The Effects of Pearl Harbor on Japanese Americans

On December 7, 1941, Americans experienced a tragic moment in their history as the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor initiating a war in the Pacific. The impact of the attack on Pearl Harbor certainly hit Japanese Americans stronger than any other comparable group of people living in the United States. The United States government and the American public immediately turned on Japanese Americans, believing that the Japanese Americans would side their loyalties with Japan.

This distrust of Japanese Americans arising out of the American public resulted in a tougher life for Japanese Americans and, eventually, the internment camps. The 2001 film, Pearl Harbor, attempted to return this major historical event to mainstream society with a more personal approach, but the film resulted in a fear of an anti-Japanese American backlash. The decision to return the attack by dropping atomic bombs on Japan, however, has had a lasting impact on the history of Americans, leading to a controversial display of the Enola Gay, the plane which dropped the first atomic weapon used in combat, at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum more than half of a century later. The effects of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which have had a lasting impact on Japanese Americans, spread across history from December 7, 1941 to the present, showing up in speeches, films, and the brutal militaristic retaliation involving the use of the atomic bomb.

The surprise attack on the morning of December 7, 1941 by the Imperial Japanese Navy on Pearl Harbor targeted the Pacific Fleet of the United States Navy. The Japanese raid arrived in two groups, totaling 353 planes, which were assigned to attack different air bases across the island of Oahu and Pearl Harbor. The Japanese planes were detected at the Army’s Opana Point radar station, but the radar warning was ignored as a result of the arrival of expected United States’ aircrafts. The raid of Pearl Harbor, planned by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, resulted in eighteen United States warships and 188 airplanes being destroyed. Many of the planes that were destroyed were on the ground when they were bombed and/or shot at.

The attack also resulted in the deaths of 2,403 American servicemen and sixty-eight civilians and wounded 1,178 other Americans. 1,102 of the deaths of American servicemen were a direct result of the explosion and eventual sinking of the Arizona. The hull of the Arizona remains as a memorial to recognize the men who lost their lives during the attack. Sixty-four Japanese men participating in the attack lost their lives that day as well. While the people of the United States went into shock as a result of the attack, Japanese Americans became the immediate focal point of blame within the boundaries of the United States.

Japanese Americans fell victim to harsh criticism from the American public and the United States government. The U.S. government called the attack “treacherous” because of the pure surprise with which it came. The note Japan sent to the United States breaking off relations arrived late and after the attack had already took its toll. The assessment of the attack by the U.S. government created a nationwide fear of the Japanese. On December 8, the day after the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made his famous speech, in which he stated, “The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.”

The opinions that Roosevelt mentions are the anti-Japanese sentiments that were an immediate reaction to the surprise attacks. The anti-Japanese wave started with the U.S. government, and the U.S. military soon followed. When Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt shares his anti-Japanese feelings in 1942, he discusses the attempt by Japanese Americans to assimilate into American culture, “The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted”(Kurashige and Yang Murray, 293). DeWitt argues that no matter how much effort the Japanese Americans put into assimilating to American culture, they will never truly get there. He maintains that they are a different race and always will be. These anti-Japanese feelings put forth by Roosevelt and DeWitt are reflected in the American public’s view of Japanese people post-Pearl Harbor.

The American public went off of their natural reactions and the reactions of their government to create anti-Japanese sentiments throughout the nation. Japanese Americans were no longer accommodated by other Americans, and any assimilating the Japanese had done was lost as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor. A 1942 Gallup poll reflected the feelings of American citizens towards the Japanese. “Japanese […] were said to be ‘treacherous, sly, cruel, and warlike’ though also ‘hardworking and intelligent'”(Chan, 121). While the poll reflected several positive aspects of Japanese Americans, the negative comments were overwhelming and reflected the views of the majority of Americans at the time. Japanese Americans were instantly considered to be dangerous as they were expected to take part in sabotage or espionage.

These fears shared by the U.S. government and the American people led to internment camps. In 1942, 70,000 American-born Japanese Americans and 40,000 Japanese immigrants were placed in the internment camps. The internment camps resulted in a complete loss of assimilation with American culture because Japanese Americans lost contact with the culture during their time of incarceration. While the internment camps were an act of revenge against people of Japanese descent within America’s borders, the U.S. government prepared for a military retaliation against the nation of Japan.

Although the huge American militaristic move against Japan took almost four years to happen, the impact of the United States’ action is still prevalent today. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan from the plane, Enola Gay. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, the United States dropped the second atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, Japan. In total, the two atomic bombs resulted in at least 120,000 immediate deaths, 95% of which were civilian casualties. Approximately another 200,000 deaths resulted over time due to the effects of the nuclear attack. The attack came less than a year after the prisoners of the internment camps were finally released. The argument over whether or not the dropping of the atomic bombs was a legitimate way to end the war with Japan is still argued today.

The complete and utter lack of recognition of Japanese lives in the dropping of the atomic bombs has made its way through history. The dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan resulted in the deaths of many family members of Japanese Americans. This militaristic retaliation left Japanese Americans in disbelief. There were many other Americans who were strongly against the dropping of the bombs as well including Professor James L. Cate at the University of Chicago. Arguing against the reasons for the dropping of the bombs, Professor Cate received a reply from Harry Truman, in which Truman stated, “Dropping the bombs ended the war, saved lives, and gave the free nations a chance to face the facts.” The bombs, which he earlier in the letter calls “this awful weapon,” saved lives in the U.S. government’s interpretation of their use, but, in the eyes of many, all the bombs did was take away the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians, which, in turn, devastated Japanese people throughout the world including Japanese Americans. The emotion and resentment against the United States’ retaliation didn’t end in the 1950s, however, as it continues to carry on throughout history.

The argument over the dropping of the atomic bombs has continued on into the 1990s and even the 2000s with the Enola Gay controversy and countless articles in the Japan Times. The Enola Gay controversy involved an exhibit at The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. The exhibit attempted to display the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The controversy arose regarding the same argument of whether or not the bombs should have been dropped. One side argues that the dropping of the bombs successfully ended World War II, while the other side argues that they were unnecessary and only resulted in the complete carnage of Japanese civilians.

Either way, the controversy over the exhibit once again created a separation of Japanese Americans from mainstream culture as they are significantly tied to the dropping of the bombs based on their ethnicity. The argument also continues on in Japan’s top English-language newspaper, the Japan Times, in which countless articles have discussed the difference between thousands of U.S. servicemen being killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians who were killed by the atomic bombs. While the argument seems to be one-sided, the U.S. government convinced much of the nation that it was the right thing to do in those anti-Japanese times. The impact of the dropping of the atomic bombs is similar to the impact of the attack on Pearl Harbor because both have had lasting impacts still prevalent in today’s society.

The most prevalent mainstream connection to the attack on Pearl Harbor in today’s society is the 2001 film, Pearl Harbor. The goal of the film’s producers and director was to make the film as historically accurate as possible. While many critics agree that the film is generally accurate historically, there are a few flaws in the historical context of the film, which give the attacks an even more evil tone. In the film, as the initial attack begins, constant images of children playing baseball and hiking are shown. The attack on Pearl Harbor, however, began at 6:37 on a Sunday morning, meaning that it is highly unlikely that there were that many kids out playing at that time in the morning. Another key scene in the film shows a Navy Nurse dying, but not a single Navy Nurse died throughout the entire attack on Pearl Harbor. By projecting these images of women and children in the middle of the attack, the director of the film has intensified the pure cruelty of the enemy in the film.

For ignorant or naive audiences, they could make the connection of the cruel enemy in the film with Japanese Americans today. It was this connection that had many Japanese Americans worried about the possible negative responses to the film. John Tateishi, national executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, protested a scene in the film that he worried would result in an anti-Japanese American backlash. In the scene, a Japanese American working as a dentist in Honolulu receives a phone call from the Japanese Consulate. He tells them that Pearl Harbor is currently holding American ships. While this phone call actually took place, the FBI and the Naval Investigative Service researched the call and concluded that it had been an innocent conversation. The film, however, only takes the part that they want and leaves out the fact that the conversation was completely innocent. Tateishi and the JACL saw this scene as having a possible negative impact on the minds of Americans who saw the film towards Japanese Americans. The historical significance of the attack on Pearl Harbor reflects all of the anti-Japanese and anti-Japanese American movements and how the American government and people went about handling these negative feelings.

The attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese and the reactionary decisions made by the United States government led to a wave of fear and anger towards Japanese Americans. When the United States government reacted against Japanese Americans in consequence of the attack on Pearl Harbor, they initiated the idea that all people of Japanese descent were somehow connected to the evildoings of the Japanese military forces. In accordance with the unleashing of this belief, the interment camps held innocent Japanese Americans to ensure that they would do no evil. The idea that the Japanese Americans were so evil that they needed to be placed in these camps stuck into the mind of many Americans throughout the nation. It was this misunderstanding orchestrated by the U.S. government that resulted in the wave of fear and hatred. As the tragic end of the war came with the dropping of the atomic bombs, the nation attempted to return to life without a war raging on, but the discriminatory feelings towards Japanese Americans remained. These Japanese Americans who had spent their time in America trying to assimilate to the culture and become an American lost anything they had gained.

To many Americans, Japanese Americans were only seen for being Japanese. As years passed, Japanese Americans slowly worked their way back into American culture through their assimilation process. In 2001, however, when Pearl Harbor hit theaters, Japanese Americans feared that they would once again lose their American “title” and become only Japanese once again. Although the massive wave of fear and hatred initiated by the attack never resurfaced as a result of the film, there is no telling how many people were affected either consciously or subconsciously by the negative images of Japanese people in the film. Times have changed since the attack on Pearl Harbor and the dropping of the atomic bombs as Japanese Americans are accepted to many people as simply, Americans, but there are and may always be the percentage of Americans who will not allow themselves to see beyond the past or the ethnic differences.

Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans An Interpretive History. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991. Goldstein, Donald M. and Katherine V. Dillon, ed. The Pearl Harbor Papers Inside the Japanese Plans. Dulles, Virginia: Brassey’s, 1993. Kurashige, Lon and Alice Yang Murray, ed. Major Problems in Asian American History. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003. Love, Robert W., Jr., ed. Pearl Harbor Revisited. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Nakaso, Dan. “Some Fear ‘Pearl Harbor’ May Spark Anti-AJA Backlash.” The Honolulu Advertiser 23 May 2001. . “Pearl Harbor (2001).” Internet Movie Database. . “The New Enola Gay Controversy: Historians Protest the Latest Smithsonian Exhibit.” History News Network.

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