From the Archive

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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

December 2006 - War Hysteria: Pearl Harbor and the Media

From U.S. Navy propaganda poster, denshopd-i37-00499

December 7, 2006 marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For many Japanese Americans, it is a painful reminder of the ease with which constitutional rights gave way to racism and fear. The attack unleashed an unprecedented level of anti-Japanese sentiment throughout the country. Newspapers rushed to print sensational headlines of spying and subversion, while journalists and public officials often made no distinction between Japanese Americans and Imperial Japanese soldiers. This hysteria had very real consequences, not only for the Japanese American community, but for U.S. society as a whole.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 killed or wounded over 3,500 Americans. The attack, then unparalleled in U.S. history, left people frightened and angry. "It is difficult forty years later to recreate the fear and uncertainty about the country's safety which was generally felt after Pearl Harbor; it is equally impossible to convey…the virulence and breadth of anti-Japanese feeling which erupted on the West Coast," stated the 1982 report of the Commission on Wartime Internment and Relocation of Civilians (CWRIC).1 This anti-Japanese feeling overwhelmed reasonable thinking.

The media perpetuated and in many ways generated this hysteria and fear. Attention-grabbing headlines and the competition to sell papers compromised the media's role of providing objective information. Instead of presenting evidence and well-informed commentary, many news sources supported and, at times, led a public opinion campaign against Japanese Americans. Some journalists claimed there were no differences between U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry and the Japanese citizens who attacked Pearl Harbor. Retractions and corrections were rarely printed, so the public believed what they read.

Racist treatment of Japanese Americans in the media began long before Pearl Harbor. The wave of anti-Japanese reporting that arose after Pearl Harbor was based on a history of public fear over Asian immigration and settlement in the U.S. Many of the images and phrases depicted in World War II posters and newspaper editorials had been used for decades, often to justify racist policies against Asian immigrants.

A few lone voices in the media spoke out, urging the public not to punish their Japanese American friends and neighbors for the actions of Japan. The Bainbridge Island Review and its editor, Walt Woodward, published articles throughout the war denouncing the incarceration. The Northwest Enterprise, an African American newspaper in Seattle, also produced a series of editorials in support of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. These perspectives, however, were few and far between. Most mainstream newspapers continued to print articles that were not based on fact and reason.

This racial fear and hysteria, along with desire for economic gain, political opportunism, and a sincere concern for national safety, resulted in a complex mixture of motives that impelled the U.S. government to forcibly remove from the West Coast more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. Sixty-five years later, as the country finds itself again grappling with issues of civil liberties and national security, these lessons of the past have never been so relevant. Hopefully, this time, we are paying attention.

1. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. (1982. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), page 67. [ link ]

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