Dealing with the Japanese-Americans

B1F4-IsseiNisei1 B1F4-IsseiNisei2 B1F4-IsseiNisei3 B1F4-IsseiNisei4 B1F4-IsseiNisei5 B1F4-IsseiNisei6 B1F4-IsseiNisei7


“Dealing with Japanese-Americans” is a report written by John F. Embree, an American anthropologist who specialized in the study of Japan.  The purpose of the report was to guide members of the War Relocation Authority in their regular interactions with the Japanese-American inhabitants of internment camps.  The author briefly outlines the differences between race and culture, before delving into the behavior patterns of the Nisei and Issei, the analysis of which reveals the differences between the groups’ attitudes and opinions during the internment period.  There is also some potential bias to look out for however, such as Embree misconstruing the Issei avoiding confrontation and personal responsibility as characteristics of their culture, as well as assuming that Japanese parents chose American education because of its superiority to Japanese education.

Embree makes a potentially flawed assumption in assigning the Issei’s anti-confrontational tendencies as a part of their culture, without considering normal power dynamics. He claims that they avoid confrontations if such confrontations could cause embarrassment to the confronted, and instead use another person as a “go-between.”  However, it is normal for humans in general to want to avoid confrontation. Indeed, Japanese involvement in the 1903 Oxnard Beet Strike and internees’ violent reactions to James Wikasa’s death refute Embree’s characterization.1 2 Applying this “characteristic” to the circumstances of internment camps, Embree suggests using a “go-between” to communicate with elder evacuees, since he judges those people to be reluctant in personally voicing their objections regarding certain features of their internment camp.  In a footnote, Embree judges the “go-between” idea to be more relevant


  1. John H. Flores, Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History, Volume 1 (New York: Routledge), 1051–1052.
  2. Brian Masaru Hayashi, Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 151-152.

with regard to the old Issei, whom he deems as Japanese in terms of culture, as opposed to the young Nisei (judged as American in culture).  Note that Embree is not stating this as a fact, however; he makes this judgment as a “safe assumption,” possibly showing he has had seen Nisei and Issei act to the contrary regarding this characterization.  He goes on to assert in the same footnote that if a Nisei is bitter and has an “anti-administration” attitude, it is due to their American sentiment of being judged without fair trial.  While Embree’s analysis may be correct regarding some evacuees’ reservations about complaining, he provides no prior example of “go-betweening” being used in practice, nor does this totally account for the evacuees’ reservations, since some Issei may fear their overseers or the Nisei may also be influenced by their Japanese culture in avoiding confrontation.  But overall, the evacuees’ complaints being voiced by a third party certifies that both generations of Japanese-Americans were dissatisfied with their situation at the least.

Embree again unwisely characterizes the Issei as “avoid[ing] personal responsibility for something that may make him unpopular to his associates,” citing committees in Japanese government and the cyclical nature of their positions in government as proof (the latter of which involves resigning and/or ensuring different people elected).  This characterization does seem to hold interesting implications for potentially abusive interactions, a theoretical example being internment camp overseers singling out important evacuee figureheads and “bullying” them out of making important decisions, since they would have to be solely responsible for them.  This sort of example is somewhat supported by an anonymous WCCA (Wartime Civilian Control Administration) official who remarked, “We can’t trust them to [pick their internment camp leaders] themselves, for they’d probably pick the wrong type of men.”3  But while common sense indicates that an average person wouldn’t want to be responsible for something that would antagonize their associates, the fact that Embree is renowned for being a scholar of Japan also works against the characterization he makes.  Issei who have lived in the United States for thirty years or more, along with Nissei, may not be as similar to the people in Japan that Embree observed.  He has already assumed as much regarding Issei being “anti-confrontational”, so this also seems like a weak characterization on Embree’s part.

Embree specifically devotes another section to establishing the different types of attitudes present in the Nisei and Issei, but his philanthropist experiences in Japan lead him to make another flawed assumption.  He makes some obvious connections, such as older single male Issei criticizing pro-American Nisei.  However, when categorizing parents of American-educated children, he reveals some bias, claiming they had realized that “their children’s future lay in America [which] had given them a chance to rise in the world [which] they never would have had in Japan.”  While some Japanese moved to America in accordance with “Japanese Manifest Destiny” having their children gain an American education, not all of them did; others moved out of necessity, such as increased modernization leading to farmers seeking new work and foreign competition moving in.4  Due to their social class, they may not have had the finances required to provide a Japanese education for their children either.

3. Hayashi, Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment

4. Professor Chrissy Lau, “Japanese Immigration to the U.S. and ‘Four Immigrants Manga’” (lecture, HIST 2640 Intro to Asian American History, Ithaca, NY, August 2014)

So yet again, Embree’s observations in Japan have led him to make a misrepresentative claim.  With this blindness, it may not be wise to trust Embree as an unbiased person seeking to mediate interactions between the evacuees and the War Relocation Authority.  At least he notes that inactivity will lead to problems with self-government and work, which would in turn slowly lead to anti-American attitudes.  He even expresses concern that such a thing would be a “tragedy for the individuals concerned.”  So far, Embree seems to have good intentions, although his American patriotism seems to push him into some biased views he is unaware of.

Concluding his paper, Embree summarizes the characteristics of the Issei and stresses the importance of being aware of the major anxieties and attitudes of both generations, so as to avoid “serious consequences.”  Through his discussion of the Issei’s characteristics, he touches upon the issue of the Issei being reluctant to voice discontent (in contrast to the Nisei), which seems fair enough, but shouldn’t be viewed as a defining characteristic.  He also attempts to characterize the Issei nervousness at solely shouldering responsibilities, the reasoning of which seems suspect.  He goes on differentiate between the two generations’ attitudes that were to be expected in camp, although he overlooks his biased outlook regarding American education.  Taken with his categorization of the attitudes of the elder and younger Japanese-American generations, this portrays a wide spectrum of the feelings and attitudes of the evacuees during this time period, even if the author of “Dealing with Japanese-Americans” was a little biased towards American superiority.

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