Forrest LaViolette


Name Forrest LaViolette
Born January 9 1904
Died September 28 1989
Birth Location Devil's Lake, North Dakota

Forrest E. LaViolette (1904–89), a product of the famous University of Chicago school of social science who was among the first scholars of Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians, worked as a community analyst at the Heart Mountain WRA camp during 1943.

Early Life and Career

Forrest Emmanuel LaViolette (sometimes spelled La Violette) was born in Devil's Lake, North Dakota, in 1904, and grew up in Oregon. After receiving his B.A. in anthropology in 1933, he began graduate study in sociology at the University of Chicago. Although his original interest was in Asia, he soon shifted his focus to Japanese Americans. In fall 1936, soon after LaViolette began work on a doctoral thesis on "the assimilation of the American-born Japanese," he was named instructor in sociology at University of Washington (UW). Once in Seattle, LaViolette began a close personal and professional partnership with Shotaro Frank Miyamoto, a sociology graduate student eight years his junior—the two soon became so close that Miyamoto moved into a house with LaViolette and his wife Vera. LaViolette meanwhile strove to include himself in local Nikkei communities, especially as a regular contributor to the local weekly Japanese American Courier.

In 1939, La Violette completed his dissertation. His thesis was that Nisei were rapidly becoming an integral part of their larger communities. Though white Americans feared they would become a "racial bloc," in fact they were as individualistic and diverse as other Americans. Conversely, LaViolette insisted that the social integration of Nisei was not only an interracial problem, like that of the Negro, but also an international one. U.S.-Japan relations, he contended, would determine progress towards the ultimate (and desirable) goal of absorption of Japanese Americans into society. If permitted to show their loyalty, the mass of Nisei would naturally support America over their ancestral home in case of conflict. Once his dissertation was accepted, LaViolette started transforming it into a book. However, as war loomed and suspicion of Japanese Americans increased, two publishers who had agreed to publish the book cancelled his contract.

War Years: Move to Canada and WRA Community Analyst

In Fall 1940, LaViolette took up a position as assistant professor of sociology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He was midway through his second year at McGill when war broke out in the Pacific. Although nearly 38 and medically unfit for military service due to ulcers, he immediately volunteered his services teaching radio physics to the Royal Canadian Air Force. He made no public protest over the following months as ethnic Japanese on the Pacific Coast of the United States and Canada were rounded up and confined. However, he kept up a regular correspondence with Nisei friends on both sides of the border, including George Tamaki, Paul Sakai, and John M. Maki. He tried unsuccessfully to arrange for Noboru Inamoto, a Japanese Canadian engineering student, to be admitted to McGill so that he could be released from Puyallup Assembly Center. LaViolette also reported on the wartime removal of Japanese Canadians for the Institute of Pacific Relations bulletin Far Eastern Survey.[1]

In mid-May 1943, following the end of the spring term in Montreal, LaViolette volunteered to join the War Relocation Authority (WRA). After stopping briefly in Chicago for an orientation, he was assigned to the Heart Mountain camp, where he spent the following six months working as an administrator-community analyst. LaViolette's camp experience differed markedly from that of most WRA officials. First, his presence at Heart Mountain was understood from the beginning as temporary, as he had been granted only a one-term leave from his position at McGill. Also, whether from his McGill salary or from other sources, LaViolette earned sufficient funds to allow him a measure of independence. He lived outside camp, renting an apartment in Cody (where his wife accompanied him for much of his time) and driving his car to camp. What is more, unlike most WRA administrators, LaViolette had long experience working with Japanese Americans, and could claim that his work at the camp was a form of research. He regularly attended inmate events, mixed with community councils and with staffers from the Heart Mountain Sentinel, and even served as a volunteer fireman! Following a walkout by inmate staffers at the camp hospital, LaViolette concentrated his efforts during summer 1943 on recruiting staff to keep it open. In a series of letters to his WRA supervisor John Embree, LaViolette spoke repeatedly about the challenging and satisfying nature of his job. He described his role as problem solver, and his main mission to sell the inmates on the WRA program, particularly that of relocation outside camp.[2] At the same time, he hoped to conduct research on the impact of the WRA segregation program. He wrote a set of community analysis reports on the loyalty questionnaire.

In late 1943, LaViolette returned to McGill University. He made a brief visit to Heart Mountain in September 1944, during which he reported to the inmates on the struggles of the Japanese Canadians. His experience in Wyoming seems to have affected him strongly. Not only did he fail to make use of the material he collected during his stay, but he ceased all research on Japanese Americans after the war. His silence was most palpable in the case of his 1945 book Americans of Japanese Ancestry, published by the Canadian Institute of International Affairs. The book, adapted from his dissertation, concentrated entirely on the prewar period, even though the war had completely transformed Japanese community life, and it did not even mention the camps.

LaViolette was similarly cautious in addressing the plight of Japanese Canadians. In 1944, he published a second article on Canadian evacuation for the journal Far Eastern Survey. Like his earlier piece, the article described the history of anti-Japanese prejudice in British Columbia and the pressures that led the federal government to issue Orders-in-Council exiling Japanese Canadians from the Pacific Coast. Still, LaViolette refused to criticize official policy directly, even the government's notorious confiscation and sale of the property of Japanese Canadians—an action that left those already victimized by persecution financially destitute.[3]

Postwar Years

Despite his careful silence regarding official policy, LaViolette became a major supporter of Japanese Canadians and their citizenship rights in the postwar years. This was an unpopular cause in Canada, where anti-Japanese hostility remained widespread—Japanese Canadians were not even allowed to return to Canada's Pacific Coast until 1949. After McGill University, LaViolette's home institution, publicly refused admission to Nisei students in fall 1944, he quietly directed efforts to overturn it. He played no part in the Faculty Senate or in meetings with university officials, but he worked behind the scenes with student protesters. In February 1945, LaViolette gave a public address in which he broke his silence and criticized the government's seizure of inmate property. The following year, LaViolette helped found the Montreal Committee on Canadian Citizenship, a civil rights group that helped block the Canadian government's plan to deport to Japan 10,000 camp inmates who had refused to relocate east of the Rockies. LaViolette also helped find jobs and housing for some of the thousands of resettlers who migrated to Montreal. In 1948, he published a pioneering study, The Canadian Japanese and World War II. The book was the first to describe the social and psychological effects of removal and confinement on Japanese Canadians.

In 1949, LaViolette was named chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tulane University in New Orleans. He remained there until his retirement in 1969. He subsequently returned to Oregon, where he died in 1989. His later work, notably his 1961 book The Struggle For Survival, focused on Native peoples in British Columbia. He also wrote an article on African Americans and housing in New Orleans. After 1949, LaViolette's only writing on Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians was a series of book reviews, primarily of works by the second generation of scholars on wartime confinement. These texts were were marked by an odd defensiveness about the U.S. government's policy. In one book review, he admitted that the "momentous and egregious" removal policy had been fueled by West Coast prejudices. However, he hotly denied any assertion that "the Relocation Centers were concentration camps... Administrators quickly came to appreciate the social psychological personal expressions of evacuees [and worked] correcting the errors of the democratic process."[4]

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

La Violette, Forrest E. Americans of Japanese Ancestry: A Study of Assimilation in the American Community. Toronto: The Canadian Institute of International Affairs, 1945.

———. The Canadian Japanese and World War II: A Sociological and Psychological Account. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1948.

Robinson, Greg. After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Footnotes

  1. Forrest E. LaViolette, "Japanese Evacuation in Canada," Far Eastern Survey, Vol. 11, No. 15, July 27, 1942, pp. 163-67.
  2. See for example, Forrest E. LaViolette, letters to John Embree, May 11, June 2, June 8, 1943, in Yuji Ichioka Papers, Box 98, Special Collections, Young Research Library, UCLA.
  3. Forrest E. LaViolette, "Two Years of Japanese Evacuation in Canada," Far Eastern Survey 13.11 (May 31, 1944): 93-100.
  4. Forrest E. LaViolette, review of Edward Spicer, et al, Impounded People, Pacific Affairs 44.1 (Spring 1971): 158-59.