THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Queer non-Nikkei figures in Japanese American history (part II)

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of an ongoing series.

Monika Kehoe’s experience with Japanese Americans served as a foundation for her later career, which involved working as an administrator and teaching English to diverse international populations (a point that will be discussed in depth later on). As she noted in the introduction to her book, “Applied Linguistics” (1968), the War Relocation Authority’s establishment of adult education programs in the concentration camps, with a language teaching module, represented the first occasion in which the U.S. government offered substantial aid to programs in Teaching English as a Second Language. The WRA’s program would serve as a model for the Defense Department in English-training programs during the postwar occupations, which in turn informed the efforts of the U.S. Information Service and Agency for International Development to set up ESL programs in developing areas.

Meanwhile, in the months after leaving Gila River, Ariz. in February of 1944, Monika Kehoe published a set of articles in diverse publications about her experience directing educational programs in the concentration camp — articles that prefigured her later professional writings on TESOL issues. There is a marked difference in tone between them, one that reflects both the target audience and the circumstances of their creation. She most probably undertook the first two articles while still in the camp, as they appeared in print a few weeks after her departure (indeed, in the first one, she was identified as still in the WRA’s employ). Though they reveal the author’s genuine sympathy for Nikkei, both reflect the official position of the WRA, portrayed the federal government as their protector. In contrast, the last article, which appeared some months later, is more blunt about the injustice the inmates suffered.

Monika Kehoe’s first article appeared in Common Ground, the quarterly magazine of the progressive pro-immigrant group Common Council for American Unity. Common Ground editor M. Margaret Anderson published several articles from Japanese Americans during 1943, including Larry Tajiri’s notable essay “Farewell to Little Tokyo,” and also hired inmate journalist Eddie Shimano as associate editor so that he could resettle from camp. A strong advocate of the closing of camps and the liberation of the inmates (she entitled her lead editorial, “Get the Evacuees Out!”) she sought to lobby liberal opinion to support resettlement by allying herself with the WRA and presenting Japanese Americans as Americanized and patriotic.

It is not clear how or why Anderson commissioned Monika Kehoe to contribute to Common Ground. Since the WRA’s Robert Frase submitted an essay on resettlement (for which he was obliged to decline payment as an active government official), it may be that there was a general call for contributions by WRA administrators. Even in such a case, it is interesting that Kehoe volunteered or was selected. She had no real track record as an author (apart from a squib in the journal “School and Society” in 1938, she does not seem to have produced any professional writings in the prewar years). Anderson must have been pleased with Kehoe’s approach, because a few years later she published a second essay by Kehoe in Common Ground, on her experiences in occupied South Korea.

In any event, the article, entitled “Education for Resettlement,” appeared in the Spring 1944 issue. It described the Issei’s astounding interest in taking night school courses. Why, Kehoe asked rhetorically, did middle-aged immigrant women work so hard to study English? The answers, she reported, were most often personal — for example, Mrs. Yamamoto, with a son in the army, wanted to be able to read his letters home. At the same time, Issei men enrolled in large numbers in vocational education courses. Knowing that they might not be able to return to their prewar farms on the West Coast, they were resolved to retrain themselves in order to find work and fit in outside of the concentration camps. Kehoe’s article followed the WRA’s official line that Japanese Americans needed to “Americanize” themselves to avoid a repeat of the mass incarceration, and that resettlement offered them a special opportunity to assimilate. The primary goal of adult education at Gila River, Kehoe concluded, was “to help further Americanize the remaining adult population of the center and fit them to take their place in normal democratic communities.”
Shortly afterward, Kehoe published a second article in “Adult Education,” the professional organ of the American Association for Adult Education. As can be deduced from its title, “Japanese Become Americans,” it was even more centered on the Issei’s efforts to remake themselves for life outside camp, when they could no longer count on an ethnic community to fall back on. “With relocation facing them, they must now, in middle age, acquire the language and the manners of a new culture.…Realizing this, they are doing their best to fit themselves for the dread adventure.” Andrew Wertheimer, in his excellent Ph.D. thesis on WRA camp libraries, describes Kehoe’s “Adult Education” article as patronizing and misinformed. Wertheimer scores Kehoe in particular for describing the poor eyesight of Japanese immigrants as “traditional to their race,” rather than ascribing it to years of overwork. While Kehoe, to be fair, mentions the matter of eyesight in passing, as part of a plea for better inmate eye care and provision of audiovisual aids, Kehoe certainly does not seem to find the Japanese culture and customs of the Issei to be worth defending.

Kehoe adopted a very different tone in her article “Issei and Nisei” published in December 1944 in the progressive Quaker journal “Friends Intelligencer.” Here, she began by asking what a 15-year-old boy in a civics class in camp must think when his white teacher discusses “the democratic way of life.” She went on to describe the unfair burden on Issei leaving camp, who were viewed with wariness as “parolees” — parolees for a crime that none had committed. The author again noted the exceptional effort of the Issei to learn English and prepare themselves for life outside, and concluded by urging the necessity of speedy resettlement and pleading for community tolerance and special assistance toward former inmates to help them re-establish themselves. Kehoe’s article was excerpted, with approving commentary, in the Gila River inmate journal “Gila News-Courier.”

How do we explain the marked difference in tone between Monika Kehoe’s first two articles, with their sometimes condescending attitude, and her piece in “Friends Intelligencer?” One clue lies in an oral history she did late in life. There she claimed that she was outraged over mass incarceration all the time she worked in camp, but made it clear that she did not feel that she could risk her job by protesting. It is thus reasonable to assume that, even though the camps were still open when she wrote her article, she was not facing the self-censorship imposed by the WRA. Once she was well and truly out of the camp orbit she could let loose. If this is the case, she must have welcomed the chance to vent her unexpressed thoughts about the plight of Japanese Americans under official confinement.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca

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