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Posh Writings on Prisons in the West: The New Yorker’s Take on Japanese American Incarceration

In the wake of the Los Angeles Times’s recent self-reflection on the place of racism in its past, it is worth considering how mainstream publications covered historical events in American history associated with race and civil rights. One issue that inspired a wide range of responses was the mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Public opinion in favor of incarceration was fueled in part by the racist media portrayals of Japanese American disloyalty that were featured in West Coast publications such as the Los Angeles Times and the Hearst Press.

While East Coast newspapers were less vocal in their racial stereotyping than West Coast publications, the New York Times supported mass removal on racial grounds, and popular commentator Walter Lippmann, following a visit to the West Coast, published a pair of columns calling for official action. The few remarks made by New York-based periodicals are telling of the differing views on the concentration camps of the West.

The most hostile to the rights of American citizens of Japanese ancestry was Life Magazine. While Life ran pro-Nisei articles during 1940, its December 22, 1941 article “How to tell Japs from Chinese” all but incited racist violence against Japanese Americans. At the same time, a number of liberal periodicals based in New York City criticized the incarceration policy.

In June 1942, The New Republic published an article, “Concentration Camps, U.S. Style” written by Ted Nakashima, a Nisei who was confined at the Puyallup Assembly Center in Washington. While The Nation, for its part, initially supported the incarceration, it soon flipped and became one of the most vocal critics of the camps. At the end of the war, Harper’s Weekly published Eugene Rostow’s famed critique of the camps and the subsequent Supreme Court rulings in the ”Japanese internment” cases—“America’s Worst Wartime Mistake.”

Yet one of the most influential of the mainstream weeklies, and the subject of this article, is The New Yorker. Although stylized as a humor magazine during the war years, the few mentions of the camps made in the New Yorker are revealing of its stance on Japanese Americans before their landmark publication of John Hersey’s 1946 story Hiroshima, to which The New Yorker devoted an entire issue.

Before the war, in its pages could be found occasional mentions of a number of Japanese American artists and performers in New York City. For example, Yoichi Hiraoka—considered by some to be the first to showcase the xylophone as a solo instrument—was profiled in the Talk of the Town in 1937 during his time with NBC (for more information on Hiraoka >>). Artist Bumpei Usui’s paintings was mentioned on multiple occasions in the Arts section during the 1920s. Likewise The New Yorker printed anonymous commentary by Arthur P. Hirose, the Hapa writer and publicist—sometimes co-authored with famed author E.B. White. Yet most of these mentions were fleeting and presented Japanese Americans as curiosities.

Grant Ujifusa, a lobbyist for the Japanese American Citizens League during the Redress movement of the 1980s, later claimed that The New Yorker editor Harold Ross approved General John DeWitt’s recommendation for mass exclusion of West Coast Japanese Americans. While this remains unsubstantiated, its editors clearly did not report on mass removal as it unfolded in 1942. What few references the magazine made to the camps were ambiguous or cynical. The July 18, 1942 issue contained a squib quoting an article about the Manzanar concentration camp in California from The Christian Advocate:

“At Manzanar, four miles south of Independence, where apple orchards once flourished, a new city is growing up like a well-planned mushroom.”

The humor writers at the New Yorker seized on the comment, and responded:

“There’s the New Deal for you—everything all blocked out.”

In addition to satirizing the poorly written publication and its euphemistic reference to the camp as a “city” (and how can you plan a mushroom?), the writers may have used the term “blocked” as part of a double entendre—a block being a section of barracks in the camp, along with being blocked from the rest of society.

Yet besides this humorous reference, the camps rarely appeared in the pages of the New Yorker for most of the war years. Worse, the New Yorker shared racist commentary about disloyal Japanese, and used the racial epithet “Jap.” In the April 11, 1942 Talk of the Town section, Jack Gerber of CBS discussed enemy radio broadcasts to the U.S. and referenced a Japanese soldier speaking English: “We heard a Jap who spoke faultless English—‘Probably a U.C.L.A graduate,’ Gerber remarked.”

Portrait of Mabel Dodge Luhan by Carl Van Vechten, 1934.

Toward the end of the war, in its May 5, 1945 issue, the New Yorker profiled the artist and salon hostess Mabel Dodge Luhan, who had moved from New York City to Taos, New Mexico in 1917 to establish an arts colony. Speaking about her life in Taos during the war, she complained that it was difficult to find a cook, because local workers had all left for war work in California. She then remarked “I could have hired a pair of Japs from a relocation center,” she said, “but I asked the people around town how they would feel about it and they told me they’d kill them. Taos is a lawless place.” Despite the comment by Luhan (whose son, John Evans worked at the Poston camp) deploring “lawlessness,” the statement still normalized racial hatred of white Americans towards Japanese Americans.

A number of important moments for confined Japanese, such as the Supreme Court Case Korematsu v. United States, went unremarked by The New Yorker. The exploits of Japanese American soldiers did, however, attract the attention of The New Yorker. On March 31, 1945, the magazine ran its sole wartime article on Japanese Americans. Written by sportswriter John Lardner, then a war correspondent on leave in Hawaii, the article centers on the exploits of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Infantry Battalion. Lardner draws on his own memories of meeting Nisei solders in Italy and then reuniting with them in Hawaii. Lardner interviews Nisei soldiers for their descriptions of Japanese American life before the war. As for the camps, Lardner characterizes them in passing as a product of attempts by West Coast whites to seize the businesses and farms of their Japanese American competitors—a tragic consequence of the war and West Coast racism.

Soon after, The New Yorker’s editors referenced the military record of Japanese Americans on another occasion. Humorist Frank Sullivan mentioned the exploits of Nisei airman Ben Kuroki, the famed gunner who flew 58 mission over Europe and Japan, and other Nisei soldiers in his December 22, 1945 Christmas edition of his poem Greetings, Friends:

“Prossy, frame a warm Yule trochee
In honor of Sergeant Ben Kuroki
And all the gallant Nisei Yanks—
To him and them, their country thanks.”

The camps continued to resurface in the articles of the book review section, such as that on Carey McWilliams’s 1944 study on Japanese Americans, Prejudice. Florence Crannell Means’s 1945 children’s book, The Moved-Outers, a story that focuses on a Japanese American family’s confinement in the Poston concentration camp in Arizona, received praise from The New Yorker’s book reviews for its honest depiction of the camps. (For more on Means’s life story>>)

In 1946—the year the last camp closed—The New Yorker ran a review of Miné Okubo’s graphic camp memoir Citizen 13660. The reviewer gave the work an overall positive evaluation, stating that Okubo’s captions “are written with restraint and humor and seem to depreciate the inconveniences of the camps,” but that her the drawings “do not minimize them at all.” (The reviewer even called the camps “concentration camps,” a rare occurrence in 1946.) However, the reviewer also patronizingly referred to Okubo (then 34 years old) as a “young Japanese-American girl” and suggested that her drawings had “a certain Oriental imagery in the illustrations.”

In the postwar years, The New Yorker published a number of short stories by Japanese American writers. Among the earliest is Mitsu Yamamoto’s 1957 short story “The Good News.” The story centers on a woman, a Mrs. Corin, and her friendship with a fellow patient in a hospital as she awaits news of her condition. Yamamoto, a Nisei originally from Cleveland, Ohio, continued to write short stories throughout her career, although “The Good News” was her sole publication with The New Yorker. Perhaps the most well-known Japanese American writer to be featured in the New Yorker is Cynthia Kadohata, whose stories such as Jack’s Girl and Charlie-O remain some of the only mentions of the incarceration in the story section and launched her career as a writer. Kadohata would go on to write multiple award-winning children’s books such as Kira-Kira and The Thing About Luck. More recently, the artwork of award-winning cartoonist Adrian Tomine has been featured on the cover of The New Yorker.

To sum up, in the case of Japanese American confinement, The New Yorker followed the tune of many serial publications during the war—it either ignored the question entirely or skirted around the issue. To be sure, during this time The New Yorker was mainly known as a humor and lifestyle magazine. Yet with the publication of John Hersey’s Hiroshima in the August 31, 1946 issue, The New Yorker entered a new era as an authority on American literature and culture at large. It is ironic that the magazine’s serious reputation was first built on the issue of humanizing the Japanese, even as its editors downplayed anti-Japanese racism at home.

As the sounding board of American literary and intellectual culture, The New Yorker remains among the top American publications. Arguably, it also serves as a moral barometer on broader social issues in the United States, as evidenced by its commentary on the George Floyd protests and ongoing examination of racism within American society. Yet this has not always been true, and the distinct postwar changes of The New Yorker reflect an increasing consciousness of race relations. Reconciling these darker parts of our history go beyond the government, and for publications like The New Yorker set a precedent on how to move forward.


© 2020 Jonathan van Harmelen

incarcerations japanese americans medias The New Yorker World War II