Historians widely understand the World War II concentration camps as a culmination of the anti-Asian movement. Most believe the anti-Chinese movement led to the anti-Japanese movement, which led to the forced, mass removal and confinement. Some hold that politicians, from California's delegation to Congress to President Franklin Roosevelt, were the principal movers behind this World War II policy. Others believe economic interests, such as white growers, shippers, and commercial enterprises, saw the war as a prime opportunity to get rid of their competition, Japanese American farmers. Still others contend that patriotic and white supremacist organizations like the American Legion and Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West lobbied for Japanese American exclusion. Those interpretations depend upon an idea that policy, such as Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 and Public Law 503, is responsive to and derives from public opinion and attitudes that elect politicians and shape their law-making.
Briefly, the anti-Asian movement, as exhibited in the anti-Chinese and anti Japanese movements, involved immigration laws that restricted Asian migration, statutes like the alien land laws, racially segregated schools, city ordinances that discriminated against Asian businesses, and segregated housing and occupations, riots against and murders and expulsions of Asians, and everyday racist practices. Those are the conventional depictions of what historians have called the anti Asian movement.
If placed, however, within the broader context of U.S. history especially the position of nonwhite peoples, a pattern emerges. The English colonies that began what became the United States considered American Indians, the original guardians of the land, as foreign nations for treaty and war making. What the colonists wanted was the land of the indigenous peoples. Virginia colony, run as a business from London, imported European indentured servants to supply labor to farm mainly tobacco at first, and from 1819 began replacing those indentures with Africans held in bondage. Cultivating tobacco, rice, and later cotton, Africans
provided the labor the colony's rulers needed to plant and harvest green gold from American Indian lands. Asians and Mexicans supplied the labor, like Africans in the South, to tend the fields in Hawai'i and the Southwest. African, Asian, and Mexican Americans were in the United States because they were useful as laborers.
The anti-Asian movement, from that perspective, involved the exploitation of Asian labor. In that way, immigration laws, alien land laws, segregated schools, and so forth were the means by which to control that labor. Accordingly, recruiters in China and India during the 19th century sought laborers for the plantations of the tropical band, and the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) prohibited entry into the United States to Chinese workers, not businessmen or students. The alien land laws were designed to stop the upward mobility of Asians or “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” and segregated, inferior education directed children back into labor and not into the professions. What made Asian migrants particularly valuable to employers, in light of the Civil War and freedom for enslaved African Americans who could vote, was the fact that Asian migrants could not become U.S. citizens. They fell under the Naturalization Act (1790), which stipulated that only free white persons could become naturalized citizens. As noncitizens, Asians had few rights and were thus easily controlled and removed as mere workers; they were “best abused.” A leader of the Hawaiian sugar planters called Asian workers “like cattle on the range” (Okihiro, 17).
Asian workers, nonetheless, were not mere passive pawns for exploitation. They organized and fought back. They formed unions, struck for higher wages and better working conditions, and resisted their exploitation in everyday activities such as breaking tools that belonged to the planters. In turn, their employers struck back. They expelled strikers from their homes, hired vigilantes to harass and intimidate the workers, and replaced them with another, more docile and less expensive group. In that way, Japanese replaced Chinese, Koreans were hired to break Japanese-led strikes, and Filipinos were recruited to displace Japanese. That pattern resulted in waves of labor migration beginning with the Chinese, then Japanese, Korean, and Filipino. South Asians provided another source of labor mainly along the West Coast. And when Asian labor was no longer desirable, Mexicans worked alongside and then replaced Asians in the fields.
Still, the problem for the nation's rulers was the “Oriental problem” caused by the birth of the second generation. Asian workers did not return to Asia after their exclusion (Asian exclusion laws limited entry to workers, in sequence, from China, Japan and Korea, India, and the Philippines), but instead formed families and settled in the United States. Their children, under the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment, were U.S. citizens having been born on American soil. They comprised the “Oriental problem” or problem of molding them into worthy citizens. “Americanization” was the answer, involving mainly the public schools as a way to assimilate Asian students but also to wean them away from their parents who remained, by law, aliens. That became especially acute in the case of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Japanese American workers became a “problem” when they organized strikes against Hawai'i's sugar planters, especially the 1920 strike. Intelligence services,
civilian and military, took interest in the “Japanese problem,” citing their disruption of the sugar industry, the islands' principal economic base, as a matter of national security. And when their children, the nisei, came of age during the 1920s and 1930s, “Americanization” efforts were directed at them, hoping to steer them away from their parents, the issei, who were considered to be loyal to Japan and toward “useful” labor as field workers and not as professionals.
Martial law and internment in Hawai'i and concentration and internment camps on the continent were instruments of racial segregation, separating Japanese Americans from other Americans. One drop of “Japanese blood” made them susceptible to government-sponsored removal and confinement. The War Relocation Authority (WRA), the administrators of the concentration camps, favored nisei citizens over issei aliens with the intention of “Americanizing” and assimilating the second generation by facilitating their education, including college education outside the camps, and offering them employment in the fields and factories beyond the barbed wire fences. Other nisei forced laborers were the men and women who served in the U.S. military to prove their loyalty in blood. At the same time, those opportunities for education, work, and military service provided openings for Japanese American claims on the promise of full equality as guaranteed by the Constitution.
The anti-Asian movement oppressed and exploited Asian Americans, but Asian Americans complied with and resisted those designs and thereby became agents of change or history.
Okihiro, Gary Y. Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865–1945. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.