In July 1944, the U.S. Congress passed the Denationalization Act (Public Law 405), which allowed individuals of Japanese descent to voluntarily renounce their
U.S. citizenship. This unprecedented act emerged out of a historic moment of
heightened conflict and instability in the concentration camps, particularly at Tule Lake, which was by then a segregation center. By 1943, internees who had been deemed disloyal to the U.S. government, indicating “their desire to follow the Japanese way of life,” were transferred to this large camp in northern California. The number of Japanese Americans officially segregated from the ostensibly loyal and patriotic American internees amounted to at least 12,000, including another 4,000 family members of the “disloyal.” These individuals were barred from seeking relocation out of the camps and faced more stringent rules and disciplinary procedures than other internees.
The government's segregation of seemingly “enemy aliens” from mainstream camp life inspired a militancy and resistance in the camps. In particular, the resegregation movement emerged as an outlet for many Japanese Americans who felt understandably betrayed and angered by the injustices that they faced during the war. At Tule Lake, two major resegregant organizations grew out of this feeling of communal resentment: the Sokoku Kenkyu Seinen Dana (Young Men's Association for the Study of the Motherland) and the Sokuji Kikoku Hoshi Dan (Society for Immediate Return to Serve the Motherland).
These organizations were ideologically diverse and drew upon pro-Japanese propaganda that prophesized an inevitable victory against the United States. Members of these groups inspired other camp inmates to reclaim their Japanese heritage, instituted Japanese style schools, and organized nationalist exercises in support of the Japanese government. While these resistant strategies were in truth mainly nonviolent, the camps were not immune to conflict or even combat, as was seen in the November 1943 Tule Lake uprising that was spurred by the death of an internee leading to martial law or military control of the camp.
Seeking to neutralize the growing resistance within the camps and perhaps even get rid of undesirable aliens, Attorney General Francis Biddle and other high-ranking officials of President Franklin Roosevelt's administration sought to create a legal pathway for individuals to renounce their U.S. citizenship. Once individuals officially gave up their citizenship, they could be classified as “illegal aliens” and therefore blocked from reintegrating into American society after internment. Ironically, the Denationalization Act, originally known as the Allen bill, was passed in lieu of more punitive measures that would have immediately nullified the citizenship rights of “disloyals” or even tried them for treason. The act, instead, put the onus on the internees themselves to decide their own fate and renounce their U.S. citizenship. By rescinding their legal allegiance to the United States, many individuals were faced with the risk of becoming stateless, depending on the outcome of the war.
While on the surface the Denationalization Act was meant to give individuals the freedom to repatriate to Japan and rescind ties with the United States if they so chose, it actually created a backdoor opportunity for the government to better police militant or resistant Japanese Americans. The U.S. government was surprised by the great number of renunciants, many of whom had not voiced anti-American sentiment or had not been officially members of “pro-Japan” organizations prior to their application. Over 70 percent of the issei in Tule Lake renounced their U.S. citizenship and in all of the camps a total of 3,186 individuals applied for
denationalization. John Burling, a special assistant to the attorney general, held hearings at Tule Lake to rule on each application and after three months of proceedings in 1945, the majority of applications were accepted. Ironically, to renounce one's affiliation with the United States allowed many to stay in the camps, remain part of a community, and avoid the hostility of the American citizenry outside the camps' fences.
By the spring of 1945, some renunciants began to regret their decision and sought to withdraw their application. Some renunciants had made the decision to give up their citizenship in anger, fear, or for want of any viable path toward legal redress for the grievances they were forced to endure. Faced with the reality of deportation, and the pressing fact that the United States was posed to win the war, many renunciants now began the difficult and seemingly impossible fight to reclaim their rights as U.S. citizens. By the war's end, some 6,200 Japanese Americans were deported to Japan, and of that total between 1,800 and 2,000 were renunciants.
Thankfully, in 1946, attorney Wayne Collins and other lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union took up the fight to restore their citizenship. In November of that year, Collins filed lawsuits against the U.S. Justice Department and successfully delayed deportation. He argued that the renunciants had acted under duress and coercion produced by the extraordinary circumstances of their own illegal internment. In the end, it was not until 1959 that these cases were resolved. Out of 3,186 requests for the reversal of renunciation, 2,780 were accepted. Although often overlooked within the history of internment, the Denationalization Act and renunciation hearings are an important reminder of the anxieties over citizenship and national belonging that were foundational to the development of the dehumanizing policy of internment and exclusion.
Girdner, Audrie and Anne Loftis. The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of the Japanese-Americans during World War II. London: Macmillan, 1969.
Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
Robinson, Greg. A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.