- Between Two Adversaries: Korean Interpreters at Japanese Alien Enemy Detention Centers during World War II
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Koreans in the United States were faced with two challenges: how to distinguish themselves from Japanese-Americans to avoid the anti-Japanese hysteria that was sweeping the country and how to best contribute to the war effort to free their homeland from its colonial overlord.
A handful of Koreans who had come to the United States as students in the 1920s and 1930s attempted to achieve both at once by signing up as interpreters at Japanese alien enemy detention centers. These form the subject of Hyung-ju Ahn's study. While Ahn has conducted some interesting and original research, his failure to contextualize his data in any meaningful way leaves this brief monograph feeling rather flat.
As the title suggests, Ahn has chosen to frame his research in terms of the juxtaposition between Korean Americans' resentment of Japanese colonialism and their shared experience with Japanese Americans as fellow sufferers of white American racism. While this is certainly a valid point for exploration, Ahn's research sheds little light on the matter. While he discusses how Korean American leaders tried to distinguish their community from the Japanese—such as by issuing cards that identified the bearer as Korean—he provides no sense of how effective these measures were in changing the attitudes of white Americans. Moreover, the few surviving interpreters he managed to interview showed no personal awareness of their dichotomous position, instead defending the decision by the U.S. government to intern Japanese nationals.
About the only evidence that Ahn does provide regarding the connection between white racist attitudes and the role of Korean interpreters is a single incident of the beating of a Japanese detainee at the detention center in Missoula, Montana. Ahn provides transcripts of the testimony given to the investigating officer by the victim and the two Korean interpreters involved, but not that of the two white Immigration and Naturalization Service inspectors who were also present. Unfortunately, the accounts are so contradictory as to make it impossible for an objective observer to determine what really happened. Yet this does not prevent Ahn from drawing a connection between the discipline faced by the interpreters and the overall experience of Japanese detainees.
Both Korean interpreters and Japanese detainees were displaced by the dominant white society. Japanese Americans lost their freedom and often their property; the Korean American interpreters lost only their job assignments. Yet both ethnic groups were made scapegoats, and, ironically, in some ways were facing the same adversary in their separate struggles.(p. 79) [End Page 92]
While it would hardly be surprising if the Korean Americans were indeed made scapegoats, Ahn's contention that they were is not entirely convincing. It is true that the Korean American interpreters were fired after the incident, but the white officers involved were also apparently disciplined, although whether they were actually dismissed is unclear based on the evidence that Ahn provides. While racism may have played a role in the differing level of punishment, it is also true that the interpreters were on a temporary six-month assignment, while the white officers involved were permanent employees of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Throughout the book, there are intriguing hints of where Ahn could have followed his research, but didn't. One is his uncovering of lists of Korean Americans compiled by U.S. military intelligence in February 1921, which included notes about their language skills and reliability. This strongly suggests that the U.S. military was considering using Korean Americans for some sort of intelligence role at a time of growing American concerns about Japanese expansionism leading up to the Washington Naval Conference. Indeed, Ahn claims to have seen some documents that suggest just that, but fails to include them in his book, stating in a...