This Week in the Archive: Against the Norm–T. Eugene West and His Neighbor, The Nisei

by Joshua Kim

(A Nisei is a person of Japanese descent born in the U.S. with immigrant parents. Nisei directly translates to “second generation” in Japanese.)

“At the outbreak of the war, 112,000 of these good people were taken from their homes, businesses, farms, schools, and churches and put into ten relocation camps throughout the midwest. Of these there were 70,000 American citizens by birth.” T. Eugene West, University of Richmond Class of 1927.

In his piece for the Richmond Alumni Bulletin, alum T. Eugene West passionately spoke on behalf of the Japanese American community and the horrors they faced during WWII, specifically the repercussions of Executive Order 9066.

Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, president Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. With this executive order, Roosevelt marked the Japanese American community as public enemy No. 01, and the order acted as a stamp of approval for nationwide hate crimes and anti-Japanese violence. Anti-Japanese sentiment was quite common since early Japanese immigration to the U.S. Many of the early Japanese immigrants were from the countryside and often came with very little money. They were targeted — along with the Chinese, the Koreans, and the Filipinos — as a cheap labor source. Many of these immigrants faced harsh resentment from the white working class as they were seen as competition for employment.

Yet, employment competition was not the only reason for anti-Japanese sentiment.

In 1905, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) after failed negotiations to split Manchuria and Korea into spheres of influence. This was the first major defeat of a Western power by an Asian country in a long, long time, and caused an uproar back in the U.S.

The Asiatic Exclusionary League (1904-post WWII) was a white supremacist group that focused itself on opposing Japanese, Korean, and later Hindu Indian immigration to the U.S. They played a large role in many of the anti-Japanese legislation that was passed during this time:

  • 1907 – Pressured president Theodore Roosevelt to tighten Japanese immigration
  • 1924 – Successfully lobbied Japanese immigration restrictions under president Calvin Coolidge with the Immigration Act of 1924
  • 1942 – President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, sparking relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps

Japanese Americans would not be considered true American citizens — along with Asians in general — until 1965 when president Lyndon B. Johnson signed an immigration reform bill that would make people of Asian descent have equal citizen status as people of European descent (here’s an enlightening article on the complexities of this reform).

The purpose of me detailing this brief history of anti-Japanese American sentiment in the U.S. is to emphasize how surprising it was to see West writing in their defense.

Under the 1790 Naturalization Act, Ozawa v. United States (1922), and Wong Kim Ark v. United States (1898), Japanese Americans were not eligible for naturalized citizenship. This was largely based on the premises that being “white” was specific only to those of the “Caucasian” race.

With this in mind, we can then use this information as a basis for why there was so much Japanese-American backlash vs. German-American backlash.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, all of this anti-Japanese sentiment finally appeared justified. Unlike the Germans, the Japanese empire was bold enough to attack the U.S. in open warfare. And although there was evidence that the U.S. government knew of the atrocities that the Germans were committing, because they did not present a “direct threat” to the U.S., the U.S. government was able to turn a blind eye to the Germans. So when President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, it faced little opposition throughout the U.S. A Los Angeles Times editorial piece described the public opinion best: “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched — so a Japanese American, born of Japanese parents — grows up to be a Japanese, not an American.” (The original article could not be found, but here is a link to the site that led me to this quote).

So as I mentioned previously, it was incredibly surprising to see such an article at the time in DEFENSE of the Japanese American community, especially one written by a white male.

As someone who has quite extensively searched within the University of Richmond archives, I am confident in saying that white people during this time were not afraid to use problematic language.

For example, from my own investigation of the Richmond Collegian newspaper, there is evidence of white people openly using the terms “Negro,” “Oriental,” “Beaner,” and much more, well into the 1990s — without realizing the problematic nature of such usage.

Throughout his article, West gave an accurate history of the hardship Japanese Americans faced during the war, and their contributions to the U.S. military during it. And, in a way, he was doing the work that the Race & Racism Project is doing today — using his privilege to tell the stories of the underrepresented, and that’s why I appreciate this piece of writing so much.

Furthermore, this wasn’t a typical piece that was progressive for its time, but filled with problematic language or ideas that were “normal.” He used respectful language throughout, and never exoticized the Japanese Americans he spoke of.

What pleased me even more was how candid he was when speaking about how poorly the U.S. treated Japanese Americans, particularly after the war:

“I was with him [Japanese-American WWII veteran] when one leg was amputated, and the other will never be of any service…He showed me a picture recently of his once lovely home in California. It is now only a chimney. The house was burned by civilians who left a note saying, ‘We hate Japs.’ Another was denied membership in the ‘Veterans of Foreign Wars,’… Another was literally kicked out of a barber shop in Arizona, while dressed in his uniform on which was pinned a purple heart and several other decorations.”

From his writing, you could really feel his outrage. To him, the Japanese Americans were heroes; they were his fellow brothers and sisters that helped win the war against the Axis Powers, and they deserved so much more than they were given.

As an Asian-American, I felt a sense of gratitude toward this author.

Although I am not Japanese American, I know how it feels to be hated for my race. I have been harassed in public, told to “go home,” and been bullied for being outside of the white-washed norm.

So what West wrote was very refreshing to see, especially since a lot of this research has consisted of reading blatantly racist ideologies that UR alumni have had in the past and present. To speak out against what many at the time saw as logical, he showed himself to be a real ally to the Japanese American community when few were willing to do so.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping’.” – Fred Rogers

Like Mr. Rogers said, despite seeing so much scary hatred within the archives, I was able to find a “helper” after all.

Thank you T. Eugene West. Spider, neighbor, and friend.

Joshua Hasulchan Kim is from Colonial Heights, Virginia. He is a junior at the University of Richmond who is double majoring in Journalism and French. Joshua is involved in various clubs on campus: He is the co-president of Block Crew dance crew, the opinions editor for the Collegian newspaper, and is the Co-Director of Operations for the Multicultural Lounge Building Committee. Joshua joined the project as part of the Spring 2017 independent study (RHCS 387) and expanded upon this research with the support of an A&S Summer Research Fellowship during Summer 2017.