Glenn Kumekawa was 14 years old when he and his family were given two weeks to leave their home in San Francisco. They ended up behind barbed wire at Camp Topaz in Utah, where they lived for three years. After his release, Kumekawa attended Bates College in Maine, where his classmates included a 16-year-old pre-law student named William Stringfellow, who later became a well-known theologian and author.
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Kumekawa is now director of the Intergovernmental Policy Analysis program and a professor emeritus at the University of Rhode Island. He is also president of the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund that provides scholarship aid to students from Southeast Asian immigrant families in the United States. He was interviewed by associate editor Rose Marie Berger in January 2006.
Sojourners: What similarities and differences do you see between the U.S. military detention camp at Guantánamo, Camp Delta, and the U.S. internment camps of Japanese-American citizens in the 1940s?
Glenn Kumekawa: I am not a historian or legal scholar, but from a historical view, I think we need to keep in mind a fundamental difference between the 10 internment camps of World War II and the Guantánamo prison camp.
The 10 internment camps were civilian detention camps; the exclusion order was such that it included everyone—even children in orphanages. We heard that all persons with at least one-sixteenth Japanese blood were deemed to be a threat to the security of our country—a completely racist notion—and all such persons, without exception, were ordered incarcerated. I later learned from Roger Daniels, a distinguished historian who has focused his work on the internment experience, that the Army initially interpreted “Japanese” to mean anyone who “looked” Japanese and lived within the prohibited zones. After-the- fact interpretations—like the “one-sixteenth” notion—were worked out haphazardly based on General DeWitt’s report that “while many second and third generation Japanese... have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted.”
Thus, the camps detained the entire population of persons of Japanese ancestry from the Western states, totaling perhaps 120,000 persons. The fact was that 70 percent of those interned were citizens of these United States and incarcerated without any charges being presented, without a determination of personal culpability or having the right of due process. And at age 14, I too was presumably determined to be a threat to our nation’s security and secured [at Camp Topaz] for three years.
Sojourners: What are the differences between a military-run camp, like Camp Delta, and a civilian-run camp, like Camp Topaz?
Kumekawa: [Camp Delta at] Guantánamo is a military prison, established, managed, and operated by the military. While the declaration that the Western states be cleared of all persons of Japanese ancestry was clearly a military decision, the detention of the populace was transferred to a civilian agency, I believe because the military had no experience of handling that number of civilians. Perhaps more important, the presence of some 70,000 American citizens of all ages mitigated against a military prisoner-of-war model.
While the external control was under the military—for example the guard towers, the military sentries, the exit and entry jurisdiction, and the presence of a military contingent at the camps—the internal administration of the camps was civilian, under the War Relocation Authority.
Sojourners: Executive Order 9066 gave the military broad powers to ban any citizen from “sensitive” border areas, which stretched from Washington state to California and extended inland into southern Arizona. Those citizens who were deemed security threats—primarily people of Japanese descent, but also those of German and Italian descent—were forcibly relocated out of the border areas. What happened to you when President Roosevelt approved Order 9066?
Kumekawa: We were evacuated from our homes in San Francisco with two weeks notice and taken to the assembly center at the Tanforan Racetrack. We were housed in horse stalls. The center was completely under military control—we lined up outside our stalls for morning and night roll calls—and we were constantly under military surveillance. Our family number was 19020 and we were so identified.
Sojourners: At Camp Delta at Guantánamo, there are reports of severe duress put on prisoners by the guards and hunger strikes by prisoners. Were there similar desperate measures in the internment camps?
Kumekawa: The Topaz internment camp, where we were transferred from Tanforan, was located in the middle of the Sevier Desert in central Utah. We were not there as potential providers of intelligence or information. We were there simply because, as Gen. John DeWitt, the commander of the Western Defense Command, stated, “A Jap is a Jap.” With, I assume he meant, the potential of aiding or abetting the enemy, Japan.
The duress was that, in our camp, there were 8,500 persons in an area of 1 square mile, with barbed wire fences, guard towers, military sentries, and the pervasive notion that we were prisoners. The duress was that my parents lost all they had and all they had worked for for close to half a century. (My father arrived in San Francisco in 1898 and was decreed to be an “enemy alien” because the racist laws prohibited persons of Asian ancestry from becoming naturalized as citizens no matter how long they had resided here.) The duress was the two-week notice and being ordered to leave our schools, our homes, our neighborhood, and community. The duress was having my high school transcript state “destination unknown.”
The second generation, citizens by virtue of being born here in the United States, suffered the duress that their parents may or could or would be deported as enemy aliens as part of a prisoner exchange, since clearly we were not going to capture Japanese soldiers in the numbers that our soldiers were being captured in the Pacific war.
Of course, there were also shootings. Mr. Wakasa, a 60-plus-year-old man, was shot 10 feet inside the barbed wire fence. He was trying to escape, they said, from our camp in Topaz. But, to their credit, shootings were not usual. The violence that took place was to suppress the internal uprisings in the Manzanar and Tule Lake camps. There the military contingent entered the camps.
Sojourners: Were you interrogated?
Kumekawa: In our civilian camps, there was neither extensive subjugation nor universal interrogations. With the declaration of war, the FBI had placed in custody all Japanese counsels and a considerable numbers of persons—suspects—and those considered leaders of the Japanese communities. But the net was so loose and large that it included instructors of martial arts, leaders of civic organizations, leaders of any organization with any connection to Japan. All were sent to a series of Justice Department camps as individuals—not together with their families. This was a source of incredible anxiety for the families. These camps were totally different from the 10 civilian detention internment camps.
In the 10 civilian detention internment camps, internal operations were assumed by internees. The doctors, the nurses, the dentists, the cooks, the teachers, the cleaning persons, the ditch digger, the carpenters, were all internees. Thus, inside the camps a semblance of community emerged. The communal mess hall, the communal bath and toilet facilities, all mitigated against the family structure. Our family’s shelter had only room for metal cots and a pot-bellied stove for heat. With 8,500 persons confined within one square mile, the stress of confinement was clear.
Sojourners: How does it make you feel, as a survivor of the internment camps, to see the United States again hold people, considered threats to national security, with very little legal process?
Kumekawa: The bottom line, I suspect, is that the decision of the Supreme Court validating the Japanese internment made “racism a constitutional principle,” in the words of Jacobus tenBroek in Prejudice, War and the Constitution. It made possible “preventative incarceration for assumed disloyal beliefs and attitudes, unaccompanied by acts, attributing them without proof, probable cause or reasonable suspicions to an entire group on a basis of race.”
Sojourners: Given your particular history and experience, what is your opinion on the prison camp at Guantánamo?
Kumekawa: I recently read an article in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer on how an internal effort to ban the abuse and torture of detainees was thwarted. The article is based on an interview with Alberto J. Mora, then general counsel of the U.S. Navy. The bottom line was that Mora drafted a 22-page memo three years ago to stop what he saw as a “disastrous and unlawful policy of authorizing cruelty toward terror suspects.” This memo was overruled by John Yoo of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department. Mayer wrote:
Mora looked at the [overruling opinion] with mounting disbelief; at first, he thought he had misread it. There was no language prohibiting the cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment of detainees. Mora told me that the opinion was sophisticated but displayed “catastrophically poor legal reasoning.” In his view, it approached the level of the notorious Supreme Court decision in Korematsu vs. United States, in 1944, which upheld the government’s internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.
Even though the administration eventually withdrew Yoo’s document, it’s evident that the justification for the Japanese internment parallels in some ways the legal authorization for the treatment of the detainees at Guantánamo. While there may not be direct parallels between the civilian detention camps of World War II and the military prisons of Guantánamo, they are items of the unfinished agenda of our nation. Both speak to the issues of the rule of law and the constant imperative to remain vigilant to the legal process which can—and is—skewed to meet the definition of the day. This happens at the expense of threatening the fundamental tenets of our democratic society.