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  • A Psychohistorical Analysis of the Japanese American Internment
  • Alison Dundes Renteln* (bio)

Poster Art

I. Introduction

One of the most repressive actions ever taken by the US government was the incarceration (or “evacuation”) 1 of Japanese Americans during World War II. Surprisingly, despite its obvious historical importance, this event has received only superficial psychological analysis. As a consequence, the accounts of this tragic episode remain somewhat incomplete. It is my purpose in this essay to explore some of the less obvious psychological motivations underlying this egregious failure to uphold the ideals of American society. In particular, through consideration of various historical documents I argue that a deeply rooted fear of sexual congress between the races consciously or unconsciously motivated some of the actions which led to the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans.

I wish to make clear that I am not claiming that other interpretations of this period in American history are invalid; many of the works in the voluminous literature on this subject put forth what are certainly contributing factors. Multiple and reinforcing reasons exist for any historical event. However, the most popular explanations (e.g., fear of Japanese American economic superiority coupled with racism and wartime hysteria) overlook the underlying causes of those fears. Although the race prejudice argument is compelling, the elements of this racism have not been sufficiently analyzed. To understand the racist forces at work, it is necessary to study the [End Page 618] sexual dimension of American racism. As I shall argue below, it was a combination of the ideas of eugenics and virulent racism that was partly responsible for the occurrence of one of America’s worst civil liberties disasters.

Following a brief historical overview comes a consideration of the standard explanations for the evacuation. There follows a brief discussion of the principles of eugenics and the resulting anti-miscegenation laws, and their applicability in this case. Next, I analyze the prevalent stereotypes and misperceptions of Japanese Americans with an eye towards their supposed sexual characteristics. I then provide some of the obvious contradictory evidence.

The main argument comes in the sections on the psychohistorical approach and the role of projection. I argue that the entire incident may have been fueled by projection or “projective inversion” 2 on the part of the white population. This interpretation is substantiated by an analysis of prevalent stereotypes in popular culture and of the implementation of specific policies during the internment. However, it is important to acknowledge that it is difficult to prove the existence of unconscious motives; therefore, the evidence marshalled for their existence can only be indirect.

II. Historical Overview

Seventy-four days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt signed the infamous Executive Order 9066 that provided the government’s sanction for the removal of Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast to camps in barren parts of California, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, and Arkansas. 3 The proffered justification for the removal was military necessity. Over 100,000 Japanese Americans were placed in concentration camps. Nearly two-thirds of the internees were Nisei, 4 native-born American citizens. Half of those in the [End Page 619] camps were under the age of twenty-one. Approximately one quarter of those interned were young children and infants, and many internees were elderly. In some cases members of families were separated from each other.

Conditions in the so-called relocation centers were harsh. Initially placed in these temporary assembly centers, the Japanese Americans were sheltered in what were simply race tracks, fairgrounds, and livestock pavilions converted for military purposes. In some cases it was a matter of a few days between the time that the animals were removed and the internees were herded into facilities which had a stench of manure. 5 The fact that the Japanese Americans were portrayed as animals in much of the World War II propaganda 6 may have helped convince the American public that inhumane treatment was acceptable. Roger Daniels has pointed out that college dormitories would soon have been available and, therefore, that: “[it] was probably more than the housing shortage that inspired them to select sites that had been intended to house livestock...