Book Review: Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II

January 23, 2017  •  4 Comments

Un-American by Richard Cahan & Michael Williams

Every once in a while a great photography book piques my interest, usually because I learn something about the medium and technique, sometimes because I get to simply enjoy the beauty of the images, and more rarely because I learn something about the people and time when the images were taken. This book has undeniably beautiful, if tragic, images but more importantly it speaks to a shameful period in U.S. history where mass hysteria against the "other" led to internment of legal residents and American citizens in incarceration camps. Unfortunately today history appears to be repeating itself and the "other" in this case, Muslims and Mexicans, are being targeted - so this book is even more timely in its message of tolerance and the need to be ever vigilant against hatred and bigotry.

In 1942, more than 109,000 Japanese Americans, including 70,000 US citizens, were sent to incarceration centers, most for the duration of the war. In a quirk of fate, the same U.S. Government that was committing this crime, was paying to document it, with a team of famous photographers including Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Clem Albers, Francis Stewart, Tom Parker, Charles Mace, and Hikaru Carl Iwasaki. Nearly 7,000 images in all, most 8x10 large format but some medium format, are now stored in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, and the Library of Congress in Wsahington, DC.

On February, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order authorized the Secretary of War to prescribe certain areas as military zones, clearing the way for the deportation of Japanese Americans, German-Americans and Italian-Americans to internment camps.

On March 24, 1942 the "Civilian Exclusion Order No. 1" and others like it, were issued which gave Japanese Americans living on the West Coast just six days to settle their affairs and bring only what they could carry for transportation to one of 10 incarceration camps in remote parts of Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. Businesses and equipment were sold for pennies on the dollar, since white buyers knew the Japanese Americans had little choice but to accept their offers. Entire neighborhoods were simply erased and replaced as very few ever returned to their former homes.

The U.S. government allowed white farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl to work farms "abandoned" by Japanese Americans. After the war, many former owners just gave up their farms to these interlopers not having the stomach to try to regain their title. The Japanese Americans living in Terminal Island near a naval base, an airstrip and the Port of Los Angeles were given particularly harsh treatment. They were told to leave in 48 hours, their houses were condemned and bulldozed, and their fishing boats requisitioned as patrol vessels.

The camps had several things in common: guard towers, barbed wire fences, and armed soldiers. All but four of the 15 confinement sites had previously been racetracks or fairgrounds. The stables and livestock areas were cleaned out and hastily converted to living quarters for families of up to six. In addition, crews built standard 120-by-20 foot barracks. These went up in less than an hour, were made with shoddy construction per government order with green lumber that would shrink and leave gaps in the walls. Thin tarpaper didn't keep the wind out and insulation wasn't added until much later. The barracks were designed for soldiers in combat zones - hardly suitable housing for women, children and the elderly.

In many camps, the U.S. Government took advantage of literally captive labor and hired Japanese Americans incarcerated at the camps to make camouflage nets for the War Department. Pay was one tenth the going rate outside on the free market. Workers complained about the poor food, dust, fumes and long hours. Eventually, the factories were closed after resistance from many of the workers walking off the job.

Trying to recruit volunteers for the army, the US Government forced those incarcerated to answer a questionnaire to determine their loyalty. Questions 27: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces on combat duty?" and Question 28: "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and forswear allegiance to the Japanese emperor?" were particularly problematic for many. Some second generation (Nisei) Japanese Americans thought it was inappropriate to ask such questions of U.S. citizens. 12,000 either refused to answer the questions or wrote "No". They became known as the "no-nos" and were sent to the now renamed higher security Tule Lake Segregation Center. To make room for the new arrivals, "loyal" inmates were set away to other camps. 34,500 of the "loyal" inmates were able to leave in 1943 and 1944 when they could prove they had a job or means of support in a community that was not antagonistic towards Japanese. At the end of the war, about 3,000 first generation (Issei) Japanese and 5,600 second generation (Nisei) inmates requested to be sent to Japan. In the end, 1300 people were deported.

The 170 images in the book show bewildered and tired Japanese Americans children, parents, and grandparents, assembling with their few belongings, camp life where inmates try to live as normal a life as possible given the circumstances, and some rare moments of genuine resistance. All in all, it's a portrait of dignified people behaving extraordinarily placidly in the face of a clearly illegal action to strip the rights under the US Constitution. In fact, so many rights were violated it would take too long to go into depth but you can read more here. In 1988 the U.S. government issued a formal apology to all former internees and paid $20,000 to each surviving internee. The text accompanying the images provides specific and general context to the images. While most of the images can stand on their own, the stories behind them really brings home the experience of the inmates and the impact on their lives. It wasn't just the inmates who were affected, many of the photographers also suffered physically because of what they saw and documented.

An interesting side story is how U.S. Census data was used to round up Japanese Americans. Although the Census Bureau was barred by law from providing specific information that could be linked to an individual, this protection was temporarily repealed under The Second War Powers Act of 1942. As Scientific American reported in 2007: "Despite decades of denials, government records confirm that the U.S. Census Bureau provided the U.S. Secret Service with names and addresses of Japanese-Americans during World War II." Might history be repeated with talk of a registry of Muslim Americans? I found it chilling to read one particular passage of the book which I will quote in full:

"You are kidding yourself if you think the same thing won't happen again," Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told a group of law students in 2014. He warned that camps similar to those opened in World War II might be built again. The government was wrong to force US Citizens into detention centers based on only suspicion, Scalia said, but he pointed to Roman philosopher Cicero, who cautioned: "In times of war, the laws fall silent."

Of course this being America, Scalia's words were used to support the entirely false proposition that President Obama was setting up FEMA Concentration Camps to intern or possible even murder loyal patriotic U.S. citizens!

On happier note, after the formal apologies and reparations by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 and President George H.W. Bush in 1992, the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II was dedicated on the Washington Mall on November 9, 2000. Inscribed on its base are the words of Daniel K. Inouye, US Congressman, US Senator and Captain of 442nd Regional Combat Team:

"The lessons learned must remain as a grave reminder of what we must not allow to happen again to any group."


You can buy the book from Amazon for $30. Worth every penny.


Camila Madison
World war II was a very depressing time and every time I read a book that describes its events it makes me anxious and stressed thinking about what our ancestors went through. Being an ardent reader I have read many books but this incarceration of Japanese Americans really blew my mind. Such harsh realities are always difficult to grasp. I read an article similar to this one a few months ago when I got my essay written from and the writer really did justice to the world war II topic for me.
Aaron Doyle(non-registered)
Taking everything into account, in any case how photography is beginning at now more accessible than it whenever was ever, it's so far not an "critical" magnum opus to control (and, I am going to click here for homework help as I don't see that you can totally virtuoso any persuading work regarding craftsmanship). It takes a monster degree of work to make dependably top level pictures, and essentially like the case with an especially goliath number of parts of the solid point,
Angus Parker Photography
@Richard: Thank you for producing such a beautiful book, and especially for interpreting the images with the personal stories in the accompanying text. It really brought to live the indignity of the whole internment program. Let us hope that we have learned from history so we are not doomed to repeat it. Best, Angus
Richard Cahan(non-registered)
Thank you Angus for your review. We appreciate how closely you studied the book. This issue is more important than ever.

Richard Cahan and Michael Williams
Authors of Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II.

You can learn more about our photography books at
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