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The Spectacle of Japanese American Trauma

Racial Performativity and World War II

Emily Roxworthy

Publication Year: 2008

In The Spectacle of Japanese American Trauma, Emily Roxworthy contests the notion that the U.S. government’s internment policies during World War II had little impact on the postwar lives of most Japanese Americans. After the curtain was lowered on the war following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many Americans behaved as if the “theatre of war” had ended and life could return to normal. Roxworthy demonstrates that this theatrical logic of segregating the real from the staged, the authentic experience from the political display, grew out of the manner in which internment was agitated for and instituted by the U.S. government and media. During the war, Japanese Americans struggled to define themselves within the web of this theatrical logic, and they continue to reenact this trauma in public and private to this day. The political spectacles staged by the FBI and the American mass media were heir to a theatricalizing discourse that can be traced back to Commodore Matthew Perry’s “opening” of Japan in 1853. Westerners, particularly Americans, drew upon it to orientalize—disempower, demonize, and conquer—those of Japanese descent, who were characterized as natural-born actors who could not be trusted. Roxworthy provides the first detailed reconstruction of the FBI’s raids on Japanese American communities, which relied on this discourse to justify their highly choreographed searches, seizures, and arrests. Her book also makes clear how wartime newspapers (particularly those of the notoriously anti-Asian Hearst Press) melodramatically framed the evacuation and internment so as to discourage white Americans from sympathizing with their former neighbors of Japanese descent. Roxworthy juxtaposes her analysis of these political spectacles with the first inclusive look at cultural performances staged by issei and nisei (first- and second-generation Japanese Americans) at two of the most prominent “relocation centers”: California’s Manzanar and Tule Lake. The camp performances enlarge our understanding of the impulse to create art under oppressive conditions. Taken together, wartime political spectacles and the performative attempts at resistance by internees demonstrate the logic of racial performativity that underwrites American national identity. The Spectacle of Japanese American Trauma details the complex formula by which racial performativity proved to be a force for both oppression and resistance during World War II.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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p. v

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pp. vii-viii

One day over a “working lunch” at one of our usual sushi joints, my longtime adviser, Dwight Conquergood, leaned across the table with a glimmer in his eyes and mischievously remarked, “Emily, I had no idea you had become so political.” He meant it as a compliment, and I took it as such. Dwight saw me through the most formative decade of my life, from a rather self-absorbed, ...

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pp. 1-18

After the closure of the World War II internment camps and the “relocation” of former internees to new postwar homes, many observed the remarkable silence and stoic rebounding with which most first- and second-generation Japanese Americans (Issei and Nisei) closed that chapter of their lives. It was this silence and stoicism that contributed in large part to their designation, ...

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1. “A Race of Ingenious Marionettes”: Theatricalizing the Japanese, 1853–1946

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pp. 19-56

The first phase of the U.S. East Asia Squadron’s bloodless opening of Japan— reputedly ending two centuries of the island nation’s isolation “without firing a shot”—proved so strategic in containing Japanese resistance that its leader, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, resolved that the expedition’s second phase must either reprise his initial reliance on overwhelming spectacle or else ...

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2. Spectacularizing Japanese American Suspects: The Genealogy of the FBI’s Post–Pearl Harbor Raids

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pp. 57-99

Within hours of the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, FBI agents had snapped into spectacular action that resulted in the arrests of 1,395 purportedly dangerous Japanese Americans, newly classified as “enemy aliens” and “non-aliens,” in New York, California, and around the country.4 Headed by infamous director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI raids on Japanese American communities in the wake of Pearl Harbor, and the subsequent detention ...

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3. Performative Citizenship and Anti-Japanese Melodrama: The Mass Media Construction of Home Front Nationalism

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pp. 100-119

Fred Korematsu, the plaintiff in Korematsu v. United States (1944), singles out the disconcerting power of the American press when he looks back on the period during which he resisted the government’s exclusion orders against Japanese Americans. When Korematsu, a Nisei, got word that he would be forcefully evacuated from his home, he decided to evade what he considered ...

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4. “Manzanar, the Eyes of the World Are upon You”: Internee Performance and Archival Ambivalence

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pp. 120-147

Applause, distant but ongoing, is the fi rst sound that greets today’s visitors to the Interpretive Center at Manzanar National Park in Inyo County, California. In National Park Service (NPS) lingo, the operation of such interpretive centers facilitates “the process of helping each park visitor fi nd an opportunity to personally connect with a place.” 2 On the same grounds ...

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5. Transnational Theatre at the Tule Lake Segregation Center

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pp. 148-178

While “Japanesey” performances like the Manzanar New Year’s production of The Three Kichisas easily fit the theatricalizing discourse that affixed the feudal soul of Noh and Kabuki to all those of Japanese descent, the “peculiar hodgepodge and medley of things Japanese and things American” that characterized most internee performance festivals was uncategorizable to ...


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pp. 179-214


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pp. 215-224


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pp. 225-231

E-ISBN-13: 9780824865047
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824832209

Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 647928178
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Spectacle of Japanese American Trauma

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Japanese Americans -- Evacuation and relocation, 1942-1945.
  • United States -- Ethnic relations -- History -- 20th century.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Mass media and the war.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Psychological aspects.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- United States.
  • Concentration camps -- United States -- Psychological aspects.
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