Pearl Harbor and Japanese Americans: Another Sort of Infamy

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific triggered the mass removal of 112,000 American citizens and longtime residents of Japanese ancestry from the U.S. Pacific Coast during mid-1942, which then resulted in their confinement in government camps for the balance of the war. However, when I was first asked by the editors of this forum to reflect on the meaning of Pearl Harbor as a historian of Japanese Americans, I replied somewhat stiffly that I really had nothing to say about Tokyo’s bombing raid, since the Japanese Americans were in no way responsible for it. The editors quickly assured me that the assignment was not about causal links or historical revisionism, but about the commemoration and collective memory surrounding the surprise attack. Here, once again I hesitated: it is a tricky and complex business to generalize about the collective psyche of any group. Yet in speaking to countless Nisei (second-generation U.S. citizens), especially those on the U.S. mainland, I have been struck forcefully by how deeply December 7 remains for them a day of infamy, and of trauma. For Japanese Americans, the words “Pearl Harbor” are an accusation, a standing charge against them of a crime they did not commit, and one that has generated a reaction still unknown to many Americans. After some further thought, I agreed to touch on some issues that I believe are particularly relevant.

First, it is worth noting that Japanese Americans do have an important connection to the Pearl Harbor attack, although nothing resembling the racist mythology about spies and fifth columnists that still persists in the imaginations of Michelle Malkin and her supporters.[1] Rather, the connection is in the government’s pre-existing, exaggerated fears of Japanese American spies, which played a central role in amplifying the Pearl Harbor disaster and its aftermath. In fall 1941, commanding Army General Walter Short ordered the airplanes based at Hickam Field to guard the neighboring naval base bunched close together on the ground, in order to guard them more easily against the danger of sabotage by ethnic Japanese. This enabled Japanese bombs to catch the American planes immobilized during the first wave of attacks and swiftly put over 250 of them out of commission, thereby crippling any American defense of the Naval base.[2] Furthermore, in the first hours after the attack, government agents in Hawai’i and on the mainland began mass arrests of Japanese community leaders—teachers, ministers, and businessmen—whom they held incommunicado for months without charge. Those who were rounded up had been previously marked for internment, not because of any action on their part, but because their position in the community made them suspect.

Nonetheless, the attack gave rise to a central divergence in status between the so-called “local Japanese” in Hawai’i and their mainland counterparts. The attack had an immediate and direct impact on “local Japanese” communities in the Territory. First, Private Torao Migita, a Nisei servicemen, was killed in the bombing, and an unknown number of ethnic Japanese civilians in Hawai’i were killed or wounded by stray bombs or friendly fire. While the official list of 57 recorded civilian casualties did not distinguish victims by national origin, a check reveals many Japanese names (which would be logical, given the significant percentage of local Japanese in Oahu).[3] Meanwhile, members of the Japanese community took quick action to defend Hawai’i. Nisei soldiers rushed to their posts during the attack to fire at the enemy, while Nisei Red Cross workers helped care for the wounded. A telephone summons to male Nisei graduates of the University of Hawai’i, who had gone through required ROTC courses, led to the immediate organization of a militia unit, the Hawaii Territorial Guard. The local Japanese, indispensable to the Territory’s plantation workforce and with representatives close to the power structure, were spared mass confinement. At the same time, General Short, holding the text of a secretly-drafted proclamation of martial law, invaded the office of territorial governor Thomas Poindexter. Warning of potential disloyalty by local Japanese and brandishing the menace of a military takeover, Short forced the governor to sign the proclamation sight unseen. Then he declared himself Military Governor and suspended the U.S. Constitution.  Full civilian rule would not be restored in Hawai’i until October 1944.

On the mainland, which was not directly attacked, reactions among Japanese Americans, like others, were less visible. Nisei organizations and individuals across the country publicly expressed outrage over the attack and wrote or wired to offer full support to the government. Young men rushed to join the United States Army, but the War Department immediately froze Nisei enlistments, and almost all of the recruits were refused. In the first days after the attack, there was no perceptible public outcry against Japanese Americans.[4] However, after the onset of 1942, Japan’s victories in the Pacific led to widespread fears of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast, and the climate of opinion changed. A group of craven and ambitious military officers in the Western Defense Command denounced Japanese Americans as potential spies and saboteurs for Tokyo. They were joined by powerful nativist and commercial lobbying groups who had a firm self-interest in removing their nonwhite competitors, and by a set of their opportunistic political representatives. Together these forces instigated the mass removal of the entire ethnic Japanese population from the Pacific Coast.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the Pearl Harbor attack in itself settled the differing fates of the Japanese Americans in Hawai’i and the mainland; economic and political factors played a decisive role as well. Still, the visible support and heroism that the “local Japanese” in Hawaii had the opportunity to display helped reassure officials, civilian and military alike, that Nisei could be trusted. In the same way, through their exemplary patriotism and contribution to the war effort, the Nisei in Hawai’i were able to emerge from the shadow of mainstream suspicion and play a central role in Hawaiian society in the postwar years. By contrast, Japanese Americans on the mainland, already a small and relatively isolated portion of the West Coast population, were further excluded after the outbreak of war and stripped of the largest part of their community leadership. They thus made easy and tempting targets to pick off.

Furthermore, the onus of the Pearl Harbor attack, however unjustly, proved durable and largely unshakable. It manifested itself in numerous ways. On one level, Japanese Americans were targeted for abuse or mockery on the anniversary of the attack. On December 7, 1967, for example, Asian American Studies pioneer Don Nakanishi, then a young college student at a nearly all-white Yale University, was attacked by white students who entered his dorm room and pelted him with water balloons, yelling “Attack Pearl Harbor!” Humiliated and outraged, he later said: “I’d never faced anything like that before.”[5] A year later, when student strikes rocked the campus of San Francisco State University, the Canadian-born Nisei S.I. Hayakawa agreed to serve as acting president of the university. California governor Ronald Reagan (who had gained a reputation during the early postwar era as a friend of Japanese Americans) reportedly joked that if Hayakawa would take the job, he would be “forgiven for Pearl Harbor.”[6] There were also less prankish sides to the conflation of Japanese Americans with Japan’s military. In 1981, John J. McCloy, who as Assistant Secretary of War had been one of the prime movers in bringing about Executive Order 9066, testified about it before the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. McCloy attracted widespread shock in the hearing room when he declared that the mass removal of Japanese Americans was a case of retribution for the Pearl Harbor attack.

I discovered a poignant echo of this misguided association when I first began doing research for my book By Order of the President.[7] I found that a number of Nisei, on hearing that I was studying the question of Franklin Roosevelt and Japanese Americans, would ask me whether Roosevelt did indeed have foreknowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor and had permitted the attack in order to bring the United States into the World War (or more precisely, they would ask me to confirm their belief that he did so). I began by answering that there was no conclusive evidence to support such an idea. After a while, I started to respond pointedly that I had no idea—after all, I was studying Japanese Americans, not the Japanese. After a time, it dawned on me why so many Nisei were asking the question: they still felt stigmatized by Japan’s surprise attack. Consciously or unconsciously, they thought that if it could be shown that Roosevelt had deliberately allowed the attack to proceed, it somehow meant that Japan’s military was innocent, and that they in turn were blameless. Realizing this, I felt enormous compassion for the Japanese Americans who were so brutalized for their connection with Japan that they needed to believe that FDR was the manipulator—they still could not quite grasp that they themselves were innocent, irrespective of the nature of the attack. The culminating irony is that the comfort they seek is largely illusory. Whatever Roosevelt did or did not know beforehand, the fact remains that Japan deliberately planned and executed a surprise attack, and it was their attack that plunged the two nations into open war. The attack was a tactical masterpiece, but a strategic blunder of amazing proportions in uniting the American public against Japan.


[1] The right-wing columnist Michelle Malkin’s book In Defense of Internment (Chicago: Regnery, 2004) purported to justify mass removal on grounds of alleged massive prewar Japanese American spying.

[2] Edwin T. Layton et.alAnd I Was There”: Pearl Harbor and Midway—Breaking the Secrets (New York : Quill, 1985), 55, 74-75; “Eishin ‘Toy’ Tamanaha,”, viewed November 18, 2011.

[3] On civilian deaths, see, viewed November 20, 2011; for an unofficial estimate, see Burt Takeuchi, “Pearl Harbor: Asian Americans Witness Historic Air Raid,” Nichi Bei Times, May 25, 2001, 3; reprinted on, viewed November 5, 2011.

[4] Greg Robinson, A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 60.

[5] Hector Tobar, “A Journey Back to East L.A.,” Los Anglees Times, April 9, 2010.

[6] Daryl J. Maeda, Chains of Babylon: The Rise of Asian America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 58.

[7] Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).