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WRA-JACL Perspective

In a periodical article, entitled "The Manzanar Riot: An Ethnic Perspective," Arthur A. Hansen and David A. Hacker, two historians who have conducted considerable research on the topic, analyze the historical perspectives from which the violence in the camp has been interpreted. Until 1974, most accounts of the events at Manzanar on December 5-6, 1942, according to Hansen and Hacker, have been filtered through what might be labeled the "WRA-JACL" perspective. The appellation is appropriate because nearly all of the original documentation on the violence was prepared by WRA personnel or evacuees with JACL connections and because secondary compilers have virtually without exception simply buttressed this official version. This perspective has resulted in uniform meanings being drawn from disparate information.

The WRA-JACL perspective, according to Hansen and Hacker, has three principal features. First, as a general rule, the primary sources refer to the violence on December 5-6 as an "incident," thus scaling down the event to commonplace proportions, while the secondary works term it a "riot," thus inflating its significance to "melodramatic" levels. Second, this perspective has tended to view the "riot" episodically, thus militating against sustained, in-depth analyses of causation, causing it to be misconstrued as a denouement rather than as one development along a continuum of evacuee resistance, and reducing the riot to a purely local phenomenon instead of being related to a pattern of resistance activity within all the relocation centers. Third, this perspective has viewed the riot as a microcosm of World War II, dramatizing the riot as an ideological confrontation between pro-American and pro-Japanese factions, confusing the aggressively patriotic posture of the JACL — a small minority — with that of the Nisei as a whole, and displaying an incapacity to understand ethnic identity in terms other than subversive. [85]

Ethnic Perspective

In contrast to the WRA-JACL historical perspective on the violence at Manzanar, Hansen and Hacker posit an "ethnic" perspective. Whereas the WRA-JACL perspective interprets the riot in terms of its ideological meaning within American society, the ethnic one focuses upon the riot's cultural meaning within the Japanese American community, with particular reference to Manzanar's evacuee population. Although the two authors indicate that their "new" perspective toward the Manzanar Riot is new, they argue that it conforms closely to and draws sustenance from a number of general studies — mostly recent and unpublished — on evacuation. This perspective, according to the authors, promotes analysis and understanding rather than "ideological reification" as does that of the WRA-JACL. [86]

As a first step in this direction, Hansen and Hacker replaced the word "riot" with "revolt." According to them, terming the event the "Manzanar Revolt" forces "us to see it not as an uncaused and inconsequential aberration, but as one intense expression of a continuing resistance movement." This change also "credits the participants in the action with a greater degree of purposeful behavior." For "while a riot's members are momentarily conjoined because they do not like where they have been, those involved in a revolt have some sense of where they want to go." "Overall" this "redefinition of the collective manifestation encourages us to view it in relation to social change within a larger structural framework, thereby affording a more sociologically meaningful analysis." "Instead of dismissing the 'riot' as an isolated, spontaneous, and unstructured phenomenon," the causes of the riot could be found in the Japanese American social system. Because the "ethnic" perspective viewed the "revolt" as an "expressive moment within a process of cultural development," it looks "backward to the prewar West Coast Japanese American community in search of explanatory antecedents for the revolt." At the same time, it also looks "beyond the revolt to ascertain its connection to subsequent subcultural evolution."

According to Hansen and Hacker, the prewar West Coast Japanese American community was dominated by Issei who hung on tenaciously to Japanese traditional cultural values. From the time of their arrival in the United States at the end of the 19th century, the Issei had experienced a series of attacks — both legal and extra-legal — which necessitated the development of self-sufficient "Little Tokyos." Each anti-Japanese attack forced the Issei to retreat further from American cultural values and to depend increasingly on their traditional Japanese culture. This, in turn, reinforced group solidarity. Thus, by the outbreak of World War II, the two most significant characteristics of the Issei-dominated Japanese American community were group solidarity and the predominance of elements of Japanese culture.

These characteristics prevailed less among the children of the Issei. During the 1930s, the Nisei generation matured and represented a potential challenge to the group's solidarity as well as its cultural orientation. As citizens growing up in America, Nisei came into greater contact with American society and consequently underwent increased Americanization, thus serving to widen the social distance between Issei and Nisei.

On the other hand, the Nisei, according to Hansen and Hacker, were not as thoroughly Americanized as some observers have stated, for countervailing forces, such as parental influence and social and economic discriminatory practices in the larger American society, were diminishing the social distance and returning the Nisei to the Japanese American community. In addition, many Kibei were non-assimilationists, thus contributing to group solidarity. While the JACL elements penetrated American society through social, economic, and political activities, they, like other Nisei, were generally young, uninfluential, and almost wholly dependent upon the Issei-dominated Japanese community for their economic livelihood. The events of December 6, 1942, at Manzanar, according to Hansen and Hacker, "must not be seen in isolation or ascribed solely to ideological motivations." When "viewed within the ethnic (i.e., community) perspective, all of the occurrences of that day — the massive crowds, the membership of the Committee of Five, the composition of the death-lists and blacklists, the demands for the dismissal of specified members of the appointed staff, and the character of the internees' evening demonstration at the jail — assume a definite cultural logic." They observe that "the mounting discontent of the internee population, which heretofore found sporadic expression through grumbling about camp conditions, work slowdowns, strikes against war-related industries and profit-oriented camp enterprises, and pervasive gang activity and 'inu' beatings, became crystallized into concerted resistance action through the symbolic juxtaposition of Harry Ueno and Fred Tayama." To buttress this interpretation, the historians quoted a "perceptive" analysis of the situation provided by Morton Grodzins:

The situation was made to order for a popular anti-administration demonstration. The issue cut through political and cultural lines. The question could be put as one involving administrative integrity and fairness to the evacuees. Loyalty to America had nothing to do with it. . . . The demonstrations that followed, though in part engineered by the genuine pro-Japanese elements in the camp, were not pro-Japanese demonstrations. Rather, they were simply demonstrations against an administrative policy that according to the trend of thought in the camp, jailed on flimsy evidence one of the community's benefactors.

Thus, Hansen and Hacker concluded that the events surrounding the Manzanar Revolt "were but a logical culmination of developments originating with the administration's decision to bypass the community's natural Issei leadership to deal with its own artificially erected JACL hierarchy and to embark on a program of Americanization at the expense of Japanese ethnicity." When the WRA removed the JACLers from the camp after the revolt, the "Issei took a step toward restoring the dominance they had enjoyed before the evacuation, and the entire community served notice that their self-determination and ethnic identity would not be relinquished without a struggle." "Through the operation of continuing resistance activity, Manzanar would eventually be transformed into a Little Tokyo of the desert where, as in prewar days, the most salient community characteristics were group solidarity and the predominance of elements of Japanese culture." This transformation would be symbolized by the "Peace of Manzanar." [87]

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Last Updated: 01-Jan-2002