Group: David and Robert
Primary Document: Interview With an Informant
Watercolor Painting: The Informer
About the painting
In Japanese concentration camps in the United States during World War II, the federal government inevitably tapped prisoners for information about disloyal activity among prisoners. The existence of “spies” among the prisoner population naturally led to internal tension and distrust, a manifestation of the split in ideologies between those who wished to absolutely affirm their loyalty to the United States and those who held a more skeptical view of their prospects in the United States in the aftermath of mass incarceration. The painting portrays this ideological split starkly and overtly–in reality, “spies” tended to inform more discreetly. The artist clearly sympathizes with the aforementioned “skeptics” and denounces the activities of the spies, portraying an exaggerated and especially egregious example of a man literally pointing his finger at a middle-aged woman, who is probably unlikely to be capable of perpetrating any disloyal or rebellious acts. Instead, his finger-pointing draws wedges between families and the prisoner population at large, who should remain united against their mutual oppressors, as they are all already behind bars.
About the document
The document reveals some insights into the power dynamic between the general prisoner population, informers, and federal agents. We know few spies informed for monetary gain or even out of pure self-interest; rather, they were driven by ideological motivations, unconcerned with the “us versus them” mentality one might expect from prisoners when interacting with their subjugators, or the oppressed when interacting with their oppressors. They carried the naively optimistic ideal that, if they aligned themselves with federal agents, they would demonstrate that they are in fact all on the same side. In reality, as the document shows, the federal agents do not necessarily seem interested in truth and justice, but they instead use their positions of power to manipulate both the informer and the accused: J.S. mentions that the WRA official Mr. Crawford even tells him who the informer is, and while Mr. Crawford knows that the accused are innocent, he nevertheless uses the accusations to extort them into working for him.
Encyclopedia entry: Camp informers during World War II Japanese American imprisonment
During the World War II imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in the United States, camp informers or informants were residents of the internment camps who served the U.S. government in providing information on the activities and loyalties of their fellow camp members. In general, informers were not officially sanctioned government employees but rather civilians who wished to prove their loyalty to the United States. Informers kept their statuses hidden from the general population of the camp, both in order to discreetly gather crucial information otherwise unavailable to the War Relocation Authority and to avoid ostracization by the general population of the camp.
Becoming an informer
The average camp informer in the ten major War Relocation Centers- Gila River, Granada, Heart Mountain, Jerome, Manzanar, Minidoka, Poston, Rowher, Topaz, and Tule Lake- was not an employee of the War Relocation Authority. Beginning with the questionnaire all Japanese-Americans were given upon entry into the prison camps, the general population of the camps divided itself based on perceived loyalties. In particular, the two final questions, known as Questions 27 and 28, asked whether residents would be willing to join the United States armed forces and forsake their allegiance to the Emperor of Japan, respectively. Informers came virtually exclusively from those who had answered in the affirmative for both questions; in fact, one of the War Relocation Authority’s major purposes for designating informers was to allow the government to indirectly monitor those who gave either qualified or mixed responses- or outright negatives to 27 and 28. Finally, the vast majority of informers were volunteers.
Aside from declared loyalty to the United States, there were a few demographic trends among those who offered information and were designated as camp informers. Informers were primarily male, typically ranging in age from 18 to 50; most were of considerable standing in the camp social ecosystem.
Status and treatment of informers in the prison camps
The majority of the Japanese-American population in the internment camps did not view the status of camp informer positively; in fact, many known informers were given the derogatory label inu, the Japanese term for dog. Many of those who professed loyalty to the United States nevertheless saw informers as perpetuating the mistreatment and prejudice associated with the imprisonment or as belligerents dividing the prison camp further. Others, particularly those who did not declare loyalty to the U.S. government, saw camp informants as outright traitors to the Japanese-American population as a whole. Known informants were often harassed verbally and, in rare instances, physically assaulted by their fellow camp members.
Paper: Informants and Japanese-American Identity in World War II Internment
The Japanese-Americans forcibly relocated to internment camps during World War II were far from a homogenous group. War in the Pacific theater, brutal and pitched, pitted America against a newly hyper-militant Japan; combined with decades of anti-Japanese sentiment, this turn of events led to a wave of public fear among the predominantly white American public that led to the greatest mass incarceration in the country’s history. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese and their descendants living on the West Coast of the United States were imprisoned en masse under the authority of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), resulting in camp populations that included people from various age groups and backgrounds, factors that created an environment teeming with a variety of contrasting beliefs and ideals. Though the common short-term goal for all imprisoned Japanese-Americans was to secure a comfortable future post-incarceration, we also see the formation of a Japanese-American identity—and the conflicting ideas that different subsets of Japanese-Americans had about their shared identity. Two main ideologies took hold: one involved showing unconditional allegiance to the United States, of which two-thirds of the camp residents were citizens, and the other involved being more skeptical about the intentions of the U.S. government, some going as far as to explicitly support the Japanese government. One way this split in ideology manifested itself was with the rise of the informant, derogatorily referred to as “inu” (a Japanese word for “dog”) by campmates. While most Japanese-Americans saw informing as a form of betrayal against their own people, in this essay we argue that the appearance of informants was merely a symptom of a deeper ideological split that reflected a broader conflict about shaping Japanese-American identity in the United States.
For the government, particularly the War Relocation Authority, one immediate goal of mass incarceration was to observe Japanese-Americans as potential spies or perpetrators of treason—or, to put it less extremely, to survey the loyalties of the camp residents. As a preliminary means to this end, the WRA devised a questionnaire for the subjects to complete upon entering the camp. Many of the questions dealt with lifestyle and daily habits designed to test how well residents conformed to American life (Lyon). However, two questions—27 and 28—asked, respectively, whether the individual was willing to serve in the armed forces and forswear any loyalty to Japan or its Emperor. These two questions, known as the loyalty questionnaire, set the tone for the camp conflict to come; while many answered yes to both questions, some answered negatively to one or both, confirming the belief held by the public and the government that the Japanese-American prisoners were not entirely composed of loyal American citizens.
The informant thus arose from the government’s need to monitor the activities and plans of the camp population. Conveniently, among the number of residents who had answered yes to both 27 and 28 were many who honestly loyal to the United States and wished to prove it. Thus, these individuals—primarily young or middle-aged, male, often with considerable social standing in the unofficial camp hierarchy—voluntarily became informants.
Informing as betrayal
It is not surprising, and perhaps expected, that the majority of the camp population saw informants as traitors to their own people. In June 1942, informants caused the removal of five Japanese-Americans from the camp in Poston, Arizona by the FBI, and another three in September (Hayashi 125). The general camp population blamed informants for breaking up families for the sake of money and power. In reality, however, the reasons that some chose to inform were grounded in ideology more than short-term compensation. In fact, informants made themselves targets for physical violence from campmates, a risk that outweighed any minimal compensation they may or may not have received.
To the general camp populations, actual informants—those who actually provided information to federal agents and WRA officials—were thus grouped together with those who merely showed unwavering loyalty to the United States, but who were not necessarily informing. Members of the latter group were often accused of being informants and thus became targets for violence nonetheless. For instance, the Japanese American Citizens League, or JACL, came under heavy criticism during the war by Japanese-Americans for publicly cooperating with the U.S. federal government, some accusing it of selling Japanese-Americans out for political gains. The JACL, even before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, sought to promote Nisei as loyal and patriotic American citizens, but at the same time, helped name potentially disloyal Issei to the U.S. government (Lyon). In addition, the JACL petitioned the U.S. War Department to restore Japanese-Americans’ right to be processed by the Selective Service, while Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were being actively incarcerated (Lyon). In other words, they lobbied the War Department to consider incarcerated Japanese-Americans to be drafted into the U.S. military, when they had not been considered for the draft before. This, the JACL argued, would help Nisei prove their loyalty and eventually restore the rights of Japanese-Americans, a position that understandably drew ire from many Japanese-Americans—in fact, as we will discuss in the next section, many Japanese-Americans had no desire to prove their loyalty to the United States.
Unsurprisingly, these actions led to violence against prominent JACL leaders within the camps, many of whom were accused—rightfully or not—of being informants. JACL leader Fred Tayama and JACL president Saburo Kido were both victims of beatings at their respective camps, at the hands of other Japanese-Americans (Lyon).
However, it is difficult to argue that the JACL and its leaders did not have the best interest of Japanese-Americans in mind: during the war, it initiated efforts to help Japanese-Americans relocate from the West Coast to other parts of the country by establishing a credit union and offices in the Midwest, and it also provided legal resources to Fred Korematsu, whose case against the federal government challenged the constitutionality of forced exclusion (Imai). Instead, we can see that the JACL, and those who ardently showed their loyalty to the United States, and those who became informants, were guided by a certain ideology that differed from that of the general Japanese-American camp population; one could argue that they were supremely out-of-touch with the people they were supposed to be representing. Nevertheless, this ideological split became a great source of conflict, both within camp populations and in the broader shaping of Japanese-American identity.
So far we have discussed the motivations behind informants, and more generally, those who showed enthusiastic loyalty to the United States despite mass incarceration by the hands of the U.S. government. However, this ideology was not necessarily shared by most; the average Japanese-American camp resident, having suffered not only economic loss but now also the prospect of being drafted into U.S. military, was not as eager to embrace the United States, a country that had betrayed them. Some even went as far as to declare support for Japan in the war. However, most incarcerated Japanese-Americans had little interest in the politics of war; most acted on simpler ambitions, like leading comfortable lives post-incarceration and staying with their families—which meant informants and their activities were seen as a direct threat to their own goals.
In the camp at Manzanar, most “average” camp residents actually supported Japan over the United States in the war (Hayashi 122). This statistic may sound surprising, but to put it in perspective, the average Japanese-American had little interest in politics: 69 percent of interviewed residents claimed to be “ignorant of the situation [between the United States and Japan]” while only five percent claimed to both understand the conflict between the two nations and still be “definitely pro-Japan” (Hayashi 121). As a Bureau of Social Research observer noted, most self-proclaimed pro-Japan residents knew “hardly anything of Japan,” while the well-educated withdrew from politics altogether (Hayashi 122). Rather, many chose to support Japan based on alleged reports from Japanese government officials promising compensation after the war. These reports resonated with incarcerated Japanese-Americans because many suffered tremendous economic losses after being forced to sell their assets prior to relocating to the camps.
The reports of the Japanese government allegedly promising postwar compensation sounded especially enticing to the older Issei camp residents, who were still treated by the U.S. government as enemy aliens ineligible for American citizenship. Thus, we can also see a generational gap. The younger Nisei generation, who were born in the United States, were “perceived by the U.S. government as being more trustworthy” and given “more opportunities and resources than their Issei parents” (Fujita-Rony 220), and so the Nisei generation tended to be more sympathetic to the United States, falling more in line with the beliefs of the JACL. On the other hand, the older Issei generation found comfort in the alleged promises of the Japanese government: a block manager at the Manzanar camp noted that “90 percent of [the] Issei are pro-Japan” (Hayashi 122), while another block manager at the Manzanar camp stated that “deep down in the heart of every Issei is the desire that Japan be victorious in this war” (Hayashi 122). Generational differences logically correlate with ideological differences, and as one may expect, informants, both actual and suspected, tended to be part of the Nisei generation: one camp manager in the Poston camp chided Nisei who voluntarily returned to the camps after being granted leave clearances, questioning why “you Nisei who are loyal to the United States of America” would return to the camps, “except maybe to spy on us and report to the FBI” (Hayashi 127).
Beginnings of a Japanese-American unity
For the prison camp residents, the question of the camp informant was a question of unity, purpose and direction, and it became the most influential period in the development of a Japanese-American identity. The internment period of World War II marked a drastic departure from the trajectories of Japanese immigrants and their descendants since the Meiji diaspora up through the early 20th century; as previously asserted, the relocation under Executive Order 9066 forced Japanese-Americans from around the country, varying in economic background to social class, to coexist in a temporary, artificial society. This marked a monumental paradigm shift for people of Japanese descent living in the United States, who were suddenly faced with associating with strangers on the basis of one similarity alone: being Japanese-American.
In order to justify this claim, we first examine previous instances of attempts at a unified Japanese-American policy. In his work The Four Immigrants Manga, Henry Kiyama notes a common theme among the early immigrants supported by the Meiji government in Japan; in the Manga, the four main characters attempt to balance their individual goals with spreading the positives influences of Japan and its culture during their stay in the United States. However, this unity proved short-lived; by the first decades of the 20th century, a profound divide between the influential elites of the Japanese Associations of America and the laboring class had formed. Efforts toward a concerted Japanese American unity by the JAA, whose policies attempted to subvert the negative image of the Japanese laborer, were for the most part dashed by the “yellow fever” government policies that increased the difficulties of the working class in gaining land access, thus widening the class chasm. We see a similar effect during the war, with the JACL “elite” promoting the loyalty of Japanese-American Nisei at the expense of the Issei, despite the ideology of the JACL not truly representing the views of the average Japanese-American. While the notion of Japanese-American identity has changed over time, we can see a common theme of the “elite” class wielding racial uplift to improve the public perception of Japanese-Americans, often at the expense of working class non-elites. Similarly, postwar Japanese-American identity saw the erasure of much of the internal conflict at the camps, with many Nisei accepting the fallacious concept of the model-minority and participating in perpetuating the myth that all Nisei veterans had bravely enlisted in the military voluntarily (Lyon), whereas in reality, many vehemently resisted the draft.
In retrospect, it is difficult to determine all the ways in which this brief moment in time, when hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans were forced to live together in just a handful of camps, affected Japanese-American history as a whole. But one thing is clear: for the incarcerated, the issue of the inu was a question of direction for the camp—and for the Japanese-American population in general. And in this question lay an affirmation that they were not divided as Japanese and American, but as differing voices under the same cultural identity: Japanese-American.
Fujita-Rony, Thomas. “Arizona and Japanese American History: The World War II Colorado River Relocation Center”. Journal of the Southwest 47.2 (2005): 209–232. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40170306>.
Hayashi, Brian Masaru. Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2004. Print.
Hayashi, Brian. “Informants / “inu”.” Densho Encyclopedia. 19 Mar 2013. 30 Nov 2015. <http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Informants%20/%20%22inu%22/>.
Imai, Shiho. “Fred Korematsu.” Densho Encyclopedia. 19 Mar 2013. 30 Nov 2015. <http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Fred%20Korematsu/>.
Kiyama, Henry. Four Immigrants Manga. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 1998. Print.
Lyon, Cherstin. “Japanese American Citizens League.” Densho Encyclopedia. 25 Jul 2015. 30 Nov 2015. <http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Japanese%20American%20Citizens %20League/>.
Lyon, Cherstin. “Loyalty questionnaire.” Densho Encyclopedia. 25 Jul 2015. 30 Nov 2015. <http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Japanese%20American%20Citizens %20League/>.