For many American studies scholars, “internment” identifies the specific process of the relocation and resettlement of Japanese Americans during the early years of World War II. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “intern,” the verb form on which “internment” is based, as “to confine as a prisoner” is an obvious and essential starting point for the discussion of “internment.” Yet a further investigation of the significance of “internment” as a keyword in American studies also requires an understanding of internment not simply as an unusual act of confining or imprisoning citizens in a racial democracy but as typical of US racial-disciplinary projects in the twentieth century. In the wake of the Cold War, political and legal comparisons tended to liken the internment to an earlier phase of Native American removal and dispersal or, perhaps more ominously, to the system of concentration camps in wartime Europe. As the case of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base makes clear, these ongoing debates about the distinctive significance of internment as a system of racialization will continue to shape discussions of Americanism and racial nationalism well into the twenty-first century.
The processes and representations of the Japanese American internment—which officially began in January 1942 with the identification and removal of some 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry from their West Coast homes and into one of ten inland “relocation centers” and which lasted through 1944—have been duly recorded and widely discussed. Overwhelmingly, historical and autobiographical accounts have approached the internment of Japanese Americans as a shocking historical event, one that stands against the Enlightenment ideals of individual freedom and rights that founded the nation’s mission. The most visible of these accounts is characterized by a familiar teleology of crisis and resolution that depends on a faith in liberal and neoliberal appeals to the “legal rights” and “justice” discourse shaped by modern democratic capitalism. A string of popular narratives, ranging from Monica Sone’s autobiographical story Nisei Daughter ( 1979) to David Guterson’s novel Snow Falling on Cedars (1995), have explicitly promoted such resolutions.
More recently, the Japanese American internment has been cast within a broader political discussion about the mutual genealogies of racial liberalism and citizenship. Scholars interested in the development of racial liberalism have found it useful to explore the work of government social scientists stationed in the camps as a case in point. While the initial task of the camp analysts was to distinguish loyal from disloyal Japanese subjects and to suggest ways to maintain order and morale in the camps, their surveillance of Japanese Americans quickly evolved into an influential policy of racial reform that advocated the geographical and political dispersal and displacement of former Japanese communities as the answer to fears of Japanese alienage and disloyalty. The predominantly liberal and progressive anthropologists and sociologists working in the internment camps had previously studied the adaptability and assimilation of Native groups, and most of the camps were located on reservation lands that enabled a visible system of surveillance, often emblematized in memoirs of the internment as the disturbing specter of the guard tower and the barbed-wire fence.
This structural and material relationship between Native relocation and assimilation policies at the turn of the century and Japanese American internment policies during the middle of the twentieth century reverses the assumption that the agendas of liberal racial reform and militaristic suspension of rights are disconnected or contradictory gestures. What is more, the unblinking acceptance of a myth of racial progressivism and American exceptionalism may help rationalize contemporary cases of government invasion, occupation, and violence at home and abroad. Liberal racial reform efforts proceeding from domestic crises or the imminence of war often work to reproduce racial nationalism and the stratified socioeconomic relations on which it depends. Some critics have called internment “the most remembered ‘forgotten’” event of World War II, pointing out how the remembering of internment in many mainstream accounts presents it as a mistake whose long-neglected resolution actually reaffirms the rightness of democratic capitalism and citizenship (Fujitani 2001, 239). Other critics have depicted the Japanese American internment as part of an ongoing early twentieth-century policy of labor management through land reform and the dispossession of racialized populations (Lye 2004). This emerging critique has established internment less as an isolated historical event or ideological crisis than as part of the very logic of US democratic capitalism, which reproduces its inevitability in the regulation of categories of citizenship and alienage.
Thus internment—which we may define more precisely as the involuntary incarceration of any citizen, alien, or enemy alien in a time of war or peace for an indefinite period of interrogation without the filing of valid criminal charges—clearly has relevance for the twenty-first century. When an early poll conducted in the months after the September 11, 2001, attacks found that over a third of US Americans approved of incarcerating all Arab Americans, Japanese American groups and progressive legal scholars were quick to react, warning of the danger of violations of civil and human rights (A. Kim 2001). Soon after these warnings, the Justice Department moved to abridge the civil rights of foreign nationals from predominantly Muslim nations, a decision that includes requiring the annual registration, fingerprinting, and interviewing of all male foreign nationals as well as the monitoring of their movements within the United States and the restriction of their right to travel. The government’s reliance on the unrestricted detainment and interrogation of foreign nationals as “enemy combatants,” suspected of but not charged with crimes, at detention camps such as the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and the added revelations of abuse in violation of the Geneva Convention at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have made the early warnings of former Japanese American internees seem, at the very least, more compelling. For the foreseeable future, the question of the political relevance of internment to detainment will be critically important for anyone who wants to comprehend the unfolding simultaneity of the US projects of domestic racial reform and neoliberal global democracy.