association, was quoted in the May 9, 1942, issue of the Saturday Evening Post as saying, “We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over.… If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we’d never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we don’t want them back when the war ends, either.”

Don’t worry. Don’t worry. This is America.

—Edward Kanta Fujimoto, male, Issei, San Francisco, California, incarcerated age 43, Fort Lincoln Internment Center, Camp Livingston Internment Camp, Topaz Relocation Center19

But the Nikkei—all persons of Japanese ancestry—had plenty of reasons to worry. In studies conducted on popular attitudes in the 1920s and 1930s, the majority of respondents described Japanese Americans as “dishonest, tricky, treacherous,” as being “ruinous, hard or unfair competitors,” with principal traits of “sneakiness” and “intelligence.”

Japan’s aggressive invasion of China in 1937 had increased fears among senior US government and military leaders about the “Japanese problem” and potential disloyalty among the second-generation Nisei Americans as well as the first-generation Issei, particularly in Hawaii. In September 1939, President Roosevelt directed the army’s G-2 division and the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) to coordinate the surveillance of Japanese Americans with the FBI. In an attempt to discourage Japan’s plans for military expansion by way of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere—a concept created by the Empire of Japan to control Indochina through puppet governments—FDR froze all Japanese assets in the United States and ceased exports of oil, which the small island country could not provide for itself.

However, in November 1940 the FBI prepared a lengthy report on national security in Hawaii that depicted the Nisei as loyal Americans. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and other bureau officials, though, equated Issei political loyalty with their cultural attachment to Japan. As a result, those Issei who were community leaders were identified as individuals with the highest likelihood of becoming potential saboteurs and espionage agents.

In the months before the Pearl Harbor attack, FBI agents interviewed residents of Japanese neighborhoods and scanned record books from Japanese-owned businesses, newspapers, periodicals, and club notices, in order to compile a list of names categorized into A-B-C levels of threat. The A list consisted of individuals belonging to organizations classified as “dangerous.” B list names were those in organizations considered “less dangerous” but believed to be directly or indirectly under the control of the Japanese government. Those on the C list belonged to organizations with ties to Japan that seemingly posed less danger than A or B list groups. Over two thousand Issei names were on the combined A-B-C lists, and these were the first men arrested within hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Office of Naval Intelligence took a more nuanced approach than the FBI. Lieutenant Commander Kenneth D. Ringle was only one of twelve intelligence attachés in the navy who spoke Japanese. Ringle developed his Japanese-language skills and familiarity with Japanese culture in an ONI immersion program in Japan from 1928 to 1931. In July 1940 he was asked to determine the security risk that disloyal Japanese Americans could pose to West Coast naval bases. So Ringle established himself as part of the Japanese American community in Southern California, and in particular with local Nisei leaders from the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). Technically, he reported to ONI’s San Diego district director, but he was given the freedom to run his own operations.

For the next eighteen months he worked mostly alone out of a YMCA office in San Pedro or in the field getting to know the first-generation Issei farmers, fishermen, and businessmen who were becoming Americanized and believed in the American way of life. They respected Ringle’s position in the navy, and he respected the time they were willing to spend with him. Ringle had the background to recognize the tremendous differences between the Japanese he previously knew in Japan and the West Coast Japanese. He came to a keen understanding of the relationships between the generations of Issei and Nisei, as well as the contrast between Japanese Americans who had little or no contact with or attachment to Japan and those who did. Ringle wanted to keep support for Japan’s militaristic agenda from taking root in the West Coast, and he turned to Issei and Nisei friends for help. At one point he put out the word that he was looking for the membership list of the Black Dragon Society in the San Joaquin valley, a group loyal to the Japanese emperor; three days later its books for the western half of the United States were put into his hands.

Then one night, in a dramatic midnight raid, Ringle broke up a spy network being run out of the Japanese consulate in Los Angeles. The operation, believed to have occurred in March 1941, resembled a scene from Mission: Impossible. With the aid of the FBI and a safecracker “checked out” from a local jail, Ringle accessed the consulate safe while police stood guard in the street and at the elevator bank below. After photographing the consulate’s records in the embassy safe, they left quietly, undetected.

The clandestine operation produced lists of network informants, which, the FBI concluded, adequately identified the pool of likely suspects on its A-B-C lists. The raid also produced enough evidence to break up Japan’s entire West Coast espionage ring and arrest its ringleader, Itaru Tachibana, a Japanese naval officer posing as an English-language student. The charges against him were later dropped at the request of Secretary of State Cordell Hull because “conversations with the Japanese were at a crucial stage.” Tachibana was eventually deported to Japan for “attempting to purchase military secrets.” But as far as Ringle was concerned, the most valuable evidence he had unearthed consisted of direct communications between the consulate and officials in Japan, in which Japanese agents referred to Japanese Americans as “cultural traitors” not to be trusted. Ringle considered this proof that Japanese Americans were being viewed with suspicion by the Japanese government—far from being recruited for espionage purposes.

Upon the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ringle became responsible for arresting the known Japanese agents on the enemy’s own lists, which he had lifted in the raid, as well as on the lists already developed by the FBI and ONI. Forty-eight hours later Ringle and the FBI had arrested 450 known agents of Imperial Japan in Southern California.

In this time before the Central Intelligence Agency existed (the CIA would not be created until September 18, 1947), President Roosevelt was dissatisfied with the intelligence he was receiving from various government agencies. The president began commissioning his own agents using undisclosed White House funds. In February 1941 he hired his friend and journalist John Franklin Carter to assemble a political intelligence network on the West Coast and report directly to him.

Six months later—and four months before Pearl Harbor—New Deal congressman John D. Dingell Sr. of Michigan advised the president in private correspondence that the United States should prepare to place 10,000 alien Japanese in Hawaii in concentration camps and hold the remaining 150,000 Japanese Americans as a “reprisal reserve” against hostile acts by Japan. An act of reprisal is an action that a country takes when it believes another country has violated international law. On July 26, 1941, FDR froze all of Japan’s assets in the United States in retaliation for Japan’s occupation of French Indochina. Japan responded by detaining 100 American citizens as an act of reprisal. Congressman Dingell recommended that the president prepare for the next step in the “reprisal contest” by detaining Japanese aliens in the United States, who would be held in reserve in the event the US military needed to offer them to Japan in exchange for US prisoners of war (POWs).

Reprisals are supposed to be equal in proportion to the other country’s offense. But Dingell had in mind something far beyond a one-for-one exchange—he proposed that the United States detain approximately 160,000 hostages in response to the 100 American citizens being held hostage by the Japanese government.

Dingell’s idea apparently prompted Roosevelt to order Carter to secretly investigate “the Japanese situation” on the West Coast and in Hawaii. Carter in turn hired Curtis B. Munson, a wealthy midwestern businessman, to go out west and confer with FBI and ONI investigators, including Ringle, with whom Munson became friendly. Both Ringle and Munson believed—and in October and November 1941 Munson’s reports conveyed—that Japanese Americans posed no security threat whatsoever.

In his first report to FDR on October 19, 1941, Munson wrote, “We do not want to throw a lot of American citizens into a concentration camp of course, and especially as the almost unanimous verdict is that in case of war they will be quiet, very quiet. There will probably be some sabotage by paid Japanese agents and the odd fanatical Jap, but the bulk of these people will be quiet because in addition to being quite contented with the American way of life, they know they are ‘in a spot.’… 90 per cent like our way of life best” and are “straining every nerve to show their loyalty.… It is only because he is a stranger to us that we mistrust him.”

On November 7, Carter forwarded Munson’s second and final report to the president, attaching a cover memo of his own that summarized Munson’s points. But Carter took them out of context, which made it seem as if Munson believed that Japanese Americans were more threatening than Munson actually wrote in the report.


Attached herewith is the report, with supplementary reports on Lower California and British Columbia. The report, though lengthy, is worth reading in its entirety. Salient passages are:

1) “There are still Japanese in the United States who will tie dynamite around their waist and make a human bomb out of themselves… but today they are few.”

2) “There is no Japanese ‘problem’ on the coast. There will be no armed uprising of Japanese. There will be undoubtedly some sabotage financed by Japan and executed largely by imported agents. There will be the odd case of fanatical sabotage by some Japanese ‘crackpot.’?”

3) “The dangerous part of their espionage is that they would be very effective as far as movement of supplies, movement of troops and movement of ships… is concerned.”

4) “For the most part the local Japanese are loyal to the United States or, at worst, hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concentration camps or irresponsible mobs.”

5) “Your reporter… is horrified to note that dams, bridges, harbors, power stations etc. are wholly unguarded everywhere. The harbor of San Pedro could be razed by fire completely by four men with hand grenades and a little study in one night. Dams could be blown and half of lower California might actually die of thirst.… One railway bridge at the exit from the mountains in some cases could tie up three or four main railroads.”


Ironically, Munson’s report was intended to relieve concerns about Japanese American loyalty, but Carter’s memo gave the impression that the potential for sabotage had increased rather than diminished. Unfortunately, FDR probably read just Carter’s summary; if so, then he didn’t read Munson’s account of the remarkable degree of patriotism shown by Japanese Americans toward their country. Carter placed no emphasis there, so FDR dismissed the entire report as “nothing much new.”

On the contrary, Munson reported:

The Nisei are pathetically eager to show [their] loyalty. They are not Japanese in culture. They are foreigners to Japan. Though American citizens they are not accepted by Americans, largely because they look differently and can be easily recognized.… The loyal Nisei hardly know where to turn. Some gesture of protection or wholehearted acceptance of this group would go a long way to swinging them away from any last romantic hankering after old Japan. They are not oriental or mysterious, they are very American and are of a proud, self-respecting race.…

The Issei or first generation is considerably weakened in their loyalty to Japan by the fact that they have chosen to make this their home and have brought up their children here. They expect to die here. They are quite fearful of being put in a concentration camp. Many would take out American citizenship if allowed to do so. The haste of this report does not allow us to go into this more fully. The Issei have to break with their religion, their god and Emperor, their family, their ancestors and their after-life in order to be loyal to the United States. They are also still legally Japanese. Yet they do break, and send their boys off to the Army with pride and tears. They are good neighbors. They are old men fifty-five to sixty-five, for the most part simple and dignified. Roughly they were Japanese lower middle class about analogous to the pilgrim fathers. They were largely farmers and fishermen. Today the Japanese is farmer, fisherman and businessman. They get very attached to the land they work or own (through the second generation), they like their own business, they do not work at industrial jobs nor for others except as a stepping stone to becoming independent. The Kibei, educated [in Japan] from childhood to seventeen, are still the element most to be watched.

Although officers of the War Department, the State Department, and ONI also received copies of the Munson report, it ultimately did nothing to change the minds of the three cabinet secretaries overseeing those departments, who would eventually support “mass evacuation.”

The thinking within army leadership was that race alone determined loyalty, without regard to any other factors. Two weeks prior to Pearl Harbor, the prospect of war with Japan was looming; every department was preparing its wartime plans. In the event of war, the Justice Department would assume responsibility for internal security measures, and the War Department would lead the national defense. The attack on Pearl Harbor put those plans in motion, but a misinformed and prejudiced conflation of race, culture, and loyalty was embedded in their thinking, which now can only be described as racist.

In early December, Carter reported to FDR: “Army intelligence poor or nonexistent on West Coast.” He followed up with a plan for Roosevelt’s “Japanese problem” in a memo dated December 19, 1941:


Curtis Munson reports from Los Angeles that already five L.A. Japanese-Americans have committed suicide because their honor could not stand suspicion of their loyalty. He is rushing to Washington a program, which is based largely on the O.N.I. (Commander Ringle) proposals for maintaining the loyalty of Japanese-Americans and establishing wholesome race-relations. Its essence is to utilize Japanese filial piety as hostage for good behavior.

The chief points of this program are as follows:

1) Encourage the Nisei (American-born Japanese) by a statement from high authority;

2) Accept offers of patriotic cooperation from the Nisei through such agencies as a) Civilian Defense, b) Red Cross, c) United Service organizations;

3) Appoint an Alien Property Custodian to supervise Isei [sic] (Japanese-born residents ineligible for citizenship), under instructions to encourage the Nisei (U.S. Citizens of Japanese blood) to take over Isei [sic] property;

4) Accept INVESTIGATED Nisei as workers in defense industries such as ship-building plants, aircraft plants, etc.

5) Put responsibility for the behavior of the Isei [sic] and Nisei on the leaders of Nisei groups such as the Japanese-American Citizens League;

6) Put responsibility for the production of food (fish, vegetables) on the Nisei leaders mentioned above. (Japanese produce is frozen by Treasury orders; Japanese fishing-boats are beached by the Navy; result is threat of starvation to loyal Japanese families and food shortage in Los Angeles).


Roosevelt initially expressed interest in the Munson-Ringle plan that proposed an alternative to rounding up all persons of Japanese ancestry. In fact, he referred Munson’s recommendations to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General Francis Biddle. Carter responded in another memo, dated December 23, 1941, that Hoover and Biddle were “enthusiastic and offered full cooperation.” But unfortunately, their enthusiasm was followed by inertia and dead silence. Roosevelt never followed up or lent any further support. Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt of the US Army’s Western Defense Command had nothing to say about it, and the plan effectively died in committee at the Justice Department.

As 1941 came to a close, the president was distracted by the holidays and a state visit by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the White House. The military situation was getting dramatically worse in the Pacific: FDR as well as the American public heard the demoralizing news that Thailand, Guam, Wake Island, Hong Kong, and Manila had fallen in rapid succession to Japanese forces. General Douglas MacArthur, in charge of the Pacific Command, raised the concern that the Japanese were treating American and British civilians harshly in Japanese-occupied areas of the Philippines. And Congressman Dingell’s proposal that the United States have a reprisal reserve of Japanese nationals who could be exchanged for American POWs had taken hold.

If there had ever been a chance the government would believe that Japanese Americans were loyal, the moment had passed. Instead, the political cards were stacking up against them.

About The Author

Photograph by Rebecca Little

Susan H. Kamei received her JD from the Georgetown University Law Center. She teaches at the University of Southern California on the legal ramifications of the incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II and how they apply to constitutional issues, civil liberties, and national security considerations today.

Why We Love It

“I can’t stress enough how moving this book is and what a huge impact it will have. This history of the relationship between the US and Japan is riveting, but what makes this book truly special are the firsthand, diary-like accounts from the young people who spent years imprisoned by their own country—people born here who loved and respected this country and who instead of being treated as US citizens, were treated as enemies. It’s impossible to read these accounts and not be moved. There are very few books, especially in the YA genre, on this sobering chapter of American history, which is particularly relevant right now.”

—Krista V., Senior Editor, on When Can We Go Back to America?

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (September 7, 2021)
  • Length: 736 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781481401449
  • Ages: 15 - 99

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Raves and Reviews

In When Can We Go Back to America?, Susan Kamei relates the whole range of Japanese American experiences during World War II—from the camps to the courtrooms, from the soldiers of the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team to the draft resisters—restoring a much-needed sense of agency to people who triumphed over prejudice during a period of nationwide fear. At a time when Asian Americans face new threats in their own homeland, When Can We Go Back to America? is a bracing reminder of the challenges facing minorities—and their hard-earned successes.

– Robert Asahina, author of Just Americans: How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad

When Can We Go Back to America? is spell-binding tour de force that illuminates the heart-wrenching reality of lives forever changed by a national atrocity of inhumane proportions. In drawing upon first-hand accounts of those incarcerated, Kamei has created a moving record that shows the consequences of unchecked political power. For those examining the case for reparations for Black American descendants of slavery in the United States, some events are frighteningly familiar—denying a disfavored group the right to own property or vote, rounding up innocent unsuspecting people at gunpoint and rendering them homeless, and confiscating and appropriating their property. The hitherto untold stories of confusion, disbelief, frustration, anger, protest, and resolve provide a legacy of inspiration for current and future generations. They also serve as a warning of what can happen when racism and hysteria drive our nation’s thinking instead of justice.

– A. Kirsten Mullen and William A. Darity Jr., authors of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-first Century

The incarceration of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry is often characterized as a tragic “mistake” arising from wartime hysteria. Susan Kamei’s absorbing page-turner reveals that what happened was no mistake—the reasons asserted to justify forcing these Americans at gunpoint into concentration camps were entirely made up—and the government knew it at the time. She deftly synthesizes crisp historical narrative with powerful first-person accounts to illustrate the perils to democracy when “alternative facts” hold sway over the real ones. Despite being unjustly targeted, the voices of incarcerated Japanese Americans show their unwavering faith in America, and their stories provide important lessons for our country’s present and its future.

– Donald K. Tamaki, 2020 American Bar Association Spirit of Excellence Award winner

A tour de force account of the Japanese American incarceration experience during WWII from the perspective of those who lived through forced removal, indefinite confinement, unjust deportation, and in some cases, family separation. With scholarly precision and a compelling narrative, When Can We Go Back to America? is a must read for anyone interested in America’s legacy of racial exclusion and the nation's struggle to perfect the union.

– Duncan Ryuken Williams, author of American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War

When Can We Go Back to America? provides readers with an immersive look at the experience of Japanese incarceration during World War II. Teeming with first-hand accounts of both the experience in the camps and the fight over what incarceration did and should mean to the American nation as a whole, Susan Kamei's book is an invaluable resource for any related history course. In addition, thanks to the richness of the material captured in a single volume, the text is brimming with opportunities to teach critical thinking skills suitable for any History or English course.

– Jason LaBau, Waterford School, Sandy, Utah

The voices of the incarcerated Japanese Americans in When Can We Go Back to America? pack a gut-wrenching punch. Their raw emotions force the reader to step back and consider what it is like to be imprisoned by the US government for an indeterminate amount of time without regard to one’s innocence. The power of their stories compel us to face up to our country’s past, a necessary step towards having a more just society today and in the future.

– Ronald K. Ikejiri, attorney and former Washington, DC representative of the Japanese American Citizens League

"Riveting and indispensable...This landmark historical account shines a light on a part of American history that must be remembered."


"A truly remarkable, comprehensive resource with an emphasis on allyship, indispensable for researchers and any resistor of injustice."


"Filled with over a 100 alphabetically organized, detailed biographies of those who shared their experiences, Kamei’s narrative nonfiction work dives deeply into what it means to be American, then and always.”

– School Library Journal, starred review

“Kamei has created a resonating—and essential—read.”

– Booklist, starred review

Awards and Honors

  • CCBC Choices (Cooperative Children's Book Council)
  • Kansas NEA Reading Circle List High School Title
  • Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year Selection Title

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