Desert Exile

Although the American government has made many mistakes over the years, there was perhaps none so inhumane or grossly unconstitutional as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two. The internment can also be seen as a flagrant act of racism, perhaps the most thorough and widely accepted acts against one nationality in United States history. Yoshiko Uchida, in her book Desert Exile, shows these themes through the autobiographical story of the hardships of her friends and family before and during their stay in the concentration camps during World War Two.

Internment was explained as a necessity to ensure the safety of the American people, but it was caused more by racism than by any other factor. Since even before the war, Japanese encountered social and economic racism. Uchida and her friends would have to call before going to a swimming pool, in order to make sure they would be accepted. They were excluded from the social circles in their high school. Uchida's father searched to find a realtor willing to rent a house to a Japanese. Anti-Asian sentiment was a serious problem.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, average Americans became very receptive to anti-Japanese propaganda, and long-time racists began their slurs with renewed vigor. Japanese and Japanese Americans alike were refered to as Japs, and the press circulated reports that the bombing had been assisted by Japanese Americans working on sugar cane fields and on fishing boats in Hawaii. Government officials also joined in on the action, claiming that Japanese Americans had infiltrated strategic positions in California, and calling for their immediate internment. Much evidence was brought to the attention of the President and other important officials that the Japanese Americans, whether first or second generation, were extraordinarily loyal to the U.S.; no evidence could be supplied to the contrary. However, they were still motivated to intern the Japanese.

It would seem obvious to start the internment in Hawaii, which lies far closer to Japan, where Japanese made up a full third of the population, and where they had been accused of conspiracy in the attack on Pearl Harbor. For whatever reason, however, the government overlooked Hawaii and concentrated on the West Coast, invalidating their claim that they were interning the Japanese Americans out of military necessity. Likewise, it interned neither Germans nor Italians, although they had much greater numbers and therefore a larger potential threat to the nation. Uchida is effective in her depiction of the influence of racism through these and other examples.

Uchida also makes an issue of how unconstitutional the actions taken against her were. Ignoring the guarantees from the Constitution of due process of law, and equal protection for all citizens, the government found all Japanese Americans guilty of potential treason. Some families were allowed as little as three days warning before internment. The Uchida family, as well as other residents of San Francisco, were given ten days notice to sell their property, put their belongings in storage, and say goodbye to loved ones before being shipped off to the camps.

Although in the camps they were given the 'freedom' to more or less move about as they pleased, the internees were in many ways not even treated as well as convicted fellons. In a prison, it is considered essential to supply not only the basic necessities, but to keep the prisoners happy to avoid rioting. No concern for mental or physical well-being was shown in the camps. At Tanforan, the first camp Uchida went to, they lived in a horse stall which had been floored over with linoleum. Hot water for showers and laundry were in short supply, and food was of such low quality that they ate no more than necessary. At Topaz, the second camp Uchida went to, it was only long after they arrived that heating was installed in their quarters to fend off the sub-zero winter temperatures, and interior walls were put in to keep out the sand from summer dust storms and the sound from the conversations of their many neighbors. One man was taken from his hospital bed where he had just had surgery for cancer and put on a train from San Fancisco to Montana. He died soon after arriving.

The author support her autobiography, a primary resource itself, with many other primary resources. Personal photographs of her family allow readers to think of them as people, and not just characters. The smiling faces and everyday 'with the dog'-type pictures make tales of the internment camps more poignant, and stand in contrast to the National Archive pictures from the camps. References to newspaper articles, government documents, and speeches do much to validate her claims of racism.

What makes this book effective, though, is the simple fact that it is an autobiography. As a story of one family, rather than a cold list of events and facts, it serves to illustrate what life really was like in the internment camps. Also, because it is told from the first person, it is possible to understand the opinions and viewpoints of Japanese Americans during and around World War Two. What they thought of their guards, how it felt to be innocent and yet imprisoned, how they stayed sane in the middle of the barren desert. Perhaps its weakness, though, is the same as its strength: it is the story of one person, one family. It neither tells of the plight of all Japanese Americans nor of all internment camps. The Uchida family saw no death nor disease, and were able to survive as a family and not grow hateful of each other. They were a rich family before, and had many white friends outside the camps that sent them needed clothing and food. As such, they were probably not average Japanese Americans. The author does do her best to overcome this shortfall, however, by relating the stories of as many people as she had contact with.

Although the reader must remember the limitations of a single autobiography in depicting the thoughts and fates of an entire nationality, this book is still vital to an understanding of the Japanese Americans' plight in World War Two. As a supplement to a history text it could provide the essential key to empathizing with and comprehending the life of these people. Few Americans today know more than the short phrase "Japanese were interned during the war"; they know neither what the camps were like, nor what factors influenced their use.

Uchida provides a convincing argument that the concentration camps were inhumane and unconstitutional, and that they were put into use for largely racist reasons. Because it was perhaps one of the most shameful actions of the United States government against its own citizens, Americans must comprehend, not just study, the internment of Japanese Americans.