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The Historical Presidency : From Truman to Trump: Presidents' Use and Abuse of the Incarceration of Japanese Americans



From Harry Truman to Barack Obama, both Republican and Democratic presidents have recognized the injustice suffered by Japanese Americans incarcerated under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, offering apologies and redress, including the 1988 Civil Liberties Act signed by Ronald Reagan. This article contextualizes the vast gulf between Donald Trump's use of this contested history and all postwar presidents before him and finds that Trump embodies a changed Republican Party that refuses to honor and learn from the injustice of Japanese American incarceration during the Second World War.
1DOI: 10.1111/psq.12695
© 2020 The Authors. Presidential Studies Quarterly published by Wiley Periodicals
LLC on behalf of Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress
Presidential Studies Quarterly
Vol. 0, No. 0, December 2020, 1–19
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The Historical Presidency:
From Truman to Trump: Presidents’ Use
and Abuse of the Incarceration of Japanese
From Harry Truman to Barack Obama, both Republican and Democratic presidents have recognized the
injustice suffered by Japanese Americans incarcerated under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive
Order 9066, offering apologies and redress, including the 1988 Civil Liberties Act signed by Ronald Reagan.
This article contextualizes the vast gulf between Donald Trump’s use of this contested history and all postwar
presidents before him and nds that Trump embodies a changed Republican Party that refuses to honor and
learn from the injustice of Japanese American incarceration during the Second World War.
Keywords: Asian Americans, Covid-19, Donald Trump, internment, Japanese American
incarceration, migrants, redress, Second World War, travel ban
During the Second World War, 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry, collectively
known as Nikkei, were incarcerated as “enemy aliens” in the United States of America.
Issei, Japanese-born immigrants, were rounded up with their American-born children,
Nisei, who were American citizens. Under the authority of Executive Order 9066 signed
by Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, power was granted to the military to
exclude those deemed a threat to national security from the West Coast. Individuals and
family groups were removed from their homes to be interned and relocated to temporary
holding centers before being sent to camps in isolated and inhospitable environments.
Ultimately, the Nikkei were forced to start new lives after the war, having, in the major-
ity of cases, lost most if not all of their property and possessions. After the war, there was
a stigma attached to their experiences, and the wider American public was disinterested
in knowing about the privations and losses suffered by Japanese Americans. Not until the
Rachel Pistol is a Researcher at King’s College London, on the management team for the European Holocaust
Research Infrastructure, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter. She is the author
ofInternment during the Second World War: A Comparative Study of Great Britain and the USA.
1970s and 1980s was there the momentum to sustain a long and difficult campaign for
redress, culminating in a presidential apology from Ronald Reagan in 1988. Since then,
there has been a growing awareness of the mass incarceration during the Second World
War, but not until Donald Trump’s presidency has Japanese American incarceration been
so present in the American media due to his repeated misuse of this history. Since Trump’s
campaign for president in 2015, there has been a significant increase in the occurrence of
Japanese American incarceration in political discourse.
This article focuses on the responses of different U.S. presidents to this contested
history and contextualizes the current misuse of Japanese American incarceration in
politics. Although some literature has addressed the responses of individual presidents
to Japanese American incarceration (Leuchtenburg 2009; Maga 1998; Robinson 2001;
Rozas-Krause 2018), this is the first article to make a comparative overview to expose the
gulf that exists between the views of Trump and other postwar U.S. presidents. Existing
scholarship primarily focuses on the actions of individual presidents, such as Franklin D.
Roosevelt as the instigator of mass incarceration or Ronald Reagan for his official apology
in 1988. This article offers a broader time frame and approach, comparing multiple U.S.
presidents, and argues that the words and actions of all postwar presidents in America
have been unanimous in their condemnation of Japanese American incarceration, with
the exception of Trump. It will become clear as these themes are chronologically ex-
plored that there has been a progressive growth in recognition of the wrongs of Japanese
American incarceration; however, this has regressed from the time Trump stood for office.
Without this overview of how successive presidents have responded to and interacted
with Japanese American incarceration, it is impossible to fully comprehend the enormity
of Trump’s presidential response to minority populations in the USA.
The Second World War and Its Immediate Aftermath
Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democratic president, signed Executive Order 9066 into ex-
istence authorizing the detention of American citizens in what was euphemistically termed
an “evacuation” of those of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast of America. Historian
Greg Robinson has noted Roosevelt’s eventual decision, in the face of pressure from the
military and West Coast political leaders to sign the Order, was made “with no consid-
eration or weighing of the racial or constitutional implications of that action” (Robinson
2001, 242). Like many Americans of the time, Roosevelt believed that the Japanese “were
a biologically distinct people who were incapable of adapting to American society or be-
coming true Americans,” and this “inability to conceive of people of Japanese ancestry as
true Americans” hugely contributed to the mistaken policy of incarceration (Robinson
2001, 243). These views built on the prevailing beliefs of the preceding centuries.
During the 1880s, many Japanese moved to Hawaii to work on plantations or moved
directly to the West Coast of America, where they worked in agriculture and fishing.
Despite only having access to the poorest tracts of land, these industrious immigrant farm-
ers produced better yields than their Caucasian counterparts, which led to considerable an-
tagonism between white Americans and the Issei. As Japan grew in military strength, with
victories over China in 1895 and Russia in 1905, America started excluding the Japanese,
particularly those considered to be unskilled. The so-called 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement
was the first of several anti-Japanese laws passed, followed in 1913 by the Alien Land Law,
which prevented any Issei from owning land in California, and a 1915 law that made the
leasing of land by Issei illegal (Pistol 2017, 21). Therefore, the Nikkei were familiar with
the trials and tribulations of being discriminated against in the USA. As a former incar-
ceree, Yoshiko Uchida, recalled, even the Nisei, who were American citizens, were
rejected as inferior Americans by our own country and rejected as inferior by the country
of our parents as well. We were neither totally American nor totally Japanese, but a unique
fusion of the two. Small wonder that many of us felt insecure and ambivalent and retreated
into our own special subculture where we were fully accepted. (Uchida 1982, 45)
By 1940, there were approximately 125,000 Nikkei in America, constituting fewer than
1 in 1,000 of the population, yet they were considered a potential threat to the West
Coast community (Daniels 1990, 302). The Nisei were estimated to be over 90% loyal
to America. The only members of the community considered to be potentially dangerous
were Kibei, Japanese Americans who had been sent to Japan for their formative years
(Weglyn 1996, 34). When Japan launched the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, December
7, 1941, “it left a deep wound in the American psyche. The attack provoked nationwide
anger and a desire for revenge against Japan which far surpassed American bitterness
against Germany or Italy” (Robinson 2001, 240). Arrests began immediately of individ-
uals deemed suspicious by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Office of Naval
Intelligence (ONI; Irons 1983, 204; Kang 2004, 992).1 Theoretically, Nisei should have
been protected by the Constitution as they were American citizens, hence the necessity of
an executive order to move against them. Indeed, no move was made against them in the
immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt was largely content to leave most Nikkei
alone, but after extensive pressure from military and political leaders on the West Coast
over the course of the following months, the president was compelled to act with the cre-
ation of Executive Order 9066, which was painted in a patriotic light and passed, almost
without question, on February 19, 1942. Public support was high for the executive order,
particularly in many parts of the West Coast, where newspaper articles used racist tropes
spreading false stories of sabotage and espionage. Monica Sone, another former incarceree,
remembered, “When stories about the Japanese Army on the other side of the Pacific
appeared in the newspapers, people stared suspiciously at us on the streets” (Sone 1953,
119). In June, six months after the attack at Pearl Harbor, a policy of mass evacuation was
instituted, with entire family units expected to pack their belongings into only what they
could carry and report to hastily erected Assembly Centers at racetracks and fairgrounds
before, weeks or months later, enduring journeys further inland to camps in isolated loca-
tions with only the most basic of facilities.
By 1943, the majority of Nikkei were still in camps. The U.S. government was
happy to continue to deny the constitutional right of freedom to citizens of Japanese an-
cestry, but the need for increased manpower in the war effort led to the reinstatement of
their constitutional right to bear arms. All Nisei men of service age were subject to the
draft and expected to serve in a racially segregated unit. In early 1943, Roosevelt wrote,
“No loyal citizen of the United States should be denied the democratic right to exercise
the rights of citizenship.... Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism
is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry” (Daniels 2005, 160). The disconnect
between Roosevelt’s words and actions could not have been greater.
When Roosevelt died, incarceration was far from over, and his successor, Harry S.
Truman, not only oversaw the end of incarceration but also proved himself to be a “nota-
ble defender, both privately and publicly, of the rights of Japanese Americans” (Robinson
2001, 258). Unlike Roosevelt, Truman was interested in actively defending the rights of
those of Japanese ancestry and was particularly incensed by the reluctance of many on the
West Coast to allow former internees to return to the areas they used to live. Committees
established to ascertain whether or not it would be safe for internees to return to the
West Coast during the war had concluded that it would “inevitably lead to violence and
bloodshed,” thus reinforcing concepts of segregation and discrimination (Gerda Isenberg
papers 3.1 1944). Truman also recognized that many Nisei men took up Roosevelt’s call
to arms and served with exemplary records, with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team
becoming the most decorated unit of its size in U.S. military history (Go For Broke n.d.).
In a ceremony at the White House in July 1946, President Truman honored the all-Nisei
442nd unit and said of them: “You fought not only the enemy, but you fought preju-
dice—and you have won” (Kurashige 2016, 195). However, there were many individuals
who chose to resist the draft and fought for all their rights to be reinstated, not just the
right to bear arms for their country of birth. Over 300 Japanese Americans subject to
the draft refused to show up for their physical examinations or for induction, asking the
question, “If we are loyal enough to serve in the army, what are we doing behind barbed
wire?” (Muller 2001, 4). Despite the clear morality of their question, draft resisters were
punished harshly by the American judicial system and in all but one case were sentenced
to multiple years in federal penitentiaries. It was Truman who signed a pardon for the
draft resisters on Christmas Eve 1947.
Truman’s views on Japanese American incarceration remained broadly consistent
throughout his time as president and in future years. In 1961, Truman said about wartime
incarceration: “They called it relocation, but we put them in concentration camps, and I
was against it. It was the wrong thing to do” (Aitken and Aitken 2011, 70). Truman grew
up in the midst of Jim Crow discrimination and by modern standards would be consid-
ered a racist in his personal attitudes toward social equality of the races, but in his polit-
ical career he followed a fairly progressive path on civil rights issues (Borstelmann 2019,
551). Aware that Japanese Americans had suffered huge losses because of incarceration,
Truman signed into law the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act in 1948. Though
well intentioned, the burden of proving losses meant that very few claims were processed
and then at only a fraction of their true value. The claims process was also incredibly slow,
requiring extension under Dwight D. Eisenhower and ultimately an amendment in 1956
to allow the attorney general to settle all claims up to the value of $100,000 (H.R. 7763
Public Law 84-673 1956). It is also worth noting that the Eisenhower administration also
offered some indications of regret over Japanese American incarceration when Assistant
U.S. Attorney General George S. Doub said in 1957, “This oppressive measure was not
a military necessity but constituted a tragic failure of principle by the executive branch”
(Robinson 2009, 290).
Truman was also concerned that executive power should not be abused against mi-
nority populations in the future. However, demonstrating that nothing had been learned
from Japanese American incarceration, a group of Democratic senators drafted what be-
came the Emergency Detention Act of 1950, mandating that “the government create
camps for detention of persons for whom there were reasonable grounds to believe would
commit or conspire to commit espionage or sabotage” (Daniels 2005, 165). The camps
would only be used if an executive order was issued and multiple camps, including the
site at Tule Lake, the largest and most controversial of the former “Relocation Centers,”
were refurbished or created and placed on standby. According to liberals, this was a vast
improvement over what happened to the Nikkei as “it called for hearings to be provided
for those incarcerated sometime after they were … behind barbed wire” (Daniels 2005,
165). Regardless of obvious parallels between this act and Executive Order 9066, the
Emergency Detention Act was forced through into law by a two-thirds majority in both
the Senate and the House, despite a presidential veto by Truman.
Presidential Responses during the 1970s and 1980s
The growth of the civil rights movement in strength and success during the 1960s
and 1970s led to a renewed commitment within the Japanese American community to
push through claims for redress. This was strengthened by comments and actions by
American presidents. In October 1972, Richard Nixon signed Public Law 92-458, which
offered to return deposits Japanese Americans had lost when funds of Japanese banks in
America were seized during the war. Nixon took the opportunity to express his “gratitude
for the contributions Japanese-Americans have made, and make today, to our country,”
also noting that “the signing of this act, in a very much larger sense, symbolized how
far we have nally come in our human relationships in this country since World War II”
(H.R. 8215 Public Law 92-458 1972, 92). Four years later, in 1976, Gerald Ford issued
Proclamation 4417: Conrming the Termination of the Executive Order Authorizing
Japanese-American Internment during World War II, and he called upon the American
people to afrm they had “learned from the tragedy of that long-ago experience forever
to treasure liberty and justice for each individual American, and resolve that this kind of
action shall never again be repeated.” By 1980, the Senate and House of Representatives
passed bills calling for the creation of a commission to investigate the incarceration of
the Nikkei, and these were signed by President Jimmy Carter (Maga 1998, 608). The
Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) was estab-
lished in 1980 to review the circumstances around Executive Order 9066, the forced relo-
cation of those of Japanese ancestry, as well as residents of the Aleut and Pribilof Islands,
and to suggest appropriate remedies (Personal Justice Denied 1997, xvii).
The CWRIC heard evidence from over 750 witnesses across 11 hearings in 10 cities
on both the East and West Coasts of the United States. Lloyd Wake, a former resident of
Poston, voiced the concerns of many based on their previous experiences of dealing with
the U.S. government when he asked,
Can we trust you to handle this sacred part of our experience responsibly and with sensitiv-
ity?… Or, have we engaged in a game to which everyone, you, the Commission, and us, the
victims, loses, and only the racists and those who would thwart justice win? Will we feel
that once again we have been exploited, humiliated, and violated? (Paik 2016, 21)
Mercifully, in actuality, “Japanese Americans were given the opportunity to tell their
stories of hardship and heartbreak…. There was a release of tears, but there was also a re-
lease of anger. And in so doing, there was a catharsis in dealing with all the pain that had
been bottled up for forty years” (Tateishi 1991, 95). The report resulting from the hear-
ings stated there was no direct military necessity for the incarceration, that the Nikkei
had been singled out for persecution because of their race, and that those who had been
incarcerated had suffered enormous material and emotional losses. Forty years on and it
was clear that the “wartime wounds [had] not entirely healed” (Personal Justice Denied
1997, 301). The commission, therefore, recommended that a public apology be prepared,
that a presidential pardon be offered to those convicted during the war as a result of racial
discrimination, and that redress and restitution be considered.
The Reagan administration was initially unconvinced regarding the CWRIC’s
conclusions, particularly regarding reparation payments. There were many reasons for
Reagan’s opposition to redress, not least the fear that an apology and reparations pay-
ments might open a floodgate for future claims. The members of the CWRIC were aware
of this concern and had, therefore, been careful to isolate Nikkei incarceration during the
Second World War as a unique mistake that happened under exceptional circumstances
by framing it as “an aberrant breakdown of U.S. governance” (Paik 2016, 31). Despite the
CWRIC reporting their findings at the beginning of the decade, it was not until 1988
that the Civil Liberties Act was signed. This should be seen in the context of develop-
ments in the preceding and intervening years. The successful Civil Liberties Act of 1988
was the result of substantial campaigning and the fighting of smaller legal battles, which
included the involvement of the Nikkei community during the 1970s to repeal the 1950
Emergency Detention Act. The Emergency Detention Act was successfully revoked in
1971 when Nixon signed the bill repealing it, noting that
The mere continued existence of these legal provisions has aroused concern among many
Americans that the act might someday be used to apprehend and detain citizens who hold
unpopular views. Some have feared that it might someday be used to permit a situation
comparable to the detention of Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II. (Izumi
2005, 166)
However, the fight for justice was only beginning. Three further programs were launched:
the California redress for state employees; the judicial battle of the National Council for
Japanese American Redress (NCJAR); and three coram nobis legal cases. While the NCJAR
fight for redress was ultimately unsuccessful, the copious levels of archival research un-
dertaken provided essential material for the coram nobis cases that were launched between
1983 and 1988 to challenge the test cases of Korematsu, Hirabayashi, and Yasui that
had originally been brought during the war to contest the constitutionality of Japanese
American incarceration (Pistol 2017, 93). The results of Korematsu and Hirabayashi’s
cases were successful, and no doubt Yasui would have received a similar result had he not
passed away before the case could be heard.
The political and social climate had changed dramatically during Reagan’s two
terms of presidency. Importantly, the CWRIC and coram nobis cases vastly increased pub-
lic perception of the mistreatment of those of Japanese ancestry during the Second World
War and how the Nisei had been denied their basic constitutional rights. After several
years of congressional debates and multiple rewrites of a bill named in honor of the
all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the question remained as to whether Reagan
would sign: 1988 was an election year and both the major presidential candidates, Vice
President George H. W. Bush and Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, endorsed
redress legislation. Bush released a statement describing the forced relocation as “an un-
fortunate chapter in our nation’s history…. During times of war, it is often difficult to
resist succumbing to hysteria. However, we should always try to remember our basic
purpose—to defend freedom and civil rights for all” (Maki, Kitano, and Berthold 1999,
136). In order to encourage further support from Reagan, much was made by the Japanese
American community of Reagan’s involvement in 1945 in a military ceremony posthu-
mously honoring a Japanese American soldier, Kazuo Masada, with the Distinguished
Service Cross. Reagan’s speech was not recorded, and this lent a level of mythology and
constantly evolving remembrance of what Reagan said at the time, to the benefit of
the Nikkei (Maga 1998, 614). Reagan eventually acknowledged the historical error of
the American government and when signing the Civil Liberties Act, Reagan said, “We
gather here today to right a grave wrong…. More than forty years ago … 120,000 per-
sons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their
homes and placed in makeshift internment camps. This action was taken without trial,
without jury. It was based solely on race” (Maki, Kitano, and Berthold 1999, 195). This
watershed act offered an official apology and individual reparations that amounted to
more than $1.6 billion paid to 82,210 survivors or their heirs (Daniels 2005, 168). One
Nisei said of the payment, “it certainly was a strong gesture, because money speaks a lot
in this country” (Japanese American National Museum, 2000, 300).
Such a momentous piece of legislation took time to be worked through, and it was
not until 1990 that survivors of incarceration began to receive their redress in a process
that spanned a decade.2 On October 9, 1990, nine individuals aged from 73 to 107 were
the first to receive restitution. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh said, when pre-
senting restitution checks to the first group of recipients, “By finally admitting a wrong,
a nation does not destroy its integrity but, rather, reinforces the sincerity of its commit-
ment to the Constitution and hence to its people” (Maki, Kitano, and Berthold 1999,
213). Each redress payment was accompanied with a signed letter from President George
H. W. Bush stating that
A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories; neither
can they fully convey our Nation’s resolve to rectify injustice and to uphold the rights of
individuals. We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand
for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during
World War II. In enacting a law calling for restitution and offering a sincere apology, your
fellow Americans have, in a very real sense, renewed their traditional commitment to the
ideals of freedom, equality, and justice. You and your family have our best wishes for the
Thus, an apology set in motion by a Democratic president was made official under two
Republican presidents.
Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama
The Civil Liberties Act was a landmark moment within American politics, one
designed to honor and remember the miscarriage of justice perpetuated against the Japanese
American community and to commemorate the sacrices made by this community. By
signing the restitution bill into law, Japanese American incarceration was cemented into
American memory of the war. That is not to say all victims of incarceration were treated
equally, as a major group was explicitly denied restitution at the time of the Civil Liberties
Act, namely, German, Italian, and Japanese deportees from Latin American countries,
arrested and removed to the United States for reasons of hemispheric security. These
detainees were classed as “undocumented immigrants,” held indenitely without charge,
and found themselves in a “catch-22” situation where, having been brought to America
against their will, they had no rights as legal residents of the country. To be denied any
form of compensation as part of the Civil Liberties Act was a considerable blow, and cam-
paigns were launched to address this wrong during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Five lawsuits
were led on behalf of Japanese Latin Americans between 1996 and 1999, and a settlement
was reached whereby the United States government agreed to an apology and a payment of
$5,000 to the more than 2,200 survivors of internment (Maki, Kitano, and Berthold 1999,
222). Without the success of the Civil Liberties Act, it would have been impossible for the
Japanese Latin Americans to have achieved any form of redress. As a result of the Japanese
American cause, Clinton took the opportunity to apologize on behalf of all Americans to
“recognize the wrongs of the past and offer our profound regret to those who endured such
grave injustice” as well as understanding “that our nation’s actions were rooted in racial
prejudice and wartime hysteria, and we must learn from the past and dedicate ourselves
as a nation to renewing and strengthening equality, justice and freedom” (Rainey 1998).
Clinton not only apologized and offered reparations to the Japanese Latin
Americans during his presidency, but he also apologized and offered reparations to vic-
tims of the Tuskegee experiments started in the 1930s when African American men were
denied treatment for syphilis, and to the descendants of victims of the 1923 race riots
in Rosewood, Florida. In each case, there were “clear victims, clear perpetrators, and
finite … reparations claims,” which made it possible to achieve redress, though only
after prolonged legal battles (Howard-Hassmann 2004, 833). The success of these cases,
decades after the atrocities took place, demonstrates not only the transformative effect the
Japanese American cause had on politics but also the changed political climate where it
was now considered appropriate to publicly apologize for specific and isolated events from
the past. Consequently, Clinton was able to sanction, in 2000, the award of the Medal of
Honor to 20 Nisei veterans for acts of extraordinary heroism during the Second World
War. The review of Medal of Honor cases came about as a result of “lingering suspicions
that Asian Americans had been denied the nation’s highest honor” despite the all-Nisei
100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team being the most highly
decorated unit of its size and duration of service in U.S. Army history (McNaughton,
Edwards, and Price 2002, 12). Half a century after the conclusion of the Second World
War, it became clear that some minority groups such as Hispanics and Native Americans
were well represented as Medal of Honor recipients but that others were conspicuous
by their absence. Congress “pressed the Clinton Administration to carry out two Medal
of Honor reviews, first for African Americans and then for Asian Americans,” with
the African American review resulting in seven awards made in 1997 (McNaughton,
Edwards, and Price 2002, 14). Clinton supported affirmative action, endorsed legislation
to end racial profiling, and sought to improve economic opportunities for women and
minorities. Clinton also made a point of appointing large numbers of people of color and
women to his cabinet and as part of his White House staff, which by the mid-1990s led
Republicans to accuse Clinton and his administration of “pandering” to minority groups.
The review of Japanese American Distinguished Service Cross awards was seen, therefore,
by some to be a political stunt rather than righting historic discrimination and as another
form of “political grandstanding” (Kim 2000, 175).
Despite these complaints, Clinton bestowed the nation’s highest civilian honor,
the Presidential Medal of Freedom, on Fred Korematsu for his lifetime’s work in civil
liberties. Additionally, toward the end of Clinton’s presidency, the Japanese American
Memorial to Patriotism during World War II was built in Washington, DC, having
been originally authorized by George H. W. Bush in 1992.4 The memorial occupies a
prominent position next to the Capitol Building and is designed as a “response to a dark
chapter in our nation’s history when war hysteria and prejudice led to the incarceration
of 120,000 Japanese Americans … and despite the egregious injustice done to them by
their own country, they still felt compelled by a sense of loyalty and duty to fight for our
country” (About the Foundation n.d.). The fact that this monument has been built in
Washington sends a firm message regarding the importance of protecting the memory of
Japanese American incarceration so that future generations might not repeat the mistakes
of the past.
President George W. Bush continued to recognize the influence and civil liberties
work of the Nisei, awarding Norman Mineta the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.
Mineta was the first Asian American to hold a post in a presidential Cabinet, serving as
Secretary of Commerce for Clinton and Secretary of Transportation for George W. Bush.
Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Bush was particularly interested to learn more
about Mineta’s incarceration. Bush made clear in the days following the attacks that he
was aware of the dangers of targeting specific ethnic groups and that he did not want to
go down the same route Roosevelt had done following Pearl Harbor. Mineta recalled that,
in a Cabinet meeting that took place September 13, 2001, Bush said, “we are concerned
about all this rhetoric we’re hearing on electronic media and the print media, and we
don’t want to have happen to people today what happened to Norm in 1942” (Norman
Mineta on internment 2019). Mineta also recalled that on September 17, 2001, Bush met
with Middle Easterners and Muslims in Washington, DC, to say, “We know who did that
last Tuesday. They weren’t loyal Arab Americans, they weren’t faithful followers of Islam,
they were terrorists and we’re going to go after them” (Norman Mineta on Internment
2019). However, despite these positive noises by George W. Bush, different standards
were applied to individuals of Middle Eastern appearance at airports, including special
searches and enforcing technical violations that were overlooked when dealing with pas-
sengers of other ethnicities. As historian Roger Daniels has said,
A striking difference is that although almost no public figures spoke out against the massive
violations of the rights of citizens in 1942, the aftermath of 9/11 produced much public
criticism of significantly lesser governmental violation of rights. And the analogy with the
Japanese American experience was raised so often that it seems obvious that an increased
awareness of its gross injustice was a factor in the heightened sensitivity within and without
the government. Clearly, when compared with what was done to Japanese Americans during
World War II, government actions after 9/11 do not seem, at first glance, to amount to very
much. (Daniels 2005, 170)
Therefore, there was at least an attempt to use the memory of the failings of the U.S.
government to prevent large-scale abuses of the Constitution after 9/11.
In 2006, under George W. Bush, the Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS)
grant program was also established for the preservation and interpretation of Japanese
American sites of confinement. The law authorized up to $38 million during the life-
time of the grant program for the purposes of “identifying, researching, evaluating, in-
terpreting, protecting, restoring, repairing, and acquiring historic confinement sites in
order that present and future generations may learn and gain inspiration from these sites
and that these sites will demonstrate the Nation’s commitment to equal justice under
the law” (H.R. 1492 Public Law 109-441 2006). Furthermore, Bush named the Tule
Lake stockade a national monument in 2008. Tule Lake was designated a high-security
Segregation Center in 1943, and the conditions at Tule Lake were worse than at the other
camps. The most controversial aspect of Tule Lake was the building of a stockade, used
as a jail for more than two hundred Nikkei men held without charge, often for spurious
reasons, making its designation as a national monument highly significant.
Under President Barack Obama, there were further moves to honor the Japanese
American community, including, in 2010, the signing of legislation awarding the
Congressional Gold Medal to thousands of Japanese American veterans in recognition of
the sacrifices they made for their country. Building on Clinton’s recognition of the indi-
viduals involved in the test cases brought against the U.S. government during the war,
Obama also awarded Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui the Presidential Medal of
Freedom in 2012 and 2015, respectively, leaving Mitsuye Endo as the only Nisei to bring
a test case against the U.S. government during internment yet to be honored. Having
recognized Hirabayashi and Yasui’s contributions to American history and civil liber-
ties, Obama was also keen to recognize the significance of a little-known site of intern-
ment in his native Hawaii by designating Honouliuli Internment Camp, Hawaii’s largest
and longest-operating internment camp, a national monument in 2015. Hawaii did not
enforce a policy of mass incarceration during the war, instead imposing martial law and
selectively arresting enemy aliens holding positions of influence in the community. The
camps in Hawaii are less known and to invest in their memory is a significant step for
understanding lesser-known aspects of incarceration during the Second World War.
Additionally, the Acting Solicitor General, Neal Katyal, in 2011 offered a public apol-
ogy for the role the Office of Solicitor General under Charles Fahy took in defending the
policy of Japanese American incarceration (Confession of Error 2011). The presidencies of
Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama varied vastly in their aims and actions,
yet one thing they had in common was their commitment to protecting, preserving,
honoring, and attempting to learn from the memory of the sacrifices made by the Nikkei.
The Trump Administration
President Donald Trump and his administration have taken a signicantly different
direction despite the consensus of previous presidents, regardless of their party afliation,
in acting to honor the legacy and learn lessons from Japanese American incarceration. In
a 2015 interview with TIME magazine, Donald Trump refused to say, even when pressed,
whether the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War violated
American values. The closest Trump got to answering the question was to respond, “I
certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you
a proper answer” (Scherer 2015). This is just one example of Trump failing to accept the
incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War as a serious violation
of constitutional rights, further evidenced when this was used to justify the travel ban
against those from Islamic countries and suggestions of a Muslim registry in 2017.
In November 2016, during an interview with FOX News, pro-Trump advo-
cate Carl Higbie stated that Japanese American incarceration served as a precedent for
the idea of a Muslim registry, a statement for which he was widely criticized (Barrow
2017, 163). Despite protestations from many groups, including Japanese Americans, in
February 2017 Trump signed an executive order that halted all refugee admissions, indef-
initely banned Syrian refugees, and temporarily barred admission to travelers from seven
Muslim-majority countries (Trump Border Policy 2017). At the time of the introduc-
tion of the ban, Trump’s administration stated there was no link between the executive
order mandating the travel ban and Executive Order 9066. However, Japanese Americans
were quick to point out that Executive Order 9066 never actually incorporated any men-
tion of Japanese Americans, yet it was used as justification for their incarceration, just
as Trump’s Executive Orders 13769 and 13780 never specifically mentioned Muslims
but were to be used as justification for discrimination against Muslim populations. In
Executive Order 13780, Trump claimed that the order did not “provide a basis for dis-
criminating for or against members of any particular religion” (Williams and Yaffe 2017).
However, comments Trump had made during his presidential campaign suggested other-
wise, given how he had called for a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United
States (Trump Urges “Shutdown” on Muslims Entering U.S. 2016). Appearing on Good
Morning America, Trump even asserted he was following in Roosevelt’s footsteps. What he
was doing, he explained, was “no different than what FDR—FDR’s solution for German,
Italian, Japanese, you know, many years ago” (Williams and Yaffe 2017). The president
has powers to control immigration, and indeed American history is full of examples of
legislation that was introduced to curb immigration from countries considered “undesir-
able,” such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907,
the creation of the Asiatic Barred Zone in 1917, and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. Like
any government power, it can only be exercised provided it does not violate constitutional
rights, but it is unconstitutional for a legal directive to discriminate on race or religion.
Conservatives in America have claimed there can be no comparison between Executive
Order 9066 and the travel ban because Roosevelt’s executive order affected those already
in the United States, whereas Trump was targeting individuals who had not yet entered
the United States (Wolf 2019). Japanese Americans maintain what links the travel ban to
Japanese American incarceration is not the citizenship but the targeting of a group solely
because of their ethnicity, making it directly comparable.
To get around these concerns, the third iteration of Trump’s travel ban added North
Korea and Venezuela to the countries from which travelers were not welcome. Including
North Korea was not particularly surprising, and in the case of Venezuela ordinary cit-
izens were not banned, just government officials and their immediate families (Shen
2017). However, critics of this policy claimed that North Korea and Venezuela were
added to the ban purely as “window dressing” in order to demonstrate that the ban did
not only target Muslim-majority countries (Gerstein and Lin 2018). This “window dress-
ing” was sufficient for the Supreme Court to uphold the travel ban, a decision that Trump
hailed as a “tremendous victory for the American people” (McCarthy and Siddiqui 2018).
The decision of the Supreme Court to uphold Trump’s third iteration of the travel ban
was an affirmation of presidential power over matters of national security, much in the
same way that the Supreme Court upheld the government’s position on the four legal test
cases that came before them during the Second World War. Ironically, the Supreme Court
used the occasion to finally overturn Korematsu v. United States, claiming that there were
no similarities between Trump’s travel ban and Japanese American incarceration. While
widely accepted as a bad legal precedent, Korematsu had remained in law even though
Korematsu’s conviction was vacated in 1983. In her dissent to the majority’s ruling on
the travel ban, Justice Sonia Sotomayor compared the ban to Japanese American incarcer-
ation and wrote, “As here, the exclusion order was rooted in dangerous stereotypes about
a particular group’s supposed inability to assimilate and desire to harm the United States”
(de Vogue 2018). Although a decision that was long overdue, the Japanese American
community considered the overturning of Korematsu a hollow victory and somewhat bit-
tersweet. As Karen Korematsu, the daughter of Fred Korematsu, said, “They overruled
his case in the face of marginalizing other people. That’s certainly not what he would have
wanted to see happen” (Medina 2018).
Furthermore, the zero-tolerance policy instituted by Trump’s administration in
2018 separated families seeking asylum in the United States who entered the country ille-
gally, taking the parents into criminal custody. Former First Lady Laura Bush denounced
the border policy that separated approximately two thousand children from their families
as they entered the United States. She wrote of the images of children being detained in a
converted Walmart and a tent city on the Texas border that they were “eerily reminiscent
of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have
been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history” (Bush 2018). To add insult to
injury, the Trump administration considered using two areas in Arkansas as temporary
shelters for unaccompanied children, a mere two miles from the location of Rohwer, a for-
mer site of Japanese American incarceration. Many in the Japanese American community
discussed the trauma that had been suffered by children who were interned during the
Second World War and how the United States was perpetuating this abuse and trauma on
a new generation of children (Rivas 2018; Yam 2018). Trump claimed, on more than one
occasion, that he was being blamed for a policy enacted by Obama, saying that “President
Obama built the cells. He built the cages that you people always talk about and attribute
them to me.… The cages for kids were built by the Obama Administration in 2014. He
had the policy of child separation. I ended it even as I realized that more families would
then come to the Border!” (Trump 2019a; 2019b).
Although previous administrations did break up some family units upon their ar-
rival at the United States border, this was only in a limited number of cases where there
were doubts about the relationship between a child and adult. It was Trump’s zero-tol-
erance policy that criminalized adult undocumented migrants crossing the border from
Mexico that led to the separation of family units as the adults were jailed but the children
were detained. Under the Obama administration, a federal court ruling put a limit of
20days on the detention of minors after the Flores Agreement was broken. The Flores
Agreement was a court settlement in 1997 that set limits on the length of time and
conditions under which children can be incarcerated in immigration detention. Trump’s
administration went further than the Obama administration by separating families at
the border so that adults could be detained indefinitely as a means of bypassing the
Flores Agreement. Later, the Trump administration sought to end the Flores Agreement
entirely, as they considered it one of the “primary pull factors for illegal immigration”
and a “legal loophole” preventing the government from detaining and deporting migrant
families (Torbati 2018). After a huge amount of public and legal pressure, Trump’s at-
tempts to end the Flores Agreement were rejected in court, and, ultimately, families were
no longer separated at the border (Reilly and Carlisle 2019).
This partial victory over Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy has, however,
not prevented further misuse of Japanese American incarceration history. In 2018, attor-
neys for the Department of Defense cited the case of Hirabayashi v. United States to prevent
a Guantanamo Bay detainee from sharing his artwork (Appeals Court Overturns World
War II Conviction 1987; Goodkind 2018). In 1986, Hirabayashi’s conviction was over-
turned; in 2011, the Department of Justice filed an official notice saying that Japanese
American internment camp policies had been made in error; and in 2012, President
Barack Obama presented Hirabayashi with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. To cite
this case as the basis for policy is hardly “a good look” (Vladeck 2018).
Furthermore, during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Rebecca Bradley, a Wisconsin
Supreme Court justice, compared a stay-at-home order to limit the spread of coronavirus
to the Korematsu decision and Japanese American incarceration. Bradley, former president
of the Republican National Lawyers Association, compared Covid-19 restrictions to the
Korematsu decision, suggesting that legislative power was potentially being used to justify
tyranny (Itkowitz 2020). The JACL was quick to rebuke Bradley’s comments, with its
Wisconsin chapter president, Ron Kuramoto, stating,
To ask all Wisconsin residents to shelter in their homes for a short, defined period of weeks,
as a response to a public health crisis like a pandemic, bears no relation to the intentional,
legally unjustifiable thinking that imprisoned my family indefinitely, and forced them to
sell—not suspend—their businesses. Bradley may believe that she is arguing Constitutional
principles, but her claim of a non-existent equivalency distorts the conversation and den-
igrates the history and experience of Japanese Americans. (Japanese American Citizens
League 2020)
Bradley’s comments build on the rhetoric of the Republican Party during the pandemic.
Trump has repeatedly referred to Covid-19 as the “China virus,” which has led to a dra-
matic increase in assaults on Asian Americans (Aratani 2020). When confronted with the
information that Asian Americans were being assaulted because of his choice to use the
phrase “Chinese virus,” Trump responded, “It’s not racist at all…. It comes from China”
(‘Chinese Virus’ Not Racist 2020). These attacks have taken the form of verbal harass-
ment, physical assault, and workplace discrimination; in one case in Texas, members
of an Asian American family, including children aged 2 and 6years, were stabbed by a
man who “thought the family was Chinese, and infecting people with the coronavirus”
(Cheung, Feng, and Deng 2020; Margolin 2020). This spike in anti-Asian prejudice has
left many Asian Americans wondering how they fit into American society. As investi-
gative journalist Nydia Han has said in relation to the pandemic situation, “The novel
coronavirus has mutated for some into a virus of hate against Asian Americans and my
fear of getting sick is now overshadowed by my terror over the backlash against my com-
munity” (Han 2020).
There was no military justication for the incarceration of tens of thousands of
Nisei during the Second World War, and it is clear that postwar U.S. presidents prior to
Trump have all agreed that it was a travesty of justice that should never be repeated. Not
only does this demonstrate cross-party unity in condemning the policy of incarceration,
but it particularly shows how Trump’s words and actions stand apart from those of his
predecessors on both the left and right. After Truman’s show of support for the Japanese
American community and the Evacuation Claims Act of 1948, Japanese American
incarceration mostly disappeared from public and political discourse as America moved
from the Second World War to the Cold War. From the point of Truman’s attempt to
offer recompense there is a recurring theme of future presidents working to atone for the
nation’s previous wrongdoing. As civil rights movements met with successes in the 1960s
and 1970s, the time was right for calls for a full apology and restitution to survivors of
incarceration. The growth in awareness of how the Constitution was disregarded for the
Nisei led to social pressure both inside and outside the government for acknowledgment
of this gross miscarriage of justice and to honor the Nikkei population. Ronald Reagan
and George H. W. Bush have signed ofcial apologies for the incarceration of Japanese
Americans, with Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush publicly expressing
regret over the events of the Second World War. Signicantly, “the fact that ve U.S.
presidents have had to recognize the nation’s wrongdoings against the Japanese American
community suggests that words might not be enough” (Rozas-Krause 2018).
The positive steps presidents in recent decades have taken regarding honoring the
patriotism of Japanese Americans and attempting to atone for the nation’s historic wrongs
toward them now threaten to be undone as Donald Trump and his supporters use the
history of incarceration to support policies that directly emulate Roosevelt in the Second
World War. There have been many crises in America, not least the terrorist attacks of
9/11, but George W. Bush, president at the time of the attacks, was clear that he did not
want to repeat the mistakes of the past by pursuing racial profiling. Although not perfect
in this respect, some attempt was at least made to consider Japanese American incarcera-
tion when creating policy. In direct contrast, Trump and his administration seem intent
on pursuing a racial profiling agenda and use racially charged language, most recently in
discussions around the Covid-19 pandemic. Trump’s words and actions reflect the change
in the Republican Party over the past few decades. Many Republicans were instrumental
in fighting for civil rights in the 1960s, and “the idea that the Republican Party would
be a force for ethnic and anti-immigrant animus and racial division would appal them”
(Ornstein 2020). In recent years, the Republican Party has “thrown away its guiding val-
ues and embraced its darkest instincts” (Ornstein 2020), and this has led to the idea that
“racism is acceptable” (Stevens 2020, 168). Stuart Stevens, former strategist and media
consultant for Republican political campaigns, considers that “Trump doesn’t signal a
lowering of standards of morality by Republican voters. Instead, he gives them a chance
to prove how little they have always cared about those issues. Trump just removes the
necessity of pretending” (Stevens 2020, 39). In this context, Trump’s abuse of the history
of Japanese American incarceration is not surprising but nonetheless concerning.
Not only have Trump and his administration abused the history of Japanese
American incarceration, but he has also used anti-Asian language in a variety of other
settings. Calling Covid-19 the “China/Chinese virus” has resulted in verbal and physical
attacks on Asian Americans in 2020, forcing Trump to address this issue, saying Asian
Americans are “very important that we totally protect … they’re amazing people and the
spreading of the virus is not their fault in any way, shape or form” (Vazquez 2020), but
Asian American spokespersons, including Judy Chu, chairwoman of the Congressional
Asian Pacific American Caucus, have noted Trump would not have to make such com-
ments if “he and his supporters had not already endangered so many by spreading this
toxic xenophobia” (Trump Says Coronavirus Not Asian Americans’ Fault 2020). This
is but the latest in a long string of events linked to the memory of the incarceration of
Japanese Americans during President Trump’s term in office, highlighting the vast gulf
between this presidency and those before him.
1 No interviews were conducted with the Nikkei because it was feared that it would take too long, even
though almost six times as many Italians were assessed over 10 months.
2 More than $1.6 billion was paid to 82,210 survivors or their heirs between 1990 and 1999 (Daniels 2005,
3 To see an image of one of these letters, see “Letter from George Bush, President of the United States,” CSU
Japanese American Digitization Project, California State University, available at https://calis
item/5649e f1a16 2c207 2ea37 42c67 be285 94/.
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... Since that time there has been a growing awareness of this mass incarceration during the Second World War. All post-war presidents, with the notable exception to Donald Trump, have united in their condemnation of Japanese American incarceration, with five offering public apologies (Pistol 2021). ...
... But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer' (Scherer 2015). The treatment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War has long been acknowledged as wrong by multiple American presidents, most notably after the signing of the Civil Liberties Act by Ronald Reagan in 1988 and the redress payments paid from 1990 to 1999 (see Pistol 2021). However, this has not stopped a 'vocal minority in America' (as labelled by Mitchell T. Maki, president and chief executive of the Go for Broke National Education Center) from arguing that the incarceration of Japanese American citizens was somehow justified on 'legal, rational or moral standing' (Maki 2019). ...
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Since 2015, Donald Trump, his administration and supporters have repeatedly abused the history of Second World War Japanese American incarceration. In contrast to preceding Presidents who recognised the miscarriage of justice authorised by Franklin Roosevelt, Trump and his administration have used this history to justify racism. All post-war presidents before Trump, regardless of political affiliation, agreed what happened under Executive Order 9066 was wrong and should never be repeated. Donald Trump and his administration have, by contrast, not only failed to condemn the incarceration but instead attempted to use test cases brought against the United States government during the war as questionable legal precedent to justify racist policies. The travel ban for those travelling to the USA from Muslim majority countries was compared to Executive Order 9066; Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents and placing them in separate detention centres was disturbingly similar to the internment of orphans of Japanese parentage at Manzanar children’s village; and Trump’s use of terms like ‘China virus’ during the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in attacks on Asian Americans. This article considers Asian American responses to these three case studies of Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric and abuse of the history of Japanese American incarceration.
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A series of on-site historic plaques and a photographic exhibition at a nearby train station serve as background to study the development of a new memorial to remember the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California. The design and iconography of the future Tanforan memorial are analyzed alongside the motivations of the main actors that have shaped it: a group of memory activists, a transit agency and a shopping mall developer. The article concludes that these past and future commemorative interventions reveal the relationship between an unsettled memorial landscape and the Japanese American community’s ongoing demands for apology.
The internment of 'enemy aliens' during the Second World War was arguably the greatest stain on the Allied record of human rights on the home front. Internment During the Second World War compares and contrasts the experiences of foreign nationals unfortunate enough to be born in the 'wrong' nation when Great Britain, and later the USA, went to war. While the actions and policy of the governments of the time have been critically examined, Rachel Pistol examines the individual stories behind this traumatic experience. The vast majority of those interned in Britain were refugees who had fled religious or political persecution; in America, the majority of those detained were children. Forcibly removed from family, friends, and property, internees lived behind barbed wire for months and years. Internment initially denied these people the right to fight in the war and caused unnecessary hardships to individuals and families already suffering displacement because of Nazism or inherent societal racism. In the first comparative history of internment in Britain and the USA, memoirs, letters, and oral testimony help to put a human face on the suffering incurred during the turbulent early years of the war and serve as a reminder of what can happen to vulnerable groups during times of conflict. Internment During the Second World War also considers how these 'tragedies of democracy' have been remembered over time, and how the need for the memorialisation of former sites of internment is essential if society is not to repeat the same injustices.
From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the Immigration Act of 1924 to Japanese American internment during World War II, the United States has a long history of anti-Asian policies. But Lon Kurashige demonstrates that despite widespread racism, Asian exclusion was not the product of an ongoing national consensus; it was a subject of fierce debate. This book complicates the exclusion story by examining the organized and well-funded opposition to discrimination that involved some of the most powerful public figures in American politics, business, religion, and academia. In recovering this opposition, Kurashige explains the rise and fall of exclusionist policies through an unstable and protracted political rivalry that began in the 1850s with the coming of Asian immigrants, extended to the age of exclusion from the 1880s until the 1960s, and since then has shaped the memory of past discrimination. In this first book-length analysis of both sides of the debate, Kurashige argues that exclusion-era policies were more than just enactments of racism; they were also catalysts for U.S.-Asian cooperation and the basis for the twenty-first century's tightly integrated Pacific world. © 2016 The University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
In this bold book, A. Naomi Paik grapples with the history of U.S. prison camps that have confined people outside the boundaries of legal and civil rights. Removed from the social and political communities that would guarantee fundamental legal protections, these detainees are effectively rightless, stripped of the right even to have rights. Rightless people thus expose an essential paradox: while the United States purports to champion inalienable rights at home and internationally, it has built its global power in part by creating a regime of imprisonment that places certain populations perceived as threats beyond rights. The United States’ status as the guardian of rights coincides with, indeed depends on, its creation of rightlessness. Yet rightless people are not silent. Drawing from an expansive testimonial archive of legal proceedings, truth commission records, poetry, and experimental video, Paik shows how rightless people use their imprisonment to protest U.S. state violence. She examines demands for redress by Japanese Americans interned during World War II, testimonies of HIV-positive Haitian refugees detained at Guantanamo in the early 1990s, and appeals by Guantanamo’s enemy combatants from the War on Terror. In doing so, she reveals a powerful ongoing contest over the nature and meaning of the law, over civil liberties and global human rights, and over the power of the state in people’s lives. © 2016 The University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
This chapter examines the lasting reverberations of internment that persist even after the camps have closed, rights are restored, and the suffering of victims is acknowledged through official redress. It examines three testimonial texts offered by descendants of internments—CWRIC testimonies, Janice Mirikitani’s “Breaking Silence” (1981), and Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory: For Akiko and Takeshige. It argues that rightlessness is not limited to the body’s confinement within a barbed-wire perimeter, but by a history that endures in the U.S. state’s continuing creation of rightless persons via camp imprisonment and in the lived histories that the rightless carry with them. It argues that, endowed with an ever-adaptable and expanding capacity, rightlessness can become an inherited condition, one that exceeds legal definitions or empirical ways of knowing. The testimonial and aesthetic works at the chapter’s center offer a useful resource in deciphering a dimension of rightlessness as nebulous and resistant to empirical interpretation as the afterlife.