On the anniversary of the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950

This week in North Philly Notes, Masumi Izumi, author of The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Lawwrites about the McCarran Internal Security Act, which was enacted on September 23, 1950. 

Four years ago in late September, I spoke to a small attentive crowd and many indifferent passersby in a street protest held at one of the busiest intersections in the city of Kyoto. We were protesting the passage of the national security related bills that were steamrolled the day before. The overwhelming majority of constitutional scholars considered that the bills violated the nation’s pacifist constitution because they allowed the government to send its Self Defense Force troops abroad to take part in military actions unrelated to the defense of the territory of Japan. Tens of thousands of citizens gathered in protest in major cities. Thousands surrounded the Diet building every evening. I took part in a rally in Tokyo, joined a couple of demonstrations in Osaka, and walked with my daughter in several marches in Kyoto.

Over many years as a historian, I had interviewed Asian North American grassroots social activists. I wrote papers about political and cultural activism in the postwar Japanese American and Canadian communities. But I was not an activist myself. On that day at the protest rally, I asked the crowd and the passersby: “After the 9/11 attack, the U.S. government passed the Patriot Act and told people that everyone needed to be under surveillance because terrorists might be hiding among them. Then the U.S. government attacked Iraq on an accusation that later turned out to be a lie. Today, the Japanese government is telling us that we are threatened by our neighboring countries, that we need to remilitarize, and that we need to give up our liberties because excessive freedom jeopardizes our nation. But isn’t it our freedom that protects us, because it is our inalienable human rights that hold our government accountable?”

Since the return of a conservative cabinet led by an ultra-nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party prime minister in 2012, I have found myself living under a reactionary regime that imposed a series of repressive legislations. The LDP-Komei Party coalition passed the Specially Designated Secrets Act in 2013, steamrolled the National Security Acts in 2015, and made “conspiracy to commit a crime” a criminal offense in 2017. When the Security Acts passed, it felt as if the protective shield for our land and our people – our pacifist constitution – lost its effect.

Rise and Fall of America's Concentration Camp Law_sm_borderIt was around this time that I restarted my effort to publish the book based on my Ph.D dissertation. In The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Law: Civil Liberties Debates from the Internment to McCarthyism and the Radical 1960s, I chronicle the passage and repeal of the Emergency Detention Act, or Title II of the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 (hereafter Title II). I elucidate how Japanese American wartime mass incarceration provided a legal precedent for this law. Through discourse analyses, I show how Japanese Americans were discursively placed outside the constitutional protection of civil liberties. The analyses requires a revision in historical interpretations of Japanese American incarceration that it was not only important as an example of mass incarceration of a racial minority but it also was a sinister legal precedent for preventive detention of individuals considered potentially dangerous for national security. I do not mean that Japanese Americans posed threat to national security. In reality they did not. But the Executive Order 9066 granted the military a sweeping power to designate any part of the U.S. to be a defense zone from which it could exclude anybody in the name of national security. This expanded the government’s war power, and it led, in the Cold War period, to the authorization of the government to detain any person whom the government considered might engage in acts of espionage or sabotage. The book also depicts how a Japanese American grassroots movement to repeal Title II, or the “concentration camp law,” led Americans to reflect on their nation’s past and present racism and political oppressions in a critical light in the late 1960s.

When I wrote my dissertation, I meant to write about the past in a foreign country. Now, as I see my book come out in print, I am engaged in an actual struggle to halt the governmental efforts to undermine civil liberties and human rights in my country. I am also witnessing intense protests in the United States against immigrant detention, and I see global movements arising against neo-liberal economic policies and calling for actions to stop the climate change. If I had a choice, I would rather be a historian chronicling activisms in the past, because it feels much safer to study what happened in hindsight. I realize how scary it is to be active when we do not know the consequences of our actions or inactions. But perhaps only through our own struggles, we can understand the fears and hopes experienced by the past activists whom we write about.

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History Lessons: Henry Sugimoto’s Art on the Japanese American Experience

This week in North Philly Notes, Edward Tang, author of From Confinement to Containment, describes the art and life of Japanese American artist Henry Sugimoto, one of the subjects featured in his new book.

In light of the current debates about immigrants, border walls, detention centers, and travel bans, I often think about the Japanese American artist Henry Sugimoto (1900-1990), one of four cultural figures I examine in From Confinement to Containment: Japanese/American Arts during the Early Cold War. Along with his family, Sugimoto was incarcerated in the camps at Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas, during World War II, solely because of their racial and ethnic background. When the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many Issei (Japanese immigrants in the United States, including Sugimoto) and their American-born Nisei children were suspected of being loyal to Japan. Pressure from various political and farming interests intensified on the federal government to oust Japanese Americans from the West Coast. As a result, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which mandated the removal of over 110,000 of them to detention facilities located in the most desolate environments in the nation’s interior. That two-thirds of these civilians imprisoned without trial were U.S. citizens (the Nisei) hardly mattered to the rest of the country. Sugimoto painted many heart-rending scenes of what mothers and fathers, the elderly, single folks, and even infants experienced during their removal and confinement, as evidenced in one striking composition, Nisei Babies in Concentration Camp (circa 1943). But the artist also made sure to portray a subordinated community’s endurance, creativity, and love for one another in the midst of such trying conditions.  

fig 1_nisei babies
After the war, Sugimoto continued to paint scenes of the mass confinement and also became interested in the broader history of Japanese Americans in the United States, rendering muralist portrayals of their immigrant past. Some depicted episodes of racism and other obstacles faced, a theme initially explored in his paintings about the wartime incarceration. In an untitled piece featuring the words “STOP PICTURE BRIDE” (circa 1965), Sugimoto takes note of the immigration bans at the turn of the twentieth century. Japanese men first came to America as much-needed agricultural laborers, but white fears of a growing “yellow peril” instigated several legislative acts that restricted their further entry. These included limits on “picture brides” — Japanese women who came to marry those immigrant men and thus establish families and communities in the United States (a development to be averted, in white nativist eyes).
In the image, Sugimoto juxtaposes two symbols of America: Uncle Sam (state power) and Lady Liberty (the ideals of freedom and democracy). The artist transforms Uncle Sam’s “I Want You” finger-pointing, derived from the World War I recruiting poster calling on Americans to make the world safe for democracy, to an “I Don’t Want You” glare and gesture directed at Asian immigrants. Yet the Statue of Liberty, representing the cosmopolitan embrace of the world’s incoming peoples, stands above Uncle Sam and alongside the Japanese picture bride, which reveals how Sugimoto felt about the compatibility between the nation’s principles and the newcomers appearing at its shores.

fig 2_stop picture bride
Sugimoto himself journeyed from Japan to America in 1919. His parents were already in the United States before the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement that curbed Japanese entry, so he was able to join them through a chain migration process. His first love was for French Postimpressionism and other European styles of art. He gained an international reputation in the 1930s with his artistic promise and traveled widely. But the wartime imprisonment of Japanese Americans quashed his public visibility and pushed him to a muralist sensibility that conveyed subtle, and often outright, political protest. During the early Cold War era, however, Sugimoto continued to labor in obscurity. Few wanted to address the injustice of confining Japanese Americans, especially when this population was now seen as a new “model minority” to promote a benevolent, multiethnic America and when Japan became a new U.S. ally in the fight against communism and Soviet expansion. With the advent of increased Asian American activism in the late 1960s and the growing movement for reparations for the Japanese American confinement, critics and audiences began to pay more attention to Sugimoto’s efforts. In 2001, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles hosted the largest retrospective of his work. What is important to remember is that between the 1940s and 1960s, before this renewed public notice emerged, Sugimoto was detailing scenes of war, racism, immigration, and incarceration as intimately entangled issues that still resonate to this day.

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