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Home > Special Topics > US Report Last Updated: 15:20 03/09/2007
US Report #18: November 12, 2004

Japanese-American Internment during Pacific War Instructive Analogy for Protecting Civil Liberties Today

John de Boer (Japan Fellow, Stanford University; Research Associate, GLOCOM)


In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the United States, analogies between the current "war on terrorism" and the war with Japan, which began with Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, have been repeatedly made, most obviously by members of the Bush administration. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, references to what was described as Japan's "sneak" attack on America were immediately forthcoming. And although I refute the connection between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the "war on terrorism," President Bush extended the comparison by insisting that the U.S. occupation of Japan and Japan's subsequent emergence as a 'peaceful, democratic and prosperous ally' could serve as inspiration for his "new Iraq." During his campaign for a second term as president he referred to his friendship with Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as evidence of how an enemy can be transformed into an ally and used this to prove his belief that the "war on terror" could be won.

As respected Japan scholar John W. Dower has noted repeatedly, the analogy between occupied Japan and occupied Iraq is misleading at least and in many cases completely erroneous. A most evident example lies in the difference between how the Japanese people "embraced defeat" and abandoned a recourse to armed resistance vis--vis the occupier, as Dower's book Embracing Defeat documents, and the Iraqi case where widespread armed resistance to the US presence continues over a year after major hostilities were declared over by President Bush. As I write, the battle of Falluja, dubbed the largest military operation since the battle for Baghdad, is being waged with major casualties expected on both sides.

Apart from the battle field analogies featured most frequently by leading officials, another link between the Pacific War and the "War on Terror" is being debated in the United States. This refers to what the New York Times reported on November 10, 2004 as comparisons between the US Census Bureau's decision to give the Department of Homeland Security data that identified populations of Arab-Americans was "the modern-day equivalent of its pinpointing Japanese-American communities when internment camps were opened during World War II." According to the article, the Census Bureau provided the Department of Homeland Security "comprehensive reports" listing Arab-American populations by city and ZIP code on two occasions after the 9/11 attacks. A Panel investigating the disclosure highlighted the analogy by remarking that this was of particular concern because, "thousands of Arab-Americans have been rounded up and deported." The Census Bureau's director Charles Louis Kincannon has rejected any such comparison stating that "this is not 1942 that kind of internment is not going on." However, there is no doubt that the decision to hand over sensitive information eroded civil liberties and potentially placed all Arab-Americans in precarious positions.

The Japanese-American experience of internment has caused numerous representatives of minority groups including Arab-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, blacks and American Indians and Native Alaskans to stand in alliance against racial and ethnic profiling in order to prevent history from repeating itself. According to the New York Times article, changes are already under way at the Census Bureau to prevent unwarranted and unmonitored disclosure of sensitive information. However, questions remain outstanding as to the guidelines that are in place governing what information can be turned over to law enforcement agencies. As it stands, senior administrators need to sign off on the release of information that involves "special tabulation" or "sensitive populations". Worrisome, however, is the lack of clarity as to the criteria determining what information and populations are considered "sensitive."

In this instance, analogies to the Pacific War are instructive and could go a long way to protecting the civil liberties of all American citizens and non-citizens. President Bush is partly to blame for the concerns and violations involved in these cases due to his failure to define a limit to the extent that law enforcement agencies can go to retrieve private information. We should use the Japanese-American interment case as a guide to setting these limits in order to protect our hard won civil liberties.

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