Recently, I published a biographical article on the writer Bradford Smith, but only briefly mentioned his notable 1948 book “Americans from Japan.”

Published only two years after the closing of the War Relocation Authority camps, it provides a readable account of Japanese immigration and settlement, leading up to the World War II confinement experience and the exploits of the Nisei soldiers. The book represented the first history of the Nikkei for a general American audience, as well as a rare synthetic narrative that covered the experience of the communities in Hawai‘i as well as the U.S. mainland. What is especially intriguing to examine today is the book’s initial reception in the mainstream press.

Smith was a writer and professor of literature who lived for five years in Tokyo during the 1930s, and made a name for himself for novels and essays about Japan. In early 1942, following the outbreak of the Pacific War, he was recruited for work at the government’s wartime news agency, the Office of War Information. There he served at the “Japan desk” and organized anti-Tokyo propaganda. At OWI he worked with a team of progressive Japanese Americans, most notably the Issei feminist and peace activist Ayako Ishigaki (whose memoir “Restless Wave: My Life in Two Worlds” Smith had once reviewed positively in the New York Herald Tribune). Smith meanwhile corresponded at length with Pacific Citizen editor Larry Tajiri and with Yoshitaka Takagi, director of the New York-based anti-fascist group Japanese American Committee for Democracy.

In the process of engaging with Japanese communities, Smith grew interested in their history and their wartime plight. In December 1942, he attended the JACD’s Victory rally. In his speech, which was published in the Pacific Citizen in the following weeks, he proclaimed his sympathy for West Coast Japanese Americans. Even though he was speaking as a government official, and so could not criticize official policy, he telegraphed his outrage over their forced removal:

“The military reasons for the evacuation are best left to the authorities charged with the responsibility for the public defense and safety. The removal, with its attendant sacrifices and discomforts and spiritual anguish, has provoked earnest concern for the evacuees on the part of individuals and on the part of the government itself. No one should attempt to minimize the sacrifice which has been required of these hundred thousand people, two thirds of them American citizens.”

In March of 1944, Smith was stationed in Hawai‘i, where he directed the OWI’s Center of Pacific Operations. At some point he decided to pursue a full-time writing career once his OWI assignment was completed, rather than return to university teaching. Around this time, he was approached by writer/editor Louis Adamic, an immigrant who championed ethnic diversity, about contributing a volume on Japanese Americans to “Peoples of America,” a new book series Adamic had created.

After winning a Guggenheim Fellowship, Smith started work on his book, originally named “They Came from Japan.” He sponsored a contest with prizes for essays about local Japanese, with the idea of including them as raw material for his study. Smith left Hawai‘i at the end of the war, once the OWI ceased operations, but he returned in 1946, with the help of a second Guggenheim grant, to do research on postwar Nikkei life in the islands. He also visited Chicago (reporting separately on the community’s postwar readjustment there in a magazine article, “The Nisei Discover America,” that was reprinted in the popular magazine Reader’s Digest).

The final book, entitled “Americans from Japan,” was published in mid-1948. It was the third of Adamic’s series to see print. Adamic added a remarkable preface, entitled “On Tolerance,” in which he laid bare the hollowness and self-congratulation in Americans’ protestations of fair treatment of minorities. “Basically, tolerance is a thin veneer of intolerance… As practiced in the ethnically and religiously complex United States, tolerance is controlled, suppressed, covert intolerance.” Curiously, given the book’s subject, Adamic devoted only a brief passage to the question of Japanese Americans, which he expressed as a case study of the question of tolerance.

The fact that the predominantly loyal Japanese ‘minority’ was rounded up in illegal fashion, chiefly in response to pressure from a blatantly intolerant, grasping element on the Pacific Coast, may be less alarming from the point of view of a sound American future than is the fact that the rounding up was tolerated by millions of Americans, including all other racial and religious ‘minorities,’ who in their hearts and minds disapproved of it or at least were uneasy about it.

Deploring the lack of action by the majority. Adamic stated that unless Congress acted to compensate the victims of the government’s “unjust and unintelligent treatment,” the precedent of the Japanese Americans would highlight the danger of other minorities being rounded up and placed “behind barbed wire.”

In comparison to Adamic, author Bradford Smith maintained in his text a generally positive tone, focusing on the longer story of Japanese immigration, settlement by the Issei, and the rise of an Americanized Nisei generation. In a sense, Smith’s book told two parallel stories: part I centered on Hawai‘i and the lives of the “local Japanese,” with emphasis on the outstanding war record of the Nisei soldiers and the civilian population. The second half focused on the West Coast, and the perseverance shown by Japanese Americans in the face of discrimination. Here, too, Smith tended to accentuate the positive. He deplored the wartime removal as unjustifiable, but lauded its happy results: “That a redistribution of this tiny minority has brought better jobs, better adjustment, and more American lives to many does not excuse the attitude of the West Coast pressure groups which to a considerable extent engineered the evacuation. That the WRA did a humane job against constant criticism…and that the forces of goodwill and fair play won out over the forces of racism and evil intent is a good thing, though it still does not condone the evacuation.” Smith’s largely positive depiction of the WRA and of the strengths of resettlement would be challenged by scholarly critics of the book such as University of California, Los Angeles sociologist Leonard Bloom.

The mainstream response to “Americans from Japan” following its publication was enormous compared to the few nonfiction books about wartime Japanese Americans that had already appeared, most with academic presses. To be sure, works such as Carey McWilliams’ “Prejudice: Japanese-Americans: Symbol of Racial Intolerance” and Miné Okubo’s “Citizen 13660” had been reviewed in The New York Times. Yet such was the reputation of Smith and his publisher that dozens of small newspapers also commented on the book. In many cases they were outspoken in their horror over what Smith revealed about the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans. Pat Frank, writing in the Gazette and Daily (from York, Penn.), remarked, “I have just read a book which recalls an episode in our history that most right-thinking men will find distasteful. In the house of liberty, our treatment of Japanese-Americans in World War II is the skeleton in the closet. Our hysteria, and our temporary descent into racism almost comparable to that of the Nazis, is brilliantly and factually set forth by Bradford Smith…” “HG,” writing in Deseret News, also made the analogy to Nazism, and added, “You may squirm a little with inner shame as you read Smith’s book and wonder how in a democracy such viciousness…could be inflicted upon a people.” Ralph Peterson, writing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, lauded the work as “Thoughtful, concise and written with a good grasp of the materials.” Peterson deplored “the relocation of all West Coast Japanese in semiconcentration camps in the interior and the confiscation or resale at fantastically low prices of their properties and holdings.” Writing in the Charlotte News, critic “R.S.” commented that Smith’s history of the Japanese immigrants formed part of the history of all exploited minority groups, who were begged or forced to come to America, then turned into a slave class by the white Protestant Anglo Saxons who put on aristocratic airs. “If you have a clean conscience you will be violently angry at your fellow man for what he has done to this Japanese-American minority. If you are guilty of the same sort of prejudice and oppressive action as those who subjugate the AJAs you will be violently angry at Bradford Smith.”

One of the more thoughtful, if ambivalent, views of the work was expressed by Issei Christian activist Toru Matsumoto — perhaps the book’s only Nikkei reviewer outside the ethnic Japanese press — in the Christian Science Monitor. Matsumoto expressed his appreciation for the stories of individuals that Smith recounted: “Filled with episodes of the sweat and tears of real people, ‘Americans from Japan’ ranks first of all the books I have ever read on the Japanese in America.” Yet he expressed doubt over Smith’s choice to emphasize the loyalty of Japanese Americans as the book’s main theme: “Loyalty to a nation, however, is a limited quality, no matter how worthy that nation may be. There is danger, I believe, in overemphasizing it in people, whether individuals or groups.” Matsumoto quipped that Smith’s narrative, which ended with the validation of Nisei’s love of country, was like a romance novel that stops at the couple’s wedding — in fact, the real life that follows lies untold.

Despite the critical acclaim it received upon publication, “Americans From Japan,” soon sank from view. It has remained all but unacknowledged in works by later scholars of Japanese Americans — including my own. This is unfortunate, since Smith’s study not only represents a founding historical text, but a work of public scholarship that did much to raise the consciousness of white Americans regarding the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., 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. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

See the 2024 CAAMFest