- Concentration Camps on the Home Front: Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow
The historical study of Japanese American forced incarceration during World War II is now entering its fourth decade. The field continues to produce innovative scholarship that broadens and enriches our understanding of a story that still haunts the national imagination, in [End Page 650] part because it reveals the limits of American democracy and the complexities of national belonging within the context of the prerogatives set by U.S. and global capital. John Howard's Concentration Camps on the Home Front makes a number of important new contributions to the historiography of Japanese American incarceration by unearthing characters that are not often thought of as part of the internment experience, namely gay men, young women, Southern whites, and to a lesser extent African Americans.
Howard seeks to "understand the powerful and less powerful, those dominant and subordinate cultural groups and their material inequalities . . ." and in particular, "to illuminate changes in racial hierarchies, sexual normalcy and deviancy, and gender categorization—all through the experiences of incarcerated Japanese Americans, their supporters and detractors" (p. 10). Indeed, a major contribution of the book is its exploration of actions, perspectives, and identities that operate at the margins of the story of Japanese American incarceration, perspectives that have been obscured, erased, or forgotten. The focus of the study on the Jerome and Rohwer concentration camps located in Arkansas is novel in itself, as studies of Japanese American concentration camps continue to be dominated by a focus on those camps located in the North American West. Howard uses intersectional analysis across the lines of age, class, gender, generation, nationality, and sexuality to assess interactions among Japanese Americans and between Japanese Americans, whites, and African American Southerners.
The book is divided into ten chapters, the logic of which is not immediately apparent or clearly defined. One might loosely divide the book into three major subsections. First, a general overview section that briefly sketches the formation of race, gender, and sexuality within the context of U.S. empire in general and the Jim Crow South in particular. The second section examines a variety of themes that assess the incarceration experience: the formation of co-ops, sports, gender politics, sexuality, schooling, and labor. A shorter concluding section considers the aftermath of incarceration.
Howard's study relies heavily on U.S. government document sources, something that proves to be both a strength and weakness of the book. He is at his best when doing close critical readings of government medical documents, legal directives, and WRA statistics. Howard finds ample evidence of attempts by government and Japanese American community leaders to police what they deemed non-normative sexual practices and gender relations. Reading against the grain of these sources, Howard demonstrates ways that camp life opened up possibilities for gay encounters and for women to gain greater independence [End Page 651] and voice. For example, Howard shows that housing arrangements that grouped "bachelors" together created unprecedented opportunities for gay men to meet one another. Prior to the war, many gay Japanese American men had faced marginalization and discrimination both within Little Tokyos and in predominantly white gay urban spaces. In terms of gender politics, Howard found that women, particularly young women, gained greater autonomy and voice as a result of a loosened patriarchal hold and wage opportunities. When the USO sought to promote "racialized niche programming" (p. 140) by recruiting young Nisei women to entertain Nisei soldiers, they initially received an enthusiastic response but quickly learned, as did the soldiers, that the women set clear parameters as to what they deemed acceptable etiquette with regard to dating and dancing. When these parameters were not met, many women quickly withdrew from USO-sponsored programs. Howard also found evidence of resistance to labor exploitation in the camps, which at the Jerome concentration camp, under WRA director Paul Taylor, often resembled prison labor. Howard documents numerous forms of subtle and overt resistance to labor...