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Japanese-Americans demonized in WWII

Does The Oregonian owe Japanese and Japanese-Americans an apology for its racist portrayal of them in 1942, when World War II was raging?

That question was posed by Anne Galisky, graduate student in history, at a presentation Monday night.

Galisky exhibited slides of Oregonian columns to illustrate how the publication labeled all people of Japanese descent as “Japs” and help beat the drums for internment of West Coast Japanese.

She stopped short of blaming The Oregonian for instigating the internment movement that uprooted all people of Japanese descent, whether citizens or not, and incarcerated them in interment camps for the duration of the war.

“Pretty much everybody in our state was in favor of internment,” she said. “The real question is, how can we keep this from happening again?”

Galisky has studied the progress of the internment in depth, when people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of them American citizens, were torn from their homes and property. The period she studied was from February to May of 1942. The executive order by President Franklin Roosevelt ordering the internment was issued on Feb. 19 of that year.

In May 1942, people of as little as 1/16th Japanese parentage were ordered to the Portland Assembly Center, at that time the Pacific International Livestock Exposition building, now the Expo Center. There they were housed in animal quarters pending transfer to internment centers. Galisky pointed out that in 1942 the Japanese have not been in the United States long enough for them to have diluted down to 1/16 parentage.

Galisky attributed the internment movement to three factors: race prejudice, wartime hysteria and failure of political leadership.

In that period, The Oregonian repeatedly identified Japanese people with such racist symbols as buckteeth, slant eyes and eyeglasses.

Galisky’s showcase cartoon depicted a rat labeled “alien saboteur” attacking the nest of the American eagle. The rat had the eyes and eyeglasses pictured as typical Japanese facial features. Editorial cartoons of the rival daily, The Oregon Journal tended to be less inflammatory, she said.

Galisky concluded that an apology now for material published 61 years ago would have little meaning. Rather, she would like to see the paper run an in-depth study of the entire issue.

Galisky demonstrated The Oregonian, and the press generally, tended to headline any stories about Japanese, as “Japs,” whether the stories involved citizens or not. She said a Gen. DeWitt had declared “A Jap is a Jap.” The belief was that Japanese people here would aid the Japanese military in conquering the United States.

One story was headlined, “Brutal Little Yellow Men Would Crush, Then Dominate, America.” Another said, “Japanese Blamed on Negro Unrest.” Some stories ridiculed Japanese culture, with such headlines as “Why the Japs Get Chummy in the Bathtub.”

In 1943, she said, the Oregon Legislature considered sending to the U.S. Congress a resolution that would deport all Japanese nationals and deport and cancel the citizenship of all Japanese Americans. The resolution declared that Japanese “cannot assimilate with white Christians.”

She recounted how an Oregon U.S. Senator, Rufus Holman, viewed with alarm the fact that the Portland air base was completely surrounded by Japanese farms, suggesting sabotage – then labeled as “fifth column activity” – would be possible if the Japanese were not removed.

Actually, Galisky said, Japanese farmers were generally confined to marginal farmland, such as below power lines, near bridges and around installations such as airports.

“Racial prejudice against the Japanese did not begin with Pearl Harbor and it did not end with internment,” she said.

Particularly in California, but to some extent in Oregon, there was continuing animosity between white and Japanese farmers. This animosity continued long after the war ended in 1945.

A member of the audience, of Japanese descent, recounted how he got threatening phone calls when he tried to buy a house in Portland in the 1950s.

Galisky approved of the project to build a memorial at the Portland Assembly Center.

“Some 4,000 of our neighbors were jailed there because of their race,” she said.

Galisky said it is not difficult to understand why the nation panicked and the internment occurred.

“There was real fear,” she said. “I think the racism was real, too.”