Category Archives: Japan

The Ugly Side of Selective Memory & Revisionist History

Last week, the U.S. commemorated the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese military that led to the U.S.’s entry into World War II. Of course, the attack was a watershed moment in U.S. history — Japan’s unjustified and heinous act led to the deaths of 3,000 human beings, united the U.S. like never before, and in the end, was the start of Japan’s downfall as a imperial military power.

Unfortunately, the Pearl Harbor attacks also prompted the U.S. government to strip 120,000 Japanese Americans of their legal rights and imprison them without any due process, based largely on the “fear” that Japanese Americans would be loyal to Japan and engage in espionage or treason against their adopted U.S. homeland.

This entire “internment” episode has been recounted and analyzed over the years, most notably by the bipartisan Congressional “Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians,” which ultimately conducted a thorough investigation and in their final report titled “Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians,” finally concluded that the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II was a “grave injustice” and resulted from “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” Congress then approved and distributed a reparation payment of $20,000 to all surviving Japanese Americans who were imprisoned. To my knowledge, this is the only instance in which the U.S. government has officially apologized and provided monetary reparations to any of the injustices that they’ve committed in its history.

Heart Mountain WWII prison camp © Hansel Mieth & Otto Hagel

As it turns out, this week’s anniversary commemoration unfortunately prompted some to once again bring up the old argument that there was a logical rationale to the U.S.’s imprisonment of Japanese Americans, or that it was even completely justified. For example, in a museum review of Heart Mountain Interpretive Center (in Wyoming, site of one of the prison camps) in the Dec. 9, 2011 edition of the New York Times, ‘art critic’ Edward Rothstein engages in such musings.

Specifically, Rothstein uses a few historical examples of misdeeds by Japanese and Japanese Americans to argue that “the threat was palpable” and that therefore, there was a “rationale” for the U.S.’s subsequent imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans. While Rothstein does state, “I am not suggesting that such factors justified the relocations,” the tone of his piece displays an ignorant accounting of the entire collection of historical facts surrounding how isolated incidents of Japanese and Japanese Americans misdeeds were exaggerated and generalized to an entire population, how many allegations of espionage and sabotage by Japanese Americans were never substantiated and even completely fabricated, and how similar and even more pernicious acts by Germans and German Americans were largely ignored.

Unfortunately, Rothstein’s piece is a sad example of selective memory, if not outright revisionist history. The examples he cited as providing “rationale” for the mass imprisonment are of dubious historical accuracy and value and even if valid, only reinforce and perpetuate the tired notion that the acts of a few can be taken out of context and generalized to an entire population. In response to Rothstein, I would like to share the responses of some of my colleagues who provide a more clear and comprehensive picture of the supposed “palpable” threat of Japanese Americans after the Pearl Harbor attacks:

In his attempt to understand the wartime removal of Japanese Americans, Edward Rothstein (“the How of Internment, but not all the Whys”, NYT, December 9) repeats a set of falsehoods and distortions about its causes. He insists that because Japan engaged in widespread espionage, and decoded Japanese messages (in reality a mere handful) spoke of contacts, surely Japanese Americans were implicated in espionage. In fact, Tokyo’s spymasters shied away from using Americans of Japanese ancestry, whose loyalty to Japan they rightly suspected, and made use of non-Japanese. Col. Kenneth Ringle, the prewar agent of the Office of Naval Information who broke the most important Japanese spy ring in Los Angeles and was in a position to know the facts, was an outspoken defender of the loyalty of Japanese Americans.

Similarly, Rothstein declares that the Japanese “threat was palpable” since a Japanese submarine had sunk American shops and shelled a California oil field. In fact, only a single American ship was sunk, compared to the hundreds sunk by German submarines off the East Coast, and the single shelling incident took place after the order to remove Japanese Americans had already been issued. Worse, Rothstein argues that the “treasonous” conduct of a Nisei couple in Hawaii validated the fears of government authorities about West Coast Japanese Americans. The absurdity of this statement is easily demonstrated by the fact that there was no mass roundup of the large Japanese community in Hawaii itself.

Although he insists that he is not justifying removal, cultural critic Rothstein sadly displays not only a carelessness toward history, but reveals how much the baseless ideas about “Japanese” disloyalty that led to mass removal still remain in the culture.

Greg Robinson
Associate Professor of History
Université du Québec a Montréal

I write this disappointed letter in response to Edward Rothstein’s December 9, 2011 piece, “The How of an Internment, but Not All the Whys.” Notwithstanding the express reason for this piece (as a review), I was particularly struck by Mr. Rothstein’s incomplete and incendiary reading of not only U.S. history but Japanese American history. Dismissing the “now standard” evaluation of the internment as the “result of wartime hysteria and racism,” Mr. Rothstein offers an allegedly “clearer understanding of the prewar Japanese-American population” rooted in familiar characterizations of yellow peril takeovers, perpetual foreign frames, and traitorous subjects. What is especially remarkable and distressing is that Mr. Rothstein manages – quite irresponsibly — to take NYT readers “back in time” to aforementioned “wartime hysteria and racism.”

Cathy J. Schlund-Vials
Assistant Professor, English and Asian American Studies
University of Connecticut

I teach Asian American Studies to graduates of this city’s k-12 system, and I am continuously disheartened by the many young people who have never heard of Japanese American internment, or, if they have, possess no meaningful understanding of the nature of the event. With that lack of information in mind, I was appalled to see your paper repeat long since discredited misinformation in apparent disregard for rigorous scholarly work, and the trauma inflicted upon thousands upon thousands of individuals and families who did nothing but look like “the enemy.” Despite his assurance to the contrary, Edward Rothstein’s review of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center implies that we should explore long since debunked (dare I say “fringe”) theories that justify the racial stereotype of Japanese Americans as inherently treasonous, and thereby make excuses for what scholars agree is a racially motivated and shameful event in U.S. civil rights history.

Jennifer Hayashida
Director, Asian American Studies Program
Hunter College, City University of New York

In Edward Rothstein’s review of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center (“the How of Internment, but not all the Whys”, NYT, December 9) he declares that the unconstitutional incarceration of over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry was “a geographic rationale, not simply a racial one.” Yet Mr. Rothstein fails to account for the fact that mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans did not occur at the site that propelled the U.S. into WWII—Hawaii. Indeed, all reputable scholars of the Japanese American Internment note that it was war time xenophobia and racism that spurred Executive Order 9066—an order that never specified ethnic ancestry and that effectively nullified the constitutional rights of every person living on the West Coast during WWII. FDR ordered the military to target Japanese Americans using EO9066. If that’s not a racial rationale, I’m not sure what is.

Jennifer Ho
Associate Professor
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Unfortunately, as a country, we are now poised to repeat the same mistake that was committed 70 years against Japanese Americans. Specifically, Congress is currently debating the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2013. One of the proposed provisions is to give U.S. government authorities the ability to arrest and indefinitely detain anybody who they deem to be a threat to national security — including U.S. citizens — without charging them with a crime or giving them a trial. In other words, it would basically legalize what happened to Japanese Americans after the Pearl Harbor attacks.

Fortunately, there is opposition to these provisions from both sides of the political spectrum. If you also oppose these provisions, I urge you to contact your Representative and Senator and tell them to vote against these provisions. As George Santayana’s quote goes, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

This article originally published at Asian-Nation.org and is copyrighted © 2013 

Connecting Toyota and Asian Americans

As I’m sure almost everybody has heard about, these past few months have not been good for Toyota. Due to a variety of quality control issues, accident reports, and several fatalities involving many of their models, Toyota has recalled over 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, one of the largest mass automotive recall in history. With each passing day, new media scrutiny, and every piece of bad publicity, Toyota’s reputation continues to plummet.

In looking at the larger sociological context of Toyota’s struggles, there are a couple of questions that come up. First, as many observers have wondered, to what extent are Toyota’s problems due to them basically becoming too arrogant and viewing themselves and their products as invincible? That is, Toyota (along with several other Asian automakers) have weathered the current recession and in fact, the past several years, much better than U.S. automakers such as General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford, mainly by producing many high-quality, fuel-efficient cars. But did Toyota’s success make them complacent? As one example of this criticism, AutoBlog reports:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has absolutely blasted the Japanese giant, calling it “a little safety deaf” and noting he was upset that NHTSA officials had to fly to Japan “to remind Toyota management about its legal obligations.” That’s just the tip of the spear stuff, too. Check out the shaft:

Since questions were first raised about possible safety defects, we have been pushing Toyota to take measures to protect consumers. While Toyota is taking responsible action now, it unfortunately took an enormous effort to get to this point. We’re not finished with Toyota and are continuing to review possible defects and monitor the implementation of the recalls.

In fact, as MSNBC reports, Toyota’s apparent initial lack of urgency to respond to the growing criticisms may be characteristic of many large Japanese who have also risen to the top of their industries, only to find that when you’re on top, there’s only one way to go — down:

Toyota is the latest Japanese corporate icon making headlines for all the wrong reasons. News of the automaker’s massive vehicle recalls over faulty gas pedals in the U.S. came just days after Japan Airlines, a once proud flag carrier, filed for bankruptcy, saddled with billions in debt.

Sony has lost its lead in consumer gadgets to the likes of Apple Inc. and has suffered its own quality mishaps. Honda, Japan’s No. 2 automaker, is recalling 646,000 cars worldwide because of a faulty window switch. . . . Taken together, Japan Inc.’s stellar reputation for quality has taken a hit — just as China is about to overtake it as the world’s No. 2 economy and rising South Korean companies compete ever more aggressively.

What went wrong with the economic giant that arose from the ashes of World War II? The problems that confront Toyota, Sony and JAL differ, but experts say their struggles have some common themes: the perils of global expansion, a tendency to embrace the status quo, and smugness bred from success or a too-big-to-fail mentality.

“Arrogance and some complacency came into play, driven by the idea that their ranking as No. 1 producer of quality goods wasn’t at risk,” said Kirby Daley [chief strategist at Newedge Group]. . . . The global economic crisis helped to expose weaknesses, he said. “There was nowhere to hide.”

Clearly, Toyota has a lot of work to do in order to regain customers’ trust and to rebuild their image for making safe and reliable cars. But beyond that, does Toyota’s recent problems affect Asian Americans?

In my classes, I often use Toyota as an analogy and metaphor for the Asian American community as a whole — both have been in the U.S. for a while but early on, were looked upon with curiosity, derision, and even hostility. Toyota and Asian Americans as a whole were seen as strange foreigners who probably had no future in the U.S. and pesky nuisances to “traditional” Americans.

Nonetheless, both were persistent and determined and after years of mostly quiet hard work, were able to eventually establish themselves as mainstream Americans and in many ways, outperform their “traditional” American counterparts. Nowadays, both Toyota and Asian Americans are poised to make unique contributions to American society and its economy as globalization continues to evolve in the 21st century.

But now that Toyota is in a major consumer and public relations crisis, do its struggles reflect negatively on Asian Americans? With racial/ethnic tensions heightened during the recession, will some Americans use these recent events to launch or intensify some kind of anti-Toyota, anti-Japan, anti-Asian, or anti-foreigner backlash movement?

Inevitably, I suppose there will be some Americans with that kind of mentality and motivation. It’s also likely that Toyota’s sales will take a while to rebound, both as a result of this particular crisis and because of the recession in general. But ultimately, and perhaps in contrast to some of my past pessimistic posts about racial/ethnic relations in the near future, I predict that Toyota will recover and become even stronger, just like the recent history and successes of Asian Americans as a community.

I believe this because Toyota has decades of experience and history behind them — they are not new to this industry, and they have weathered recessions before. Let us remember that Toyota is not the only automaker that has experienced mass recalls or bad publicity before. For example, just in the last decade, Ford has recalled over 14.5 million vehicles for various defects and for those who remember, back in the 1980s, Audi’s U.S. sales and overall corporate image virtually collapsed over high-profile allegations of unintended acceleration involving their 5000 model.

To put Toyota’s situation into further perspective, Toyota is firmly established in the U.S. as an American company — it currently employs around 150,000 American workers in their factories, offices, and dealerships. If Toyota were to fail, so would many American workers, families, and communities. Finally, part of Toyota’s culture is built around a collective mindset that focuses on long-term progress and shared participation that has resulted in sustained growth and prosperity through the years.

In other words, Toyota — like Asian Americans as a whole — has accomplished too much to give up now. As a metaphor for Asian Americans, I expect Toyota to learn from their mistakes, overcome the difficulties they face, be patient and aggressive in pushing forward, and continue their long record of success. They still have much to contribute to American society and we as Americans still have much to gain from them in many ways.

Is Criticism Against Japan’s Whaling Unfair?

I’ve written before about almost universal criticism against Japan’s continuing program of hunting whales in defiance of international conventions. However, as National Geographic points out, Japan is not the only country that continues to hunt whales.

Specifically, both Norway and Iceland hunt whales as well, in much the same way that Japan does — for commercial, not “scientific” reasons and in defiance of international agreements. Therefore, we have to ask the question, why is Japan singled out for international criticism when few also mention Norway and Iceland’s whaling activities?

Japan is the “head of the zombie and needs to be cut off,” said Willie Mackenzie, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace U.K. “It’s very, very clear that, internationally, Japan is behind the drive towards commercial whaling.” . . .

Yet Norway and Iceland also have substantial whaling programs—and do so not under the auspices of research but commercially, flouting IWC rules that have banned such activities since 1986.

“Japanese people feel that, yes, maybe there is a little bit of racism in the way in which we are considered in comparison with the way Norway or other whaling nations are treated,” said Noriko Hama, a professor of economics at Doshisha University in Kyoto. . . .

According to IWC figures, Japanese ships killed 866 whales in the 2006-2007 season, a haul that included minke, fin, sei, and sperm whales—the most of any nation. Norway placed second with a total catch of 545 whales. . . .

Norway and Iceland confine whaling to coastal regions inside their own waters, but Japan is the only nation that still exploits Antarctic seas, now an internationally recognized sanctuary for whales.

The article points out that much of the scorn directed at Japan is focused not just on their actual whaling activities but also on Japan’s political maneuvers to try to block or reverse international agreements on whaling limits.

It is disappointing that Japan continues to support whaling and I can see that they seem to be compounding the antagonism against them by trying to use their influence in a heavy-handed way. At the same time, I also find it a little disturbing that virtually all of the criticism against whaling is directed at Japan, with little mention of Norway and Iceland.

Unfortunately, this is a tough issue to disaggregate. It’s similar to criticism against China’s human rights abuses and its occupation of Tibet — are China’s critics genuinely concerned about Tibet and human rights, or are they just using these issues as the basis to express their anti-Chinese prejudice?

In the same way, Japan certainly deserves criticism for its whaling activities and defiant actions. But their critics also need to be fair and at the least, explain clearly why European countries such as Norway and Iceland don’t receive nearly the same level of condemnation.