I Know What Incarceration Does to Families. It Happened to Mine.

By Michiko Kakutani is the author of the forthcoming book “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump.” July 13, 2018 

CreditIllustration by Mike McQuade; Photographs by Dorothea Lange/War Relocation Authority and Joe Raedle/Getty Images

They were described as vermin who were infesting America. They were deemed a national security threat to the United States, rounded up and sent to internment camps, where they were housed in military-style barracks behind barbed wire and watched over by armed officers in guard towers. There was no due process, no risk assessment, no effort to assess who might actually pose a threat and who just happened to look like “the enemy.” Instead, tens of thousands of men, women and children were subject to “removal” because, as one government report put it, “an exact separation of the ‘sheep from the goats’ was unfeasible.”

My mother’s family was among the 120,000 people of Japanese descent on the West Coast who were dispatched to internment camps during World War II. The faded photo of my mother, my aunt and my grandparents, standing in front of the Topaz Relocation Center barracks, where they were incarcerated in the Utah desert in 1942, used to feel like an artifact from a thankfully distant era — an illustration from a history lesson about what a former first lady, Laura Bush, last month called “one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”

The author’s mother, right, her grandparents and her aunt in front of the Topaz Relocation Center barracks in the Utah desert, where they were incarcerated during World War II.CreditCourtesy of University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library

And yet today in America under President Trump, the news is filled with pictures and stories of families and children being held in detention centers, and reports that the Pentagon is preparing to house as many as 20,000 “unaccompanied alien children” on American military bases.

History is repeating itself. This time without even the pretext of war, and with added heartbreaking cruelty. Under Mr. Trump’s “zero tolerance” border enforcement policy, nearly 3,000 children were separated from their parents, and while the administration later halted these separations, it neglected to keep proper records and is now struggling to find and reunite families.

Once again, national safety is invoked to justify the roundup of whole groups of people. Once again, racist stereotypes are being used by politicians to ramp up fear and hatred. And once again, lies are being used to justify actions that violate the most fundamental American ideals of freedom, equality and tolerance.

My mother and her sister were young women — not frightened and helpless children being separated from their parents, as on the border today — and they and my grandparents were allowed to remain together as a family. Even so, their “evacuation” from the house where they’d lived for 15 years split their lives into a before and after.

Before, they lived what my mother called a “regular life” in Berkeley, Calif. — in a three-bedroom stucco bungalow with a front porch, where my grandfather used to hang an American flag on holidays. My grandmother cooked rice instead of potatoes, wrote poems in Japanese and tried, without much success, to teach her daughters the language. The girls learned that being Japanese made them less than welcome by some neighbors. My aunt recalled cautiously asking questions like: “Can we come swim in the pool? We’re Japanese.”

But they longed to fit in. They were American citizens, and they thought of themselves as just as American as their classmates. They took piano lessons, went to Sunday school every Sunday and grew up reading National Geographic and Life magazine, which would later do a feature on one of the concentration camps designed to house “potential enemies of the United States.”

For a visit to the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, my grandmother sewed the girls white pongee dresses with red and blue belts, and matching red and blue capelets.

When the family first heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 on the radio, they dismissed it as the work of a few fanatics. But that evening, several F.B.I. men came to their house and took my grandfather away. He and dozens of other Japanese-American businessmen and community leaders in the Bay Area had been deemed “enemy aliens,” and he was sent to an Army internment camp in Montana.

In the following weeks and months, the fearmongering grew, and officials increasingly took to using racist epithets. “A Jap is a Jap,” said Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, the commander of the Western Command and the Fourth Army, in February 1942. “The Japanese race is an enemy race.” Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy shrugged off questions about the legality of the situation, writing “the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.”

After President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, which authorized the forced removal of residents of Japanese descent from the Pacific Coast, an 8 p.m. curfew was imposed on Japanese residents there and they were ordered to turn over all “contraband,” including firearms, cameras, radios and binoculars. My mother handed over her Brownie camera to the local police. In April, the family was designated Family No. 13453 and given 10 days to pack up and vacate the house where they had lived for a decade and a half.

They were allowed to take only what they could carry. Everything else had to be sold, thrown out, given to friends or put in storage — including the piano and the rest of the furniture, books, records, paintings, rugs, linens, plates and glasses, silverware, family letters, photographs and old Christmas cards, and all the knickknacks and bits of yarn and fabric that my grandmother, a devout hoarder, had saved during her more than 25 years in America. The three of them (my grandfather was still in the internment camp in Montana) practiced trying to walk with the two suitcases they were each allowed to take. They had to give away their collie, Laddie, who, my mother later learned, died weeks after they left him.


The Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, Calif., an old racetrack whose stalls were turned into temporary barracks for interned Japanese-Americans like the author’s mother.CreditDorothea Lange/War Relocation Authority

Name tags — which my mother remembered as the sort that came with a string to tie on your suitcase — were safety-pinned to their jackets. And at a nearby church, they boarded buses that delivered them to Tanforan, south of San Francisco — stables at a local racetrack, where Seabiscuit got his start, which had been converted into temporary barracks for some 7,800 Japanese-Americans, while more permanent “relocation centers” further inland were hastily prepared by the government.

My mother’s family took up residence in Barrack 16. Their living space, Apartment 40 as it was called, was a horse stall, 10 feet by 20 feet, furnished with Army cots and still smelling of horse manure, when they arrived in their best traveling clothes — my grandmother wearing the good coat she usually wore to church, and a hat and gloves. Five months later, they were transported by train to the Utah desert, to a concentration camp called Topaz.

The removal of people of Japanese descent from their homes and their incarceration in camps were executed with the same sort of political calculus of fear and bigotry that Mr. Trump is using to redefine American immigration policy. Laura Bush wrote that she was reminded of the World War II-era internment of Japanese-Americans by the images today of migrant children being sent to mass detention facilities as a result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on the southern border.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the Supreme Court pointed out “stark parallels” between the court’s ruling last month to uphold Mr. Trump’s ban on travel from several mainly Muslim countries and the court’s 1944 Korematsu ruling, which upheld the internment of Japanese-Americans. Both effectively sanctioned “a discriminatory policy motivated by animosity toward a disfavored group, all in the name of a superficial claim of national security,” Justice Sotomayor wrote.

Bigotry and conspiracy thinking lay behind the internment of Japanese-Americans and the 1944 Supreme Court decision on Korematsu, as Richard Reeves reminded us in his important 2015 book “Infamy.” In the wake of Pearl Harbor, there were newspaper editorials with headlines like “Crime and Poverty Go Hand in Hand With Asiatic Labor.” Representative John Rankin, Democrat of Mississippi, declared, “I say it is of vital importance that we get rid of every Japanese, whether in Hawaii or the mainland.” Never mind that thousands of Japanese-Americans served in the United States Army’s highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team — including my mother’s cousin, Mitsuo Nitta, who served with that team in Italy while his family was incarcerated in a camp in Arizona.


Orders posted in San Francisco in 1942 for the removal of persons of Japanese ancestry there.CreditDorothea Lange/War Relocation Authority

The lack of evidence of a fifth column of Japanese-American collaborators was cited by the journalist Walter Lippmann not as a sign that there was nothing to be feared but as “a sign that the blow is well organized and that it is held back until it can be struck with maximum effect.”

Decades after the end of the war, an acting solicitor general, Neal Katyal, issued a “confession of error” for the government lawyers in the Korematsu case, noting that they had distorted and withheld evidence from the Supreme Court, including reports from the Office of Naval Intelligence and the F.B.I. that discredited allegations used to justify internment.

A 1982 report by a congressional commission had concluded that Executive Order 9066 “was not justified by military necessity” and that the decisions to intern Japanese-Americans were animated by “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

President Trump’s calls for a “Muslim ban” and his “zero tolerance” border policy are similarly based on lies and racist stereotypes. During World War II, Japanese-Americans were described as animals. Satirical “Japanese Hunting Licenses” were printed (“this animal has the characteristics of a skunk in appearance and odor”), and the governor of Idaho, Chase Clark, said, “The Japs live like rats, breed like rats and act like rats.”

Today, Mr. Trump has branded some undocumented immigrants as “animals” and described them as “murderers and thieves” who want to “infest our country.” In tweeting about so-called sanctuary cities, he used the word “breeding” to refer to immigrants. He also dishonestly laments the “death and destruction caused by people that shouldn’t be here,” when in fact, studies show that immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes than American-born citizens.

President Trump not only lies with astonishing temerity and abandon, but those lies connect into equally false narratives that gin up the worst fears and prejudices of his base. For instance, there is no border crisis: In the last fiscal year, arrests of unauthorized immigrants had actually declined to levels not seen since the early 1970s. Similarly, there has been no eruption of the “American carnage” Mr. Trump described in his Inaugural Address. Although Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign depicted the country as beset by alarming violence, the crime rate that year was near a historic low — less than half what it was in 1991.

The shamelessness and volume of Mr. Trump’s lies — The Washington Post calculated last month that he was averaging more than 6.5 false or misleading claims a day — are flooding the country in misinformation, and his lies are endlessly repeated and amplified by the right-wing media machine. We have reached the point where more than a third of the country either buys into Mr. Trump’s falsehoods or casually shrugs them off, putting loyalty to him or the Republican Party over facts, common sense and the Constitution.


Under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, some families and children are held in detention centers like this one near the Mexican border in Tornillo, Tex.CreditMike Blake/Reuters

With his mendacity and increasingly virulent attacks on immigrants, Muslims, women, the press, the judiciary, the intelligence services, the F.B.I. — any group or institution that he finds threatening or useful as a scapegoat — Mr. Trump is attempting the Orwellian trick of redefining American reality on his own terms. This assault on truth has the gravest consequences for our democracy. When lying is normalized, the sort of cynicism found in autocracies like Vladimir Putin’s Russia takes hold — people begin to assume that all politicians lie, that all knowledge is relative, that there is no point in voting or protest. Without truth, informed public discourse is hobbled and politicians cannot be held accountable.

At the same time, all the lies and race-baiting are having immediate and devastating consequences for the migrants and asylum seekers being taken into custody at the southern border today — families have been torn apart, often with little hope of being reunited, and others face indefinite detention.


Newly arrived detainees at the Tanforan Assembly Center in 1942.CreditDorothea Lange/War Relocation Authority

Decades ago, the United States government’s lie that Japanese-Americans on the West Coast posed a national security threat led to 120,000 individuals (more than two-thirds of whom were citizens) being uprooted from their homes and sent to internment camps. And their removal was presented, in propaganda films, as an act of benevolence on the part of the American government toward potential saboteurs, whose real loyalties lay with Tokyo. In footage from one newsreel, the voice-over describes Japanese-Americans being sent not to concentration camps but to “pioneer communities” in the desert.

“Here in the land of Buffalo Bill,” a narrator says, “the government is erecting model camp towns — towns in which they’ll live unmolested not as prisoners but free to work and paid by the United States government.”

“Bathtubs — yes, all the comforts of home,” the narrator continues. “The Japanese in America are finding Uncle Sam a loyal master despite the war.”

At the Topaz Relocation Camp, high on a desert plateau in southwest Utah that was plagued by dust storms and mosquitoes, my mother and aunt worked as preschool and elementary-school teachers for $19 a month. They and their parents lived in another one-room “apartment” furnished with four cots. Other furniture — chairs, a table, shelves — had to be constructed from scrap lumber.


An internment camp called the Topaz Relocation Camp, which sat high on a desert plateau in southwest Utah.CreditCourtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

To pass the time, residents, as they were called, would go out in the desert to look for arrowheads, trilobites and little amber topaz crystals. One elderly rock hunter, my mother recalled, wandered too close to the barbed wire fence. He was shot dead by a guard who claimed that the man had been trying to escape.

For birthdays and special occasions, my mother and aunt would hunt through old newspapers and magazines for photographs of food and presents they would have liked to have given each other and their parents back home in the “outside world” — a cake, a pie, a tea set, a vase of lilacs, an Easter ham.

After the war, my grandparents eventually returned to Berkeley. My grandmother’s health had suffered from the high altitude and dust and spartan living conditions in Topaz. My grandfather, who had been an assistant manager in the San Francisco office of a Japanese import-export firm, had difficulty finding employment after the war. He was fired from a factory job that involved painting flowers on glassware, my aunt remembered, and ended up working at a friend’s dry-cleaning business.

My mother disliked talking about her wartime experiences. She did not suffer the sort of radical fear and dislocation that the young migrant children, separated from their parents today, are experiencing. But her internment at Tanforan and Topaz left her with a lasting sense of the precariousness of life — the apprehension that unexpected perils could befall one at any moment.

My aunt, Yoshiko Uchida, became an award-winning writer of children’s books, including several about the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war. She wanted to bear witness to what happened, she wrote, “with the hope that through knowledge of the past,” our nation “will never allow another group of people in America to be sent into a desert exile ever again.”

Michiko Kakutani (@michikokakutani), the former chief book critic for The New York Times, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump.”