Consequences of Family Separation… A Lesson from the Incarceration of Japanese Americans

by Floyd Cheung, Smith College. Posted September 25, 2018.

Much of the media coverage of the current separations at the U.S.-Mexico border is about the trauma inflicted on the children, and rightly so. The incarceration of children deserves serious public scrutiny. Most of us agree that stress endured by children now will lead to depression and other negative consequences the rest of their lives.

But historical precedents teach us that family separation deeply affects parents also. During the days following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the FBI rounded up about 5,500 leaders of Japanese American communities. All arrested were men. Many were fathers separated from their wives and children. The experience of these Japanese American fathers – and, to a different extent, mothers – from the 1940s remind us that parents, too, suffer damage.

Japanese Americans were ordered to assembly centers prior to their removal to remote internment camps. Photo: Library of Congress.

Parents and their children, like the seven-year-old Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, the eventual author of Farewell to Manzanar, suffered from government-enforced separation. Jeanne, the rest of her family, and about 120,000 other Japanese Americans spent years in euphemistically named “relocation centers,” while her father and others served time in Department of Justice internment camps.

Picked up on suspicion of signaling enemy ships (he was a fisherman), Jeanne’s father was never charged though he and many others spent months in federal custody. When he was released and allowed to rejoin his family behind the barbed wire of Manzanar Relocation Center, he returned a broken man. Before his arrest he was full of dignity, according to Jeanne. Afterwards, he turned to abusing alcohol and his family.

Jeanne recounts the following scene: When the war ends and they are permitted to leave, Jeanne’s father refuses to board a bus and instead buys a used car. He shows up with a half-empty bottle of whiskey between his legs and bullies his wife and kids into taking a joy ride with him. Jeanne recounts the event with graphic language: “He stomped the pedal, pushing the speedometer up to thirty-five. His right front tire had shredded and it flopped like a mangled arm. It lashed out, upending a garbage can. I started to cry. Chizu, her calm shattered, was yelling at him to slow down. Mama was too, and May was screaming.”

We are never told what happened to Jeanne’s father during his separation from the family, but we do learn some of the consequences. Regarding her mother, Jeanne notices her “staring at things I could never see.”

Mess hall line up at Manzanar Internment Camp. Photo: Library of Congress.


Most of us know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, despite his many other laudable actions, signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942, which ordered the incarceration of all Japanese Americans living on the west coast. Thanks to historian Greg Robinson, author of By Order of the President, some of us know that as early as 1936, FDR ordered that suspicious Japanese Americans “should be secretly but definitely identified and his or her name placed on a special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble.” The compilation of such lists along with census data containing names and addresses made it possible for the FBI to conduct round-ups immediately after Pearl Harbor.

Some Japanese American men were taken away from their families not during this initial round-up but after they refused to be drafted.

Heart Mountain resisters in federal court appearance June 12, 1044.

Initially, Japanese Americans were not allowed to volunteer to join the US Army, but later the government changed its mind. Many were glad to have the opportunity to prove their loyalty. The 9,486 Purple Hearts earned by the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese American unit, are well known.

Less well known are the stories of those who resisted the draft. Disgusted with a government that would incarcerate them and their families without charge or trial, a few hundred men were charged with the crime of refusing to report for induction when duly ordered to do so under the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940.

One draft resister, Itaru Ina, spent time in a Department of Justice internment camp at Fort Lincoln in Bismarck, North Dakota, while the rest of his family was in Tule Lake Relocation Center in California. In his notebook he wrote poems complaining of the country that had treated him and his people so unfairly. (The United States did not round up Italian Americans and German Americans without trial, even though their countries of origin also were enemy powers.) Eventually he rejoined his family in a prison retrofitted to accept families in Crystal City, Texas, but he recorded the following:

My daughter—

who’s already forgotten me—

I make her call me “father.”

The Trump administration has agreed to reunite families separated at the border, but this process has been much too slow. Consider the consequences of imprisonment and separation for both the children and parents. Consider the consequences when our history of unfair treatment of immigrants and their descendants is recast or lost. We must learn from past experience to avoid present and future harm.

Author bio:

Floyd Cheung is Professor of English Language and Literature and of American Studies at Smith College and Founding Chair of the Five College Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program. His scholarly work focuses on the recovery of lesser known early Asian American literature including H. T. Tsiang’s And China Has Hands (Kaya Press, 2016), Sadakichi Hartmann’s Collected Poems (Little Island, 2016), and John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (University of Washington Press, 2018).

The cover photo for this article was taken at the McAllen, Texas Central Processing Center on June 17, 2018. Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service.


  1. Matthew Brien Kenji Ota on September 26, 2018 at 3:35 pm

    The difference is that my grandparents came to this country from Japan LEGALLY. TEHy learned to speak english too.

    When you choose to break the law you have to deal with the consequences. A parent who decides to illegally enter the country with kids in tow is responsible for the welfare of the child. By breaking the law they forced the government action.

  2. Miche on September 29, 2018 at 10:07 am

    Without engaging in the innumerable moral ambiguities (a generous term) legal entities present, the heart of this article comes in its second sentence: “The incarceration of children deserves public scrutiny.” What is being written about are specific, and paralleling historical circumstances, that necessitate the very actions your comment suggests you are against – explicitly placing one’s self, and one’s body, against “the law”.
    In its accounts of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and Itaru Ina, the article calls for a level of humanity, an understanding for the specific lives, and consequences ignored and overlooked by political bigotries – of which your grossly presumptuous comment is a key component.

  3. Matthew OTa on October 2, 2018 at 6:41 am

    They are lawbreakers. Period. Deport them.

  4. Susan Hayase on October 7, 2018 at 8:04 pm

    Actually, you’re very wrong. Your grandparents and mine were declared illegally present in California, Oregon, and Washington.

  5. Susan Hayase on October 10, 2018 at 1:30 pm

    To say that an entire group of people are lawbreakers and to prescribe a punishment for them is to be grossly out of step with basic civil liberties as prescribed by the U.S. Constitution.

    You may not grasp that individuals, not entire groups, have individual situations and cases. Every individual deserves due process and the right to pursue justice based on the individual circumstances of their case. You as a casual observer cannot know what these circumstances are. You have no legal or moral standing to declare them lawbreakers. What law? What person? What evidence? Who are you?

    Just as Japanese Americans deserved due process and not wholesale condemnation and imprisonment, all immigrants deserve it, too.

  6. Taiji Miyagawa on March 18, 2019 at 4:51 pm

    It is very telling that defenders of white nationalism are quick to pass judgement on human rights violations by misrepresenting actual law and the documented facts of history. This is why Asian American and other ethnic studies 101 class should be required. Also, civics classes so that people understand the law of the land, such as the legal rights of refugees to apply for asylum, etc.

    This is the ignorance+arrogance that is fueling this crisis. Attacks on public education, restrictions on the free flow of information across the internet (overthrow of net neutrality by private telecom), and the monopoly of corporate advertising mass media are all part of it. Just as for-profit interests and the Hearst newspapers drove mass brainwashing to support mass Japanese American incarceration in WWII.

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