"Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Japs": Japanese American Internment During World War II and Its Challenge to Americanism

Kyna Ranell Herzinger, University of South Carolina


This thesis explores the impact the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II had on notions of Americanism. Though the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor rightly triggered a national sense of fear and vulnerability, more significantly, it precipitated a touchstone event that contradicted America's core principles: the evacuation and relocation of 120,000 ethnic Japanese living in southern Arizona and the western portions of California, Oregon, and Washington solely on the basis of their ethnicity. Citing military necessity, the evacuation order effectively exiled over ninety percent of the Japanese-American population--two-thirds of whom were American citizens--from their West Coast homes, compelled them to leave virtually all of their possessions and mechanisms of social support, and confined them to desert camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Most of these individuals remained incarcerated without trial for the duration of World War II.

Immigrants and citizens alike have been taught that the United States is committed to democracy and personal freedoms, while citizens are ostensibly extended the rights of free speech and free association, security from unreasonable searches and seizure of property, and a trial by peers as guaranteed by the Constitution; yet as this thesis argues, the mass internment of an entire group of people on the basis of race challenged the ideals America espoused. Indeed, this chapter in American history challenges the concept of what it meant to be an American, Japanese American's claim to Americanness, and individual Japanese Americans' sense of identity as Americans.

Although it focuses on the years between 1942 and 1945, the period that witnessed Japanese-American internment, this thesis situates its analysis within a longer historical narrative that details Japanese Americans' early experiences in the U.S. Defining what it means to be an American, this paper shows how Japanese Americans explored their Americanness as well as their Japaneseness while incarcerated, revealing further that Japanese Americans at the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho explored their American and Japanese identity through mundane activities that were embraced as part of a larger effort to create normalcy in the midst of the physical, emotional, and psychological difficulties of dispossession, displacement, and incarceration.