Psychological & Cultural Experience of the Victims of Japanese Internment
Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Roosevelt on February 19, 1942 ordering all Japanese-Americans and Americans of Japanese descent out of the Western United States and into "internment" camps in the Central region of the United States.
A public law was subsequently passed by Congress ratifying the Executive Order; Congress did not even deliberate on the passage of the law.
One hundred and twenty thousand people were ultimately incarcerated in ten internment camps without due process of law.
There, they were locked up behind barbed wire and lived in shacks unfit for human living. They were fed only at a sustenance level, and had no idea when or if they would return home.
They lost their jobs, their homes, their possessions, their pets, and their liberty -- not because of the hostile actions of a foreign power, but due to the needless and racially selective policies of their own government."
As bad as this was, the emotional trauma of internment was far worse.
While the physical wounds of Japanese-Americans in the internment can be healed, the mental trauma of internment experiences is difficult - -if not impossible, in many cases - to remedy.
I. Causes of the Emotional & Psychological Effects of Internment
There were a variety of causes of the emotional problems for the internment victims.
Three of these were: the relocation movement, the identity crises of many Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the harsh living and familial situations in the actual internment camps.
First, many of those that were relocated into the internment camps lost their jobs as a direct result of being away from their jobs and in the internment camps.
Second, many of those that were relocated into the internment camps were separated from their families. This had an obvious negative impact on the family structure.
Third, those that were not separated had unstable, displeasurable family lives in the camps.
For example, most of the traditional family roles were completely turned upside down, and traditional family roles were very important in the Japanese-American culture. No longer was the father the provider of the family unit, and no longer did the family feel as communal as before or as dependent on old family structures.
There were no family kitchens, which often serve as symbolic centers of domestic activity. Nor did families eat together; they usually ate at mess halls. Spousal abuse reportedly escalated, as family relationships became strained and individuals' emotional bounds were pushed to the limit.
Fourth, those who were interned in the camps were actually uprooted twice. They were first uprooted out of their homes into what was known as "Military Area No. 1," which housed the assembly centers. After this, they were taken from these temporary locations to the internment camps.
Japanese-Americans during World War II in general, and particularly those sent to the camps, often had identification issues, in that in the vast majority of cases, they were American citizens and supported the American cause and the American war effort.
However, any normal American would of course fight being carted off to prisoner camps and treated like non-American citizens simply because of their race or ethnicity.
Sadly, if Japanese-Americans did protest their treatment during the war, they were usually stigmatized and treated as disloyal to the United States.
This was especially problematic because many Japanese-Americans believed that citizens should be loyal to the law of the land, because to do so meant being a loyal citizen.
In short, in the Japanese-American community took an assimilationist approach to the problem of internment.
Indeed, many volunteered to serve in the armed forces of the United States.) Most would later regret this approach after the War.
The Severity of Life in the Camps
Lack of Food.
The conditions at the camps were severe, partially because of the lack of adequate nutrition for the inmates. No more than 45 cents per day capita was allowed; thus, many days, inmates were forced to eat from the innards of animals as part of their daily rations.
Also, there were widespread rumors that the camp staff were stealing and selling the camp food, leaving the camps desperately under-rationed.
Eventually, an agriculture program was launched, and all the camps began to produce vegetables and animals.
Lack of Health Care
Illnesses in the internment camps abounded.
First, the climate in the regions where the camps were located was different than the Western climate that the prisoners were used to, and this - along with the stress and emotional strain of being interned - led to many illnesses.
There were epidemics of the flu in the winter months of 1943-44, and many ulcers were found among the camp population.
Second, there was a pitiful dearth of medical personnel and doctors, and the medical treatment that did exist was not up to par.
II. Psychological Effects of Internment
PBS special project on the Japanese internment found that "the mental and physical health impacts of the trauma of the internment experience continue to affect tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans," and noted that the "[l]ong term health consequences include psychological anguish...." However, "Japanese-Americans traditionally have not utilized mental health services, so there is very little statistical data to verify the psychological effects of the internment."
Negative Psychological Effects
Depression & Low Self-Esteem
Camp survivors have spoken out about their depression, low self-esteem, rage, and other emotional impacts of internment. "Japanese-Americans experience a deep depression, a sense of shame, and feel that there must be something wrong with them." This is especially true because shame is something that has deep meaning in the Japanese-American value system and culture.
More generally, people who survive a war and are forced to live in internment, prisoner or concentration camps, "suffered and still suffer the negative effects of this experience, and children born after a war suffer from the psychological effects experienced by their war-traumatized parents."
Thus, not only do the actual survivors experience depression and other symptoms related to internment, but these psychological effects are borne by their children and ensuing generations as well.
Stresses of overachieving
Others reacted to the shame and humiliation of the internment experience by internalizing the trauma and simply overcompensating through achievement. Indeed, today Japanese-Americans are often called the "model minority" (a problematic characterization in and of itself, of course.). This reaction leads to stress and can often lead to extreme physical conditions such as heart attacks and other heart diseases.
Rather than deal with the pain and trauma, these individuals learn to achieve as a way of working through the suffering and attempting to gain credence in others' eyes. As one commentator notes, "[c]onsonant with Japanese-American values, these individuals have internalized their suffering in an effort to secure their acceptance in their own country."
Moving Forward While Still Remembering.
Of course, because the Japanese internment experience is such a fundamental (and tragic) part of Japanese-American history, Japanese-Americans have developed many ways of coping with this tragic part of American history in positive ways.
One camp survivor, who is also a doctor, observes:
For the Japanese-Americans, cultural values and life as an ethnic minority in American led to the embracing of a unique coping style in response to the trauma [of internment]. Certainly, Japanese values of gaman (endure), gamburu (persevere), giri (duty), oyakoko (loyalty) on (filial piety) and kodomo no tame ni (sacrifice) guided and helped family members to endure the shame, hardship, and tragedy of being incarcerated and deemed risks to the national security.
She further opines that "Japanese-Americans learned to go with the flow as a means to cope with the feelings of powerlessness and impotence."
Today, however, the pains of the past are being remedied. It is now recognized that to heal the wounds of the internment tragedy, survivors of the camps, their families, and Japanese-Americans in general must talk about the tragedy, document it, and attempt to move beyond the experience - while always remembering it - if they are to ever heal.
Until we can talk about the experience and make a connection with our grief and anger, we will each still be unconsciously trying to get out of our own personal camp. Our experience was unique, but it's an example of the broader experience of racism, how it permeates lives, and how we each attempt to survive it. It's about trauma and suffering, but it also is about our strength."
- Dr. Satsuki Ina,
Robinson, Greg. By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese-Americans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (2001).
Pub. L. No. 77-503, 56 Stat. 173 (1942).
Kessler, Lauren. Stubborn Twig.
New York: Random House, 1993.
Kessler discusses a family history of immigration, settlement, evacuation, internment, and the impact on three generations of families.
Wu, Frank. "Profiling in the Wake of September 11: The Obvious Precedent of Japanese-American Internment." Criminal Justice (2001): 56.
Stanley, Jerry. I am an American: A True Story of Japanese Internment. New York: Crown Publishers (1996). 1-22.…