Ethics of Identity: Japanese-American Internment

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Ethics of Identity: Japanese-American Internment
Since 1893, when Fredrick Jackson Turner announced that the American identity was not a byproduct of the first colonists, but that it emerged out of the wilderness and only grew with the surfacing of the frontier, America has placed a great emphasis on the notion of a national identity. However, the paradox of the American identity is that although the United States is a melting pot of many different traditions, motives, and ideals, there are nevertheless, distinctive qualities that define the "American." It usually takes a crisis to cause an individual, or a nation, to renew itself. However, sometimes it takes a fight for survival to induce it.

The incarceration of a numerous number of Japanese American's during World War II explicates one such fight that paved the identities for many, both socially and ethnically. Rarely do history classes or stories dissect this ordeal in order to expose the consequences upon the collective and individual identities of the Japanese Americans. While there is a voluminous body of literature that details the Japanese American narrative, there is little popular discussion of a key question: What do the Japanese internment and assimilation experiences tell us about the "national myth" and the identity of "Americans?" David Kennedy, in "Freedom from Fear," describes: The chronic discomfort of government officials with their own policy…bore witness to the singular awkwardness with which American culture tried to come to terms with the internment episode. What happened to the Japanese was especially disquieting in wartime America precisely because it so loudly mocked the nation's best image of itself as a tolerantly inclusive, fair-minded "melting pot" society – an image long nurtured in national mythology, and one powerfully reinforced by the conspicuously racialized conflict that was World War II (790). David Kennedy's "national myth," – the American self-image of a tolerant inclusive, fair minded "melting pot" society – was tested and rewritten on the backs of Japanese Americans. Many of the Japanese American stories, coming from either written or oral documentation, reflect upon their personal identities to illuminate upon the larger topic of what it means to be an "American."

One way to view Japanese American identities during the internment period is to analyze the situation of Japanese American students during the time of the war to gain a perspective on what shaped their identity and which "culture" they identified with. Yoon K. Pak's study, "Wherever I go, I will always be a loyal American" presents writings of Japanese American and non-Japanese American students at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. Pak examines how the students at Washington School in Seattle dealt with the national message of race hatred against the Japanese. However, there is a range of stimulants to consider when evaluating young teenagers and children, to properly assess what influenced them. Some causes include the type of education at the time or even the intensity of the peer pressure that may have caused Japanese American's to forgo their traditional Japanese identity and assimilate to become more "Americanized."

One story, in particular, deserves attention because it details the effects of discrimination and of the voluntary renunciation of a Japanese's identity. May K. Sasaki confesses: "it hurt being Japanese because as we grew up I remembered the taunts and, especially after the war, those that were related to being Japanese." Sasaki also witnessed strong discrimination from her friends. As she recalls, her Chinese friends wore buttons that read "I am Chinese" in order to "make sure they were not mistaken for ‘Japs.'" This is a direct parallel to the character of Esther in Hisaye Yamamoto's "Wilshire Bus," in which Esther spots a man wearing a placard that reads "I am Korean" – in other words, please don't mistake me for Japanese. "Heat suddenly...
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