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An “Ethnic” Perspective of the Manzanar Revolt

April 01, 2019
Adams, Ansel, photographer. Manzanar street scene, clouds, Manzanar Relocation Center, California / photograph by Ansel Adams. California Manzanar, 1943. Photograph. Adams, Ansel, photographer. Manzanar street scene, clouds, Manzanar Relocation Center, California / photograph by Ansel Adams. California Manzanar, 1943. Photograph.

What if we examined the revolt at Manzanar in cultural rather than ideological terms?

On October 28, 2018, Arthur Hansen presented his two 2018 publications, Barbed Voices: Oral History, Resistance, and the World War II Japanese American Social Disaster and Nisei Naysayer: The Memoir of Militant Japanese American Journalist Jimmie Omura, at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, an event cosponsored by the Denver-based Japanese American Resource Center of Colorado. The first half of his remarks [edited for brevity] are transcribed below; the second half, focused on Nisei Naysayer, will publish on Tuesday, April 9.


Barbed Voices is an anthology of eight articles that enshrine my career-long passion for and preoccupation with the subject of the World War II exclusion and detention experience of Japanese Americans. The anthology’s articles intertwine my dual commitment to the historical phenomenon of social resistance and the research method of oral history, and each of the chapters is informed by my ideological allegiance to employing principled dissent, protest, and struggle to redress oppressive institutional power emanating from whatever source.

As seen in Barbed Voices, the resistance depicted by Japanese American individuals and groups was mounted primarily against an “external” oppressor, the US government, and an “internal” one, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). Since neither of these two entities was monolithic in nature, it should be assumed that the oppressive power being resisted in both cases was the controlling core leadership of these groups, and not their inclusive and diverse memberships.

With respect to the designation of “social disaster” used to describe the World War II Japanese American experience, I have arrived at this terminology advisedly. In comparatively recent times, the older journalistic accounts of disasters have given way to more sophisticated methods of data collection and theorization. As a special branch of collective behavior, “disaster research” nowadays includes a body of findings about the psychosocial impact of disasters.

Although most research in this field of study has been focused upon natural disasters―hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, and floods―increasingly attention has been paid to the impact of man-made disasters such as bombing attacks and industrial accidents. As early as 1972, the British sociologist Stanley Cohen adopted the sequential model used by disaster researchers to describe the phases of a natural disaster: warning, threat, impact, inventory, rescue, remedy, and recovery. While Cohen was mindful that the “moral panics” he investigated in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics―the British public’s reaction in the 1960s to the Mods and Rockers rebellious youth phenomenon―could not be considered disasters in the same sense as earthquakes or floods, he nonetheless felt that there are sufficient resemblances between the two categories of events and also that definitions of “disaster” are broad and inconsistent enough to warrant his extrapolation from existing theory.

Likewise, it is my contention that the events constituting the World War II Nikkei eviction and incarceration experiences lend themselves to similar extrapolation. As Cohen observed, although definitions of disaster are characterized by imprecision, an inventory of them reveals agreement on the following salient elements: “whole or part of a community must be affected, a large segment of the community must be confronted with actual or potential danger, [and] there must be a loss of cherished values and material objects resulting in death or injury or destruction to property.”

Given these criteria, it is hardly an exaggeration or a distortion to label what the Japanese American population underwent during World War II a disaster. First of all, the US government’s mass removal and confinement policy directly affected almost the entire Japanese American mainland community. Not only healthy adults, but pregnant mothers, hospitalized people, the extremely aged, and even infants, orphans, and the seriously disabled were evicted to makeshift and isolated detention centers.

Second, from the time of Japan’s attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawai’i on December 7, 1941, to the ultimate closing of the ten War Relocation Authority–administered concentration camps, the affected majority of the Nikkei community dwelt in a daily atmosphere colored and confounded by actual and potential danger. If it was difficult before the Japanese Americans’ exclusion and confinement to distinguish between actual and potential danger, thereafter it became virtually impossible to do so. Who is to say whether living in a horse stall or being surrounded by barbed wire and monitored by armed sentries in watchtowers posed a real or prospective danger to the imprisoned Nikkei? Comparing what the Japanese American inmates confronted with “famine, flood, drought, disease, or other calamities,” Nisei anthropologist Toshio Yatsushiro, a Bureau of Sociological Research staff member at the Poston Relocation Center in southwest Arizona, aptly concluded that “the situation . . . in the [Poston] center had all the characteristics of a disaster.”

Lastly, there is no denying that the third criterion applying to disasters―a loss of cherished values and material objects resulting in death or injury or destruction to property―describes what the confined wartime Japanese Americans faced. Not only were entire West Coast Japanese American communities uprooted and scuttled by Executive Order 9066, but also the series of actions resulting from this harsh displacement entailed a cataclysmic change in the victimized population’s cultural composition. The fabric of family was stretched and torn, the pattern of leadership disturbed, the economic structure dismantled, and the underlying sense of personal, family, and community identity endangered. Infusing and imparting focus to the assorted socioeconomic losses was the psychological conviction of being a threatened people.

The explanatory burden of the eight chapters in Barbed Voices is to provide a basis for understanding why, when, where, and how at least some of the 120,000 imprisoned Americans of Japanese ancestry responded with resistance to the perilously threatened status of themselves, their families, their reference groups, and their racial-ethnic group community during World War II.  

I coauthored a chapter called “Manzanar Riot: An Ethnic Perspective” with David Hacker, a demographic historian at the University of Minnestota. Manzanar is located in eastern California’s Owen Valley in the shadow of Mount Whitney. On December 6, 1942―some seventy-five years ago―an intense confrontation erupted at Manzanar. It pitted an armed military police contingent, which had been summoned into the camp by its Caucasian director, against thousands of Japanese American inmates demonstrating against the jailing of the Kibei-Nisei head of the Mess Hall Workers Union, Harry Ueno, who was accused of beating Nisei JACL leader Fred Tayama the previous night. The tragic result of this hostile face-off was that military gunfire killed (that is, murdered) two young Nisei men and wounded at least nine other Nikkei inmates.

Our interpretation of this bloody event, traditionally labelled the Manzanar Riot, is a revisionist one. Previously, the overwhelming majority of the accounts about it were filtered through what might be labelled the “WRA-JACL” perspective. This appellation is apt because nearly all of the original documentation was prepared by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) or JACL affiliates and because secondary compilers almost without exception simply buttressed this official version. One dimension of this perspective can be glimpsed through analysis of the language used to describe the event. As a general rule, the primary sources refer to it as an “incident,” while the secondary works term it a “riot.” Since the former denotes an “occurrence” and the latter signifies a “violent disorder,” these designations, at first glance, appear radically different. However, what places both words within the WRA-JACL perspective is that each trivializes the event’s cultural significance. “Incident” accomplishes this effect by scaling down the affair to commonplace proportions, while “riot” achieves the same by inflating it to melodramatic ones. Because neither term allows for meaningful contextual inquiry, both invite descriptive treatment but discourage explanatory analysis.

A second closely related feature of the WRA-JACL perspective is its tendency to view the “riot” episodically. This myopia has stamped itself upon the literature in various ways. On the one hand, it has militarized against sustained, in-depth analyses of causation. Most accounts practically ignore the causative factor, and even those aspiring to explain causation have confined their investigation within the parameters of the immediate pre-exclusion, exclusion, and camp experience. On the other hand, the WRA-JACL perspective has led to the so-called riot being misconstrued as a finale rather than seen as one development along a continuum of inmate resistance. In addition, the WRA-JACL perspective has unduly reduced the importance of the event to provincial proportions; that is, it has often been treated as a purely local phenomenon at Manzanar instead of being related to the general pattern of inmate resistance activity in all ten of the WRA detention centers.

Although different in some respects, the WRA and JACL viewpoints on mass incarceration of Japanese Americans and the Manzanar upheaval of December 6, 1942, were fundamentally the same. Celebrated historian Roger Daniels has summarized the WRA stance: “Although some of the staff, particularly those in the upper echelons of the WRA, disapproved of the racist policy that brought the camps into being, the majority of the camp personnel . . . shared the contempt of the general [US] population for ‘Japs.’”

The JACL posture complemented that of the WRA: while the JACL leadership certainly was not contemptuous of “Japs,” its identification with Americanized behavior and attitudes was complete enough to cause disavowal of and dissatisfaction with traditional Japanese customs, social organization, and values. This helps to account for what historian Douglas Nelson has described as the JACL’s policy of “deliberate and calculated compliance” with the detention program. JACL compliance, according to Nelson, began from the outset of that operation. “JACL members assisted the FBI in the initial roundup of suspect Japanese aliens. They were usually among the first volunteers to go to the assembly centers and later to the interior concentration camps, [and] in November 1942, the JACL, meeting in Salt Lake City, resolved to endorse the administration and goals of the War Relocation Authority.”

In return for their cooperation, JACL leaders were accorded a measure of responsibility and influence in the camps. Not infrequently, they were selected for their preferred jobs, chosen to edit the camp newspapers, and granted other social, political, and economic perquisites. As a result of their integration into the WRA administration, however, they too came to evaluate their personal status in terms of the successful realization of WRA objectives.

Behind the WRA’s and JACL’s shared attitude toward detention objectives rested a common ideology. Both subscribed to a “progressive” view of American history. Central to this persuasion was the idea that the American past made sense only if read as a triumphant progression toward the fulfillment of the nation’s democratic potential. This view acknowledged the existence of a long line of reactionary persons and groups who, for selfish ends, had attempted to thwart the advance of democracy. But it took comfort from the fact that liberal, humane individuals had always emerged to transcend themselves and rally the nation in overcoming anti-democratic challenges.

Given these considerations, we are better able to understand the WRA-JACL perspective on the “Manzanar Riot.” We can now appreciate, for example, why the original accounts chose to describe it innocuously as an “incident.” Like all good bureaucrats, the camp administrators intuitively sensed the wisdom of the adage that “no news is good news.” For them even to have intimated that what happened on December 6, 1942, was more than slightly out of the ordinary would have been tantamount to admitting that WRA policies were wrong or unsuccessful.

In keeping with this psychological imperative, it followed that causal explanations were largely unwarranted. Interpreting the disturbance as the outgrowth of serious, underlying grievances would have called into question the administration’s oft-repeated claim that Manzanar was a “model” American community. That a resistance movement could arise in such a “happy camp” was unthinkable. It made better sense, therefore, to perceive the “incident” as either a transitory release from unanalyzable “frustration” or, as was more often the case, the pernicious work of a small but committed minority of pro-Axis sympathizers.

The latter explanation gained currency among WRA-JACL analysts because they could readily incorporate it into their Manichean view of history, wherein everything is divided between good and evil, light and dark. Envisioning themselves as selfless inheritors of America’s democratic heritage, they justified their complicity in the detention program by believing that their efforts furthered the democratic cause. The WRA could argue that the attendant loss of civil liberties was unfortunate, but that perilous times sometimes necessitated short-term undemocratic means to promote long-range democratic ends. The JACL could uphold exclusion and detention by the argument that it would provide Japanese Americans an opportunity to prove their loyalty, thereby paving the way for the enjoyment of democratic liberties in a postwar world. Given that the WRA-JACL administration equated the existence of the camps with the cause of democracy, it is hardly surprising that they should interpret the riot as engineered by an anti-democratic faction.

In contradistinction to the foregoing perspective on the so-called Manzanar Riot, Hacker and I propose the adoption of an “Ethnic” perspective. Whereas the WRA-JACL perspective, as I have detailed, has interpreted the “riot” in terms of its ideological meaning within American society, the Ethnic perspective focuses upon the cultural meaning of the “riot” within the Japanese American community (with particular reference to Manzanar’s inmate population). Because we believe that the Ethnic perspective promotes analysis and understanding, we replace the word “riot” with “revolt.” Terming the event the “Manzanar Revolt” predisposes us to see it not as an uncaused and inconsequential aberration, but as one intense expression of a continuing resistance movement. This change also credits the participants in the action with a greater degree of purposeful behavior. For while a riot’s members are momentarily conjoined because they do not like where they have been, those involved in a revolt have some sense of where they want to go. Overall, then, this redefinition of the event encourages us to view it in relation to social change within a larger structural framework, thereby affording a more sociologically meaningful analysis. Instead of dismissing the “riot” as an isolated, spontaneous, and unstructured phenomenon, we now must locate its causes or determinants in the social system. And that is precisely what we strove to do in our treatment of the Manzanar Revolt, which we conclude with the following commentary.

The events of December 6, 1942, were but a logical culmination of developments originating with the decision of Manzanar’s WRA administration to bypass the community’s natural first-generation alien Issei leadership to deal with its own artificially erected JACL Nisei hierarchy and to embark on a program of Americanization at the expense of Japanese ethnicity. When the WRA moved the JACLers―many of whose names appeared on the death lists and blacklists compiled by dissident inmate leaders―out of the camp after the revolt and placed them in protective custody, the Issei took a step toward restoring the dominance they had enjoyed before the war, and the entire Japanese American community at Manzanar served notice that their self-determination and ethnic identity would not be relinquished without a struggle. Through the operation of continuing resistance activity, Manzanar would eventually be transformed into a veritable Little Tokyo of the desert, where, as in prewar days, the most salient community characteristics were group solidarity and the predominance of elements of Japanese culture.

Arthur A. Hansen is emeritus professor of history, founding director of the Japanese American Project of the Oral History Program and the Center for Oral and Public History, and founding faculty member of the Asian American Studies Program at California State University, Fullerton. He has been honored as both the Outstanding Teacher and the Outstanding Faculty Member in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at CSUF. He was Senior Historian at the Japanese American National Museum and received the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Asian American Studies in 2007 and the Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award from the Manzanar Committee in 2014.

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