Asian American response to incarceration

Asian Americans found themselves in a difficult predicament during World War II, as America's wartime alliances polarized public opinion and pitted "good" Asians—e.g. Chinese, Korean, and Filipino Americans—against the "bad" Japanese enemy. For the most part, non-Japanese groups accepted the wartime racialization of the Japanese and, in some cases, actively encouraged it. While their efforts arguably benefited them in the short term, this changed after 1945 when U.S. Cold War politics reshuffled American allegiances in Asia and the boundaries dividing "good" from "bad" Asians.

Inter-Ethnic Relations before World War II

Although there were notable incidents of inter-ethnic cooperation, historical relations between Japanese and other Asian American groups on the mainland were generally characterized by antagonism and conflict rather than amity before World War II. [1] Japanese expansionism in Asia invited the ire of Asians in America against their Japanese American neighbors, reflecting the persistence and strength of immigrants' loyalties to their homelands. Angered by Japanese expansionism into the mainland after 1930, Chinese Americans organized Rice Bowl parties to raise funds for the Chinese resistance, led boycotts on Japanese goods, and kept the pressure on Washington and the international community to intervene on China's behalf. Their efforts attracted growing American support with the start of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. [2]

Anti-Japanese organizing had a longer history among Korean Americans, who were active in the diasporic movement to liberate Korea from Japanese colonial rule. For three decades before World War II, Korean nationalists in the U.S. sought to secure Washington's support for the independence cause. Reluctant to offend a rising Japanese power in the Pacific, however, U.S. officials were content to ignore their petitions until the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor formally ushered America's entry into the Pacific War.

Filipino Americans, too, experienced their share of conflict with their Japanese neighbors in America. In sites like the California Delta, rising nationalism among Japanese immigrants contributed to clashes between the two groups. These would grow in frequency and severity over the 1930s. [3]

Inter-group tensions were less pronounced in Hawai'i, where peoples of Asian descent made up a larger percentage of the population and a wide-scale wartime incarceration of Japanese did not occur.

Wartime Response to Incarceration

In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Chinese, Korean, and Filipino Americans across the mainland and Hawai'i worked hard to prove their undivided loyalty to the American war effort. But the anti-Japanese backlash placed them in an awkward position, as citizens and aliens alike suffered harassment and even physical violence at the hands of vigilantes unable to distinguish one Asian American group from another. In her memoirs, second-generation Korean American Mary Paik Lee recalled the constant danger she and her family members faced in the wake of Pearl Harbor. She recounted stories of Korean American friends arbitrarily stopped on the highway by authorities, dragged out of their cars and beaten. [4] Articles like Life magazine's, "How to Tell Japs from the Chinese," reflected the severity of the issue, as American readers were advised on how to distinguish between Chinese "friends" and Japanese "enemies." [5] Partly for protection and partly out of indignation, Chinese and Korean Americans took steps to differentiate and distance themselves from their Japanese neighbors. Starting a few days after Pearl Harbor, the Chinese consulate in San Francisco began issuing identification cards to Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans, while Chinese and Korean Americans alike began wearing buttons and badges with slogans including "I am Chinese" and "Korean American" emblazoned on them.

For many Asian Americans, the need to prove their loyalty to America meant turning a blind eye to the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, lest they throw their own allegiance into doubt. To be sure, individuals within each community raised doubts about the morality of incarcerating Japanese Americans. [6] Some denounced the racialization of the Japanese enemy, while others expressed solidarity with the injustices being suffered by the Japanese American community. [7] But these were the exception and not the rule. When pressed, the vast majority of Asian Americans prioritized their own interests. While their support was tacit in some cases, others actively participated in the denunciation of the Japanese enemy. Hoping to shore up their loyalty to the U.S. beyond any doubt, Korean, Chinese, and Filipino American periodicals adopted the racial epithets and inflammatory anti-Japanese rhetoric used by the mainstream press. In at least one case, a Chinese American soldier refused to serve alongside Japanese American troops in the military. [8]

Asian American groups responded in different ways. As the second-largest Asian American group after the Japanese, Chinese Americans arguably benefited most from the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans. Their removal paved the way for Chinese Americans to expand their social and economic influence in cities like San Francisco, where Chinese American merchants took over formerly Japanese-owned businesses along Grant Avenue. [9]

Korean Americans embraced the anti-Japanese rhetoric of wartime perhaps most eagerly. Nationalist figures like Kilsoo Haan touted Koreans' years of resistance to Japanese colonial rule in their homeland as making them uniquely qualified to fight Japan, giving them special insight into the Japanese enemy and the best strategies to defeat Tokyo. But Korean Americans' official legal status as Japanese colonial subjects complicated their efforts to divorce themselves from Japan. Indeed, the revival of the Korean independence movement after 1940 caused some white American observers to question whether Korean Americans' loyalties lay more with the U.S. or with a preexisting nationalist agenda.

Filipino Americans also had to negotiate a homeland under Japanese rule during the war. Japanese imperial forces took control of the Philippines on December 8, 1941, one day after Pearl Harbor. The Japanese occupation lasted until 1944, when the islands were recaptured by American and Filipino troops. With the creation of a Philippines collaborationist government under Japanese rule, Filipinos in America were especially keen to reaffirm their foremost loyalty to the U.S. They did this with patriotic wartime displays and high levels of military service. In several cases, Filipino Americans in Los Angeles even became perpetrators of anti-Japanese violence, assaulting local Chinese Americans whom they mistook as being of Japanese descent. [10]

After the War

Asian Americans who had supported the government incarceration of Japanese Americans during the war found themselves at a loss after 1945, when official attitudes toward Japanese Americans sharply reversed and Japan emerged as one of America's main Asian allies in the emergent Cold War. But white Americans were not the only ones struck by a growing recognition of the heroism and courage shown by Japanese American soldiers during World War II. Individual Asian Americans also saw change in their attitudes toward their Japanese American neighbors. [11]

The years after World War II brought a reversal in fortunes for Asian American groups. Even as Japanese Americans underwent a postwar rehabilitation amidst public remorse over the injustice of internment, Korean and Chinese Americans were subjected to greater scrutiny by U.S. authorities as China and Korea came under greater Communist influence in Asia. During the McCarthy era, foreign-born Asian Americans became the targets of state detention, deportation, and other forms of persecution previously directed against the Japanese. For this reason, scholars have argued, other Asian American groups did themselves a disservice by participating in the racialization of Japanese during the war, as many of the same racialized images were turned back and used against them after 1945. [12]

Authored by Jane Hong , Harvard University

For More Information

Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History . New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991, chapter 7.

Kim, Lili M. Resisting the Orientalization of the Enemy: Korean Americans, World War II, and the Transnational Struggle for Justice on the Homefront . Stanford: Stanford University Press, forthcoming.


  1. Eiichiro Azuma, "Racial Struggle, Immigrant Nationalism & Ethnic Minority: Japanese & Filipinos in the California Delta, 1930-1941," Pacific Historical Review 67 (May 1998), 163-199.
  2. K. Scott Wong, Americans First: Chinese Americans and the Second World War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 34-44.
  3. See Azuma, "Racial Struggle."
  4. Mary Paik Lee, Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990).
  5. "How to Tell Japs from the Chinese," Life , December 22, 1941, 81-82.
  6. Lili Kim, "The Pursuit of Imperfect Justice: The Predicament of Koreans and Korean Americans on the Homefront during World War II" (Ph.D. diss., University of Rochester, 2001), 279-280.
  7. Wong, Americans First , 80.
  8. Ibid., 82.
  9. Charlotte Brooks, "The War on Grant Avenue: Business Competition and Ethnic Rivalry in San Francisco's Chinatown, 1937-1942," Journal of Urban History 37(3): 323; Wong, Americans First , 83.
  10. Wong, Americans First , 81.
  11. Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1998), 403.
  12. Kim, "The Pursuit of Imperfect Justice," x.

Last updated June 16, 2020, 3:47 p.m..