Voice of Political Unrest

Group: Kevin, Will, Kirak

Primary Document: Community Analysis

Watercolor Painting: Voice of Political Unrest

The Voice of Political Unrest

This picture depicts a group of Japanese Americans in the background and another Japanese American in the front with a Japanese flag in the middle.

It is not clear which Japanese Americans in the painting are Nisei or Kibei. However, the two groups are separated spatially. The flag in the middle seems to symbolize the fact that they all come from the same descents, yet the dispositional difference and the expression of discontent emphasize that the two groups of Japanese Americans are in conflict within the internment camp.

Hence, the theme behind this painting suggests the internal conflict between the Nisei and the Kibei in the internment camp on various matters such as civil rights.


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Community Analysis:

This primary document records John F. Embrees observation during his stay at the Topaz internment camp in February of 1943.

The document highlights the Issei, Nisei, and Kibei’s response to the United States’ government’s registration and enlistment policies. Each of these groups has a unique position on the issue of civil rights, with the Issei mostly in the background and the Nisei and the Kibei in conflict with each other.

The document discusses the demands of Japanese American groups such as the Young Democrats to elaborate further on subtle differences between the Nisei and the Kibei in these groups’ different tone of expression.

Encyclopedia Entry:

Kibei- Kibei refers to the Nisei group that enrolled in the Japanese education system before returning to America. The term itself was used in the 1940s to describe this group of Japanese Americans. Due to the difference in education and having lived a significant part of their life in Japan, Kibei were fundamentally different than the Nisei that grew up in America. Due to the nature of the Japanese education system’s emphasis on national loyalty, the Kibei were much more loyal to Japan than the Nisei were.

The Kibei, however, returned to America at a time when the relationship between the United States and Japan was breaking down, especially after Japan’s invasion of China. The United States became increasingly aware of Japan’s potential of threatening the Western power. Having decided they cannot afford to have Japanese loyalty within the nation, the United States passed the Nationality Act of 1940, which assumed that a United States citizen will have expatriated himself or herself when pledging allegiance to a foreign nation. Therefore, the Kibei were suppressed from voicing their opinion on the matter of Japan or United States, even though a significant number of them were not actually patriots of Japan but wanted to improve the relationship between the two nations. This silence from the Kibei was strengthened due to the pressure from the Nisei. As the Japanese American group with the foremost loyalty to the United States, the Nisei often viewed Japanese loyalty as the cause of civil injustice towards Japanese Americans. This motivated them to threaten the Kibei from displaying any signs of Japanese patriotism by using the possibility of reporting them to their advantage. Hence, the Kibei were forced to become a shadow in the background on the various important issues regarding civil rights of Japanese Americans.

During the periods of internment, however, the Kibei were revitalized to speak out their opinion freely. All Japanese Americans were considered as threat by the United States government, meaning the Kibei had nothing to lose in voicing their beliefs. This led the Kibei to take a much more radical stance than the Nisei did, refusing to commit obligations to the United States government, while the Nisei took a much more cooperative stance with the government. This heightened the conflict between the Nisei and the Kibei, sometimes leading to extreme cases such as beatings.


Analysis of Nisei-Kibei Conflict During Internment Period

            Although the United States preached global democracy and justice through World War II, it did not extend these concepts to the various Japanese groups living in America at the time. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans were forced to relocate to internment camps, where they were watched over by War Relocation Authority. Hence, they were stripped of their civil rights and property. Without any certainties about the future, the Japanese Americans worked in menial jobs and attempted to make the best of the situation. The Japanese Americans in the internment camps fell into three categories: Issei, Nisei, and Kibei. Issei is the Japanese term to describe those who were the first ones to immigrate to America. Nisei is the second generation that came from the Issei, and Kibei is a group of Nisei that received education in Japan before migrating back to America. Although they were all Japanese in terms of race, these groups were radically different in culture and thinking. These differences were reflected in how these groups responded to the United States government following the detention. The Issei, having lived the majority of their lives under oppression and racism, were too exhausted to fight back and left the discussion for the next generation, the Nisei and the Kibei. As the generation under the spotlight, the Nisei and Kibei had very strong opinion on how Japanese Americans should approach the question of civil rights in United States. And from this arose various tensions and conflicts that divided up the two factions despite having the commonality of being Japanese. Due to the differences in their upbringing the Nisei and Kibei took different political stances, the Nisei taking a left side and the Kibei taking a more right position. The Nisei used cooperative means to achieve their political stance and the Kibei pushed for a much more obstructive method in delivering their point.

The Nisei was a more complex group than being simply either Japanese or American in nature. Initially, they inevitably shared a deep attachment with the Issei and Japan as the nation where their parents came from. At home, they were taught Japanese traditions. But the outside world was as American as it could be. And liberal ideas such as Flapper often conflicted with the conservatism of the Issei. Such differences led the Nisei to become disconnected from the Issei increasingly. As the Nisei began to recognize themselves to be the future face of the Japanese Americans, there was constantly the need to Americanize in order to fit in while retaining the idea that they were still Japanese by blood. Japanese American Citizens League was then formed by the Nisei in the hopes of assuming power to lead the Japanese Americans in the coming years. Prior to 1941, however, the Issei dominated the Japanese American society because the Great Depression had left many Nisei without jobs, and they worked in established stores run by the Issei. This social and economic dependency meant the Nisei were obedient to the Issei. However, the power dynamics drastically changed when the United States government began arresting and taking away notable Issei figures that represented the Japanese American society. The Nisei used this as a stepping stone in dominating the Japanese American society (Spickard, p. 148). And looking at what happened to the Issei, they were cooperative when it came to meeting America’s demands. In doing so, the Nisei viewed Japanese loyalty as the cause of civil injustice towards Japanese Americans in United States. Ultimately, the Nisei were in America to stay for the rest of their lives and looked at the nation as their homeland. This further disconnection from Japan eventually motivated the JACL to trivialize any groups loyal to Japan, specifically the the Kibei (spickard, p. 159).

In order to understand why the Nisei suppressed the Kibei, it is important to look at how Kibei’s upbringing was different from that of the Nisei’s. The Kibei were born in America just like the Nisei. In fact, they were Nisei until they moved to Japan to receive education. The biggest concern with the Issei was their children’s connection with Japan. And this was mainly the reason why they decided to take their Nisei children to Japan so that they are well aware of the Japanese root (Kono, p.82). Education has always been heavily emphasized in Japan. And core components of Japanese education include patriotism and loyalty, which also penetrates through the society on a cultural level (Kono, p. 82). This propelled Kibei’s loyalty towards Japan. When this group returned to America, many of them were either patriots of Japan or “bridge idealists” who wanted to rekindle the relationship between Japan and America (Kono, p. 83). When Kibei returned to America, however, United States’ Nationality Law assumed that any citizens have expatriated if they pledge allegiance to any foreign country. In addition, America began to crack down on Japanese Americans’ loyalty towards Japan. Having witnessed what happened to the influential Issei and the continuous threat from the Nisei to report any Kibei with Japanese loyalty, the Kibei were not able to express their opinions freely. Ironically, it was after all Japanese Americans were detained in internment camps that the Kibei were finally able to let their voices heard.

The Nisei and the Kibei had radically different upbringings, the Kibei in Japan and the Nisei in the United States, and these different upbringings, and identities, led to different political stances. Centrally both the Nisei and the Kibei had a universally negative response to internment; neither was particularly happy with the loss of civil rights and their displacement from their homes. However, the political opinion, especially about the obligation of the interred to their government was varied.  This range of opinions can be thought of as a spectrum: on the right is a total abdication of obligation to the government, on the left is a pledging of total unconditional obligation to government, and in the center is a mix of the two: a conditional obligation, only to be given when certain demands were met. It is impossible to perfectly map all Nisei and all Kibei on to this spectrum by group identity, after all some Kibei served in American intelligence during the war while some Nisei refused to engage in any service; however, group identity is useful in showing a center of gravity for individual opinions: Kibei tended to be more likely to take a right, no obligation, to center right, obligation with strict conditions, while Nisei tended to adopt a left, unconditional obligation, to center left, obligation with lose conditions, position. This distribution can be linked to the identify formation and the priority raw patriotism it has in a persons mind.

This spectrum opinion is born out in the document concerning the Topaz camp and the painting of the Poston camp: the far right position, the center right position, the center left position, and the far left position are all seen to be represented in the camp documentation. Starting with the far right anti-obligation position, it is clear that among many Kibei and some Nisei there was a feeling that they no longer owed the United States any sort of obligation. This position was made clear by several actions. First there was the raising of the Japanese flag at the Poston camp depicted in George Sogioka’s watercolor painting; raising the flag of a belligerent nation during a time of war is a pretty clear indicator that one does not feel any obligation to support the nation they live in. This is further reinforced by sections of the Topaz report; young Kibei woman identified as Miss K noted that many Kibei wished to permanently move to Japan after the war (Embree p. 3). This hard right position is also complemented by the soft right position expressed by many other; the Topaz “Committee of Nine” is particularly emblematic in this position. The “Committee of Nine” was a group of mixed Nisei and Kibei that came together to offer a petition demanding that the Federal Government immediately start to role back the internment program, specifically via the War Department (Embree p.4). The language of the document is full of statements of loyalty but it also contains a long list of grievances (Embree p. 9-10).  The tone generally suggests, not a divorce of obligation from the government but rather an estrangements from it. The petition leaves the possibility for reconciliation open but it is premised on the idea that the government has breached the trust that obligation is founded on and that it is on the government to restore it. This in combination with the more extreme position of some of the Kibei, encapsulates the right side of the obligation spectrum.

On the left side of this spectrum was the pro obligation camp, which was almost exclusively composed of Nisei. The far left of this was represented excellently by a group of men from the Topaz Camp; A group of men, in what is implied to be an act of intimidation, marched into the Registration room and yelled “Where are those Enlistment Blanks!” (Embree p.5). These young Nisei not only prioritized obligation to their country, seen in the form of military service, but also viewed resistance to this obligation as something worth suppressing, hence the intimidation. This angry nationalism was a rather extreme position, but a more moderate version of the same sentiment, the center left position, existed in the camp. The Topaz group of Nisei who referred to themselves as the “Young Democrats” best expresses this position. After the “Committee of Nine” had sent their petition to the War Department, the “Young Democrats” approached the camp officials to denounce the petition as non-representative of their sentiments (Embree p.5-6). The group offered a counter statement that specifically took issue with the listing of grievances and the implied conditionality of loyalty present in the “Committee of Nine” document. For this group of Nisei, obligation came first. However, this should not be taken as blind acquiescence to camp and government officials; even as they where rebuking the “Committee of Nine” document, they where affirming that “We believe in fighting for our rights” and demanding that Anti-Japanese teacher be removed for the camp schools (Embree p.11). In total the left side of the Obligation spectrum viewed the duty of the interred citizens to service their country as paramount to all other; however, the more centrist members of this camp also believed in lobbying camp and government officials for improved conditions.

These different political positions came from the different identities that were formed as a result of upbringings. The Nisei spent their entire lives in the United States while the Kibei had lived large portions of their lives in Japan. In terms of identity and internment, this gave the Kibei a luxury the Nisei largely lacked: a strong non-American national identity.  The Nisei did not adopt more pro obligation positions because they were less hurt by the humiliation of interment than the Kibei, rather they adopted pro-obligation responses because that was the only viable choice that allowed them to maintain their identity. Declaring that they had no obligation to the US government was not a problem for the Kibei because they could fall back on to a Japanese national identity they had acquired in their childhood. The Nisei, many of whom neither spoke Japanese fluently nor had ever set foot in Japan, could not do this. The Nisei had lived their whole life in the United States and had never thought of themselves of anything but Americans, plus of minus a hyphen. For a Nisei, to totally reject obligation to the United States was to make oneself stateless. In this way the betrayal of their government was even more heartbreaking, and internment made Nisei a stranger in their own home. The difference in positional responses to internment was a result of viable identity responses rather than any sort of difference in feelings of betrayal; rather it came from a Nisei deficit in alternative identities.

The politics of the Nisei and the Kibei had more than simple positional implications; the positional differences also translated to different methods of pushing their political agenda. Centrally these differences centered on how to interact with the camp government; this range of options for action can also be organized into a spectrum roughly analogues to the one representing political position. On the right was total obstruction, a method based on disruption of camp activities and refusal to cooperate with government initiatives, while on the left total cooperation, a method of not only compliance but also active collaboration with camp and government officials. Between these two poles was a wide middle made up of various combined approaches with sundry mixes of cooperation and obstruction. Generally speaking, people on one side or the other of the obligation opinion scale where on the same side of the obstruction-cooperation action scale. In this way we can see that Nisei, with many exceptions, generally favored a pro obligation semi-cooperative approach to moving toward the restoration of civil rights while the Kibei, with many exceptions, favored an anti-obligation semi-obstructionist approach.

The issue of registration with the federal government and enlisting in the army is an excellent case study for the different approaches adopted by various Kibei and Nisei groups. The Kibei generally adopted approaches ranging from obstructing government efforts to register to attaching demands to a promise to compile with initiatives. These two different tactics can be seen in the Topaz camp, with unnamed Kibei element engaging rumor spreading representing the in the former and the “Committee of Nine” petition representing in the latter.  On the other hand the Nisei generally favored a cooperative approach, with some groups cooperating and suppressing non-cooperative activates unconditionally and with others using cooperation as a entry point to negation better conditions. These approaches are also represented in the Topaz camp, with the group of young men using intimation to speed enlistment and registration representing the former, while the “Young Democrats” counter petition and complaint about teacher representing the latter.  These two different tactical approaches to lobbying for civil rights have their origins in the identity based question of obligation.

The underlying rationale of these two different approaches is tied to the question of obligation. The obstructionist camp was operating from a frame of mind that sees no obligation to the US Government. To an anti-obligation individual, what reason exists to cooperate since there was nothing to be gained in return? In the transactional framework of non-obligation, obstruction is the opening gambit in a negotiation. However, if somebody has a obligation based worldview, the calculus is very different. To someone deeply tied to United States, obstruction will only bring suspicion and difficulty to maintain the citizenship in America. An obligationist believes that they will have to live in the US post-war and don’t believe that they will improve their condition by antagonizing the government; rather to an obligationist, the most important task is to disrupt the narrative that has resulted in their current situation. In the case of Japanese interment, that was a narrative of disloyalty. And in the eyes of an obligationist, the only way to disrupt a narrative of disloyalty is with a reality of extra-loyalty; this means military service, and cooperation with the government.  The difference in tactics ultimate comes from a difference in views on obligations.

With the Issei in the background without any significant voice, the Nisei and the Kibei clashed in a battle between obligation versus anti-obligation to the United States’ government during the internment period. The Nisei had lived their entire lives in United States, whereas the Kibei had spent a significant portion of their lives in Japan. This difference in the upbringing caused the two groups of Japanese Americans to have conflicting attitudes toward the American government. The Nisei swore obligation to the American government and cooperated with them in order to prove even further loyalty. The Kibei took on the anti-obligation approach in achieving civil rights because continuing to exist in United States after the internment period was not their priority. Although such division is unfortunate, it provides a very useful model for many foreign groups that exist within America. And hopefully, they can look at the Japanese internment period as a way to find compromise and cooperation within the same race group to obtain racial justice and civil rights.

Works Cited

Muller, Eric L.. “A Penny for Their Thoughts: Draft Resistance at the Poston Relocation   Center”.Law and Contemporary Problems 68.2 (2005): 119–157.

Kono, R. (2003). The identity of a Kibei-Nisei: The life of Kira Itami, Ferris Wheel 6, 82-102

Spickard, Paul R.. “The Nisei Assume Power: The Japanese Citizens League, 1941-           1942”. Pacific Historical Review 52.2 (1983): 147–174.



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