Differences in the Reactions of the Issei and Nisei towards the Relocation Centers and Life After
On December 7th, 1941, the “date that will live in infamy”, a United States naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was attacked by the Japanese. What most Americans know to be “infamous” about this historic day more often than not excludes the injustice done to the Japanese-Americans by the government thereafter. After a long history of anti-Japanese sentiments, the attack on Pearl Harbor seemed to be the final piece the US government needed to legitimize legal actions taken toward the Japanese in the name of “military necessity.” What started out as curfews set only to the Japanese-Americans grew into freezing bank accounts, then detaining certain Isseis, and eventually turned into a full-fledged relocation of all Japanese to relocation centers via the issue of Executive Order 9066 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. With the growth of the never-before-seen “Japanese-American” population, the American born, second generation, Japanese Nisei had quite a clash of ideology, values and customs with their parents’ Issei population. The differences between the two generations are undoubtedly displayed in their respective reactions towards relocation and resettlement as well with respect to the questioning of their loyalty to the country, keeping familial ties, ensuring financial stability, and maintaining social security.
There is no doubt of the great fear and confusion felt by both the Issei and Nisei populations with the onset of their sudden “evacuation” into relocation camps, away from home and with little possessions. “On short notice, after weeks of acute uncertainty, when the West Coast was filled with fear and hatred of Japan and all Japanese, Issei and Nisei alike were suddenly ordered to be rounded up like prisoners of war and herded into ‘assembly centers’.” However, even within the common fear and confusion towards their relocation, the Issei and Nisei displayed differences in reasons for their similar sentiments. For the Issei, relocation entailed necessary abandonment of decades of hard work as an immigrant, and accepting the destruction of the American Dream, not only for themselves, but for their children as well. When relocated, Japanese Americans were limited in how many possessions they could bring, and had to leave behind most, as well as their “economic security…the gains of years of work cultivating a farm or building up a trade or profession.” Literature has shown that the Japanese had to leave behind $1.3 billion in property value, and lost $2.7 billion in net income.
For the Nisei, the most common reason for distress seemed to arise from their disappointment towards the US government. “…the Nisei lost at the stroke of a pen the security they thought they had in their citizenship.” As an American born, United States citizen, many of the Nisei population grew up viewing themselves no different than the average American. Relocation had forced them to see that their country thought differently of them. There were different Nisei responses towards relocation: The Nisei in the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) did not question Executive Order 9066, and in fact encouraged fellow Japanese to peacefully obey. Other Nisei like Gordon Hirabayashi refused to register for evacuation and even retaliated in a Supreme Court case, challenging the government to uphold constitutional rights for its citizens. However, even in their different responses, one key thought is the same: their grief towards the government’s questioning of their loyalty. This is further evident through some of the Nisei’s responses towards the 1943 Loyalty Questionnaire, where many were upset at the fact that the questions assumed a previous loyalty to Japan.
With all the emotional uproar and literal overturning of their lives during evacuation into the relocation camps, a whole new set of emotions were elicited for a second time with the beginning of resettlement outside the camps. Again, differences are seen in the reactions of the Issei and Nisei towards the idea of resettlement with regards to maintaining the family unit together and facing financial challenges. Because of Executive Order 9066, the Japanese were forced to face great social disorganization. For most, the one social tie that still remained intact was family, and the Issei were unwilling to risk the breaking of this as well through resettlement. As the Nisei showed greater interest in exiting the camps and entering back into the real world, anxious sentiments grew among the Issei parents who were “…reluctant to let their children leave them, especially their daughters.” The Issei also displayed worries regarding resettlement because of their financial insecurities. As mentioned earlier, the Japanese were robbed of their hard-earned savings and wealth when they were forced to evacuate to the relocation centers. As having already gone through the process of escaping financial instability through years and years of hard work, many of the Issei felt “…old and have not the heart to begin over again” It also didn’t help that there were circulating around the camps, “…extreme stories of the rise in price on the outside and the complications of rationing.”
The Nisei were, however, more willing to take their chances and resettle outside the camps. To be fair however, the Nisei did have more incentives provided, unlike the Issei, with an opportunity for a college education. With the start of the eventual end to the relocation camps, influential educators, religious leaders, and a small number of Japanese American community members sponsored students within the camps to attend colleges. In the years between 1942 and 1946, 4,084 Japanese had left the relocation centers for college. Many of the Nisei that took this opportunity left as representatives of their families and the Japanese community, partly to show the rest of the country the assimilability of the Japanese-American back into regular society. Regarding financial obstacles they may face, like the fear of many Issei parents, the young Nisei were more willing to take on this risk given they could “…rest assured that the government will provide security for their parents…”
Another hindrance to the resettlement of the Japanese Americans outside the camps relates to the fear of losing social security. The relocation camps provided both the Issei and Nisei with an environment sheltered from the outside world of racism, discrimination and social handicaps. “Within the center, one also has status, a position in society as a block manager, a council member, a judo expert, etc. All of this is lost on relocation outside the center.” More so than the Nisei, the Issei grew comfortable with this new microenvironment and grew distrustful of the relocation administrations and their orders of resettlement outside the camps. The Issei were fearful of the nation’s continued racial discrimination against the Japanese Americans, as evident in the struggle the population had with employment after resettlement. “Many former internees accepted menial jobs because they could not find other employment, and they tried to work quietly within the community without complaints as anti-Japanese sentiment continued to be very high…” Although social discrimination was directed towards the Nisei as well as the Issei, the Nisei were more optimistic about resettlement. As mentioned earlier, the Nisei were offered better incentives with opportunities in higher education, and were motivated with the desire to be representatives for their Japanese American community and prove their ability to assimilate back into the American society.
During the onset of the “evacuation” of the Japanese to relocation centers, we can see that the older Issei and younger Nisei populations displayed differences in their respective reactions towards their relocation and eventual resettlement back into society. However, these observed differences analyzed within the document should be studied with caution. As a community analysis report in the perspective of an American, War Relocation Authority, it does not fully represent the true voice of the Japanese Americans at the time. But, it is a reliable source, as the author’s reports are in general consensus with other literature on Japanese encampments. Despite their differences, both populations were able to accommodate to their new lives in the relocation centers and lives after. In so doing, the Japanese Americans seems to display much resistance, persistence, and versatility in character. Besides the incredible feat of the Issei building up lives for themselves and their families in an unknown land away from home, the Japanese show their continual growth in American society against all sorts of racism, hatred, and discrimination, one of the most significant example being their relocation. Being so, it’s hard to understand why their assimilability into society was ever questioned.
 Chrissy Lau, “World War II” (speech, Ithaca, NY, October 21, 2014).
 War Relocation Authority; Community Analysis Report No. 5, June 1943, 3.
 Lau, “World War II”.
 Community Analysis, 3.
 Lau, “World War II”.
 Community Analysis, 5.
 Ibid., 6.
 Leslie A. Ito, Japanese American Woman and the Student Relocation Movement, 1942-1945 (University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 2.
 Lau, “World War II”.
 Community Analysis, 6.
 Ibid, 5.
 Lisa M. Kinoshita, The Japanese Internment During WWII and the Second Generation Nisei: An Examination of their Past and Present Coping and Adjustment (Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company, 2001), 25.