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WWII Reparations: Japanese American Internees

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The Justice Department closed the books this week on a $1.6 billion reparations program for ethnic Japanese interned in American camps during World War II, and will settle with 181 ethnic Japanese from Latin America who suffered similar treatment.

The redress program made $20,000 payments to 82,210 Japanese Americans or their heirs, department officials said yesterday. Under a federal court settlement approved last month, the balance of the fund was left over to make $5,000 payments to Latin American Japanese.

Tomorrow marks the 57th anniversary of the signing of an executive order by President Franklin Roosevelt authorizing the establishment of the internment camps.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacific Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

This week, the Justice Department closed the books on a $1.6 billion reparation program for ethnic Japanese interned in U.S. camps during World War II. It will now settle with 181 ethnic Japanese from Latin America who suffered similar treatment. According to the Justice Department, the redress program made $20,000 payments to more than 82,000 Japanese Americans or their heirs. Tomorrow is also the 57th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the establishment of the Japanese internment camps here in the United States.

And to mark this week, we are joined now by Marnie Mueller, who has just published a political novel called The Climate of the Country, and it is a book about the Japanese internment camps here. Marnie Mueller was actually the first Caucasian born in Tule Lake Japanese American segregation camp in Northern California, where her father, a pacifist, and her mother, a teacher, were working.

So, Marnie Mueller, is this novel autobiographical?

MARNIE MUELLER: Yes, I would say it’s autobiographical. It’s told from the point of view of two Caucasians, a man and a woman, who are based on my parents. But what happens in fiction is that the story sort of dictates what happens to the characters, and the characters dictate what happens to the story. So, it actually veers off quite a bit from who my parents really were. But it is — it’s loosely based on their experiences in the camp.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s a powerful book about a very shameful time in American history. Can you talk about how the main characters, Denton and Esther, came to be at this camp? And who were the Japanese Americans who were interned there?

MARNIE MUELLER: Well, Denton and Esther basically were young radicals on the West Coast who had worked in the WPA in the Farm Security Administration, as my parents did. And when the war broke out, Denton actually declares himself to be a conscientious objector. He’s not called up yet, so he still has a choice of where he’s going to — what he’s going to do with his life. And because the Japanese Americans are interned in the camps, and he feels that this is an egregious injustice that’s done to them and feels that it’s a horrible experience that he hopes he can make less horrible by going there to work, so he goes to work. And he’s a man who knows how to set up cooperative stores. This is his — that was sort of a young radical movement in the '30s and ’40s. And then he gets a job at the camp, and he goes to work at the camp and sets up a camp-wide, democratically, you know, consumer participatory organization, actually, behind prison walls, behind barbed wire. And that, of course, is the irony. And that's sort of the basis of the story, is how he works to resolve that, that contradiction, I would say.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us about the Japanese Americans that are at this camp.

MARNIE MUELLER: At this particular camp? Well, first of all, they’re, you know, across the board, all kinds of Japanese Americans. There are Japanese who are Issei, who are, you know, first generation, who immigrated to the United States. Then there are the Nisei, who are the second generation, who are American citizens. And there are Kibei, who are actually Nisei who were educated in Japan. They were sent back to Japan to be educated and then came back here, And everyone was incarcerated in these camps — women, children, young men, old men.

What happened was, after they’d been incarcerated for about a year, the government decided to recruit men out of the camp to fight in the war. And in order to do that, the government felt they had to show that they were loyal. I think they had to show the American population that they were not taking traitors out of the camps. So they instituted a loyalty questionnaire for people to sign to prove their loyalty.

And there were two questions that were extremely important on that loyalty questionnaire. One was asking people to swear allegiance to the United States of America, and the other was asking them to foreswear allegiance to the emperor and to Japan. And what that meant was that the Issei, the first generation, who were not allowed to be American citizens in the — the United States didn’t allow them to be — it meant that they would be a people without a country. And so they answered no to both of those questions. And what happened was their children, who were citizens of the United States, many of them felt that they would be separated from their parents if they answered differently than their parents, so many of them answered no. And then there were many, such as the Kibei, who were more aligned with Japan, who answered no just out of rage that this should be done to them and to their parents.

And then what happened was that the government decided they could not keep these people within the general population of the camps, so they segregated them.

AMY GOODMAN: The people who were called the “no-nos.”

MARNIE MUELLER: The people who were called the “no-nos,” because they had said no to both of those loyalty questions. And so they moved them to Tule Lake and made that into a high-security camp. Now, what happened was, they moved a lot of people, the, quote, “loyal” people, out of Tule Lake, but many of the people did not want to leave there, because that was now — they didn’t want to be moved again. And so, a great deal of friction grew up between these two groups within Tule Lake and led to violence. It’s what’s to be expected. You know, when people are oppressed to a certain point, violence erupts. And that’s what — that’s the moment that the book starts.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe that? Because it’s also a time of a major clampdown in the camp.

MARNIE MUELLER: Yes. There’s a moment when there’s an insurrection in the camp, which is November 4th. It’s a very famous night in the camp. And it really wasn’t even that violent or anything. But the person who was the project director at that point really wanted to lean on the people who were giving him trouble. And what he did at that point was call the Army in. And the Army then took over the camp.

AMY GOODMAN: And this was November 4th, nineteen?

MARNIE MUELLER: In 1943. I mean, people had been in the camp for quite a while by then, about a year and a half, actually.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did it mean for the military to move in?

MARNIE MUELLER: It was pretty devastating for everyone. It was devastating for people who had tried to make a decent life within the camp, who had had these democratic organizations that they were working within. And it was used then by the more militant people in the camp as a sort of a rallying point. So, it just kept heightening the problems. And nobody’s really at fault. I mean, I would say the project director was at fault for calling in the Army. But within the population, when people began to turn against each other, nobody was really at fault. But that’s what happens. I mean, we know that very well ourselves, in our own country, in our own life now. I would say I think of that as another country. That’s so interesting. It isn’t. It’s America. But that’s so often what happens. And that’s what it meant. It meant to people — it was just devastating to people. People turned against each other. People ratted on each other. And it was very, very bad. And people lived with that shame for 50 years. It’s a terrible thing.

AMY GOODMAN: In the news earlier this week was the story of people being compensated by the U.S. government. What was that about?

MARNIE MUELLER: This is — I think it started about 10 years ago. There were a group of people who spearheaded this movement. And there’s one man, William Hori, who’s actually a man I correspond with, who really pushed this issue to get the government to pay reclamations to Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated in the camps, who had been uprooted from their homes, sometimes at 24 hours’ notice, and left all their belongings and lost everything. And it finally happened. And ironically, it happened with Reagan-Bush. And it was determined that they would be paid $20,000 for this uprooting and for the incarceration, which, you know, doesn’t even begin to cover.

AMY GOODMAN: For each individual?

MARNIE MUELLER: For each individual, or for children, the people who had been in the camp who had since died, you know, direct descendants. And they gradually paid them out. And they just stopped paying them. And it said in the paper that 87,000 people have been paid. I think that was the figure. I’m not sure. But so, that — you know, 120,000 people were incarcerated. But at least 87,000 have been paid.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Marnie Mueller. She’s the author of a new book, The Climate of the Country, which is about the Japanese American internment camps in World War II, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. You have a character in your book named Nibo Mota. Tell us a little about him.

MARNIE MUELLER: Nibo Mota is a Kibei. He has the — I described him before. He had been sent back to Japan to be educated. And he’s, on one hand, a very valiant character. He believes very strongly that it was a racist internment. He gradually comes to that after the loyalty oaths. He was quite cooperative until that point, that turning point, when the loyalty oaths were instituted. And he had great leadership qualities. He has great leadership qualities, and he then began to use the leadership qualities as — in a more militant mode. And he, you know, stands up against the more moderate people within the camp. And he starts a movement within the camp to put pressure on the administration. And he gathers people around him.

And, you know, there’s — it’s what happens often with a radical movement, that it begins to turn in upon itself and sometimes hurts more people along the way. And that’s really what I try to show, that that can happen. Although people often ask me about that character. And I love that character. I mean, there’s a great deal of me in that character. But I also know what happens when the balance gets tipped over. And it’s sort of a cautionary tale, in a way, or at least to make people — that’s a question that I’m constantly asking in the book, whether — you know, it’s violence versus pacifism or versus negotiation. It’s not a question that I really, even by the end of the book, have an answer to. But sadness comes out. Bad things come out of his movement, but not even so much because of him, but also because of the pressure that’s put on by the administration and by the Army being in there.

AMY GOODMAN: How did these camps ultimately get disbanded?

MARNIE MUELLER: Well, they gradually were getting disbanded not long after they even were set up. Many young students got to get out to go to college, or if someone could find a job on the outside. I found lots of my father’s memos and letters and things. And in those letters, I found him writing letters, very passionate letters, about racism and everything, to people outside of the camp, trying to get jobs for the people in the camp, to get them out. So a number of people got out that way, gradually, over time. And then, little by little, they did disband the camps. Tule Lake was the last camp to be disbanded. But the others, I mean, they began to really be disbanded ’44, ’45, and then, finally, ’46, everybody was out.

But what happened was, people — many of the older people, the Issei, were terrified then to leave the camps, because of the racism on the outside, because of the racism that they had experienced being put into the camps. So, sometimes it was a little hard to move people out. And understandably, that were very frightened. And then there was the question of where would you move. Would you move back to the West Coast? And for quite a while, you couldn’t really — you couldn’t move back to the West Coast, because the order of exclusion had not been rescinded. So that meant going to Chicago or someplace, which is a completely new place, and particularly for farming people. And it was — you know, it was very, very complicated. So there was yet another relocation of people after the camps were disbanded.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you do the research for your novel?

MARNIE MUELLER: Well, I talked to my father. I interviewed him before he died, and got lots of stuff from him. I interviewed actually some Japanese American people that he had worked with in the camps. And then I read a lot. I just read — you know, there are lots of nonfiction books. So I sort of — I didn’t read fiction books, because I didn’t want to, you know, steal from the fiction books for my novel. And in one day when I was reading one of the fiction books, there was a voice of a Nisei giving an answer that was not a usual answer within the camps.

AMY GOODMAN: This is one of the nonfiction books, when you —

MARNIE MUELLER: Yes, it’s one of the nonfiction books. And he was giving an answer that was very angry, and that was not usually what happened contemporaneously. The anger was not expressed to a staff member. And I looked at the footnote, and it said, you know, this blah-blah-blah was speaking to Don Elberson. And Don Elberson was my father. And I thought, “Mmmh.”

So I called the author, and he said, “Yes, Don Elberson shows up in all of my research.” And he sent me to the National Archives and to Bancroft Library. And in the National Archives, they rolled out 18 boxes of my father’s papers, which was very powerful. And then, when I got to Bancroft, I found the best stuff. I had heard that there were diaries written by Nisei intellectuals in the camps that covered everything, personal material, political material. And I asked for those diaries, and they brought them out, and there were huge stacks. And I thought, “Where am I going to start?” And I just sort of opened at random, and about two pages later, an Nisei informant was saying, “Don Elberson is the one Caucasian in the camp that we can trust.”

And from there, it was third-person narrative by this Nisei intellectual, and he would go into meetings, and then he would do the dialogue from the meetings, and there would be my father. And he sounded exactly like my father. And then they would go to dinner at my parents’ house and say what my mother was cooking. She had cooked him chicken and cherry pie or something like that. And then one guy actually even came in when I was being potty-trained, and described that. And it’s just — it’s marvelous. I mean, you’re sitting there in a room of scholars, reading about yourself being potty-trained. But, no, I make light of it, but it was very, very, very powerful.

And the only problem for me was that the character of Denton that I had developed was a pretty dark, conflicted, angry character. And I had done that purposely, because I adored my father. And I thought, “I cannot tell the story of, you know, like, this goody-goody,” you know? So I was pretty proud that I had created this character. And then I go in there, and he’s the goody-goody, you know, in the documentation. So, that actually threw me off for a long time. I mean, it was very hard then to feel I wasn’t betraying his legacy and everything. And finally, I just said, “Look at, I’m writing this book, and I have a right to write it in the way I write it.”

AMY GOODMAN: Did he ever get to read it?

MARNIE MUELLER: No. He didn’t even know that this stuff was in Bancroft. He had no idea. He died long before I found the National Archives or the Bancroft stuff. So he had no idea. My mother knew that I had found the National Archives stuff, but she died before I found the — I found the Bancroft. So it’s sad.

AMY GOODMAN: And Bancroft is?

MARNIE MUELLER: It’s the Bancroft — it’s the real oral history library. It’s a fabulous library at Berkeley. It’s at the university, at Berkeley.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any direct recollection of this time? Are you just too young?

MARNIE MUELLER: I believe I have emotional memory, because I don’t — it’s all preverbal memory. But that’s — I look at 2-year-olds. You know, they really suck stuff in, you know? Because what happened was, when I first began to do research on this, it must have been 10 or 15 years ago, and I opened Michi Weglyn’s book, which was almost the only book at that point that was written. It’s Years of Infamy. It’s sort of the seminal book still on the camps. And there was a picture of Tule Lake, and I just burst out crying. And I think — and as I read about it, and read about the riot, because I know that I had really — something had happened to me during that period, on November 4th. And I think I must have really read — I must have remembered it emotionally.

AMY GOODMAN: Marnie Mueller has been our guest. She’s the author of The Climate of the Country, a political novel about the Japanese American segregation camps, internment camps, of World War II. You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! And that brings us to the end of our show. If you’d like to order a cassette copy, you can call 1-800-735-0230. That’s 1-800-735-0230. Democracy Now! is produced by María Carrión. Our technical director is Errol Maitland. Special thanks today to Robert Knight. From the studios of WBAI in New York, I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for listening to another edition of Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!

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