Challenging injustice: The legacy of Japanese American Incarceration with Susan Kamei

Our host Lee Wochner is joined by scholar and author Susan H. Kamei to discuss her book When Can We Go Back to America?: Voices of Japanese American Incarceration during WWII. They explore her family’s story about the Japanese American incarceration during World War II, as well as the continuing impacts across America — and why it’s crucial now that we revisit our frightening history.

Lee Wochner: Today with our guest, author and scholar Susan H. Kamei, we discuss her book, When Can We Go Back to America?: Voices of Japanese American Incarceration during WWII.

Susan Kamei: That it’s part of difficult history and there are those that don’t want difficult history to be known or taught.

Lee Wochner: We’ll talk about the book, the impact of the Incarceration, and why it’s more important than ever to educate others about it.

Jaclyn: Welcome to the podcast that lightens the tension when things sort of get hard… That’s What C! Said, the Counterintuity podcast, featuring interviews with leaders and doers who have helped to make our world a better place through their actions — and especially through marketing, communications, and embracing change. Here’s our host Lee Wochner.

Lee Wochner: Our guest today is scholar and author Susan H. Kamei. She is recognized as one of our country’s most prominent scholars on the Japanese American incarceration during World War II. Her book, When Can We Go Back to America? Voices of Japanese American Incarceration During World War II, from Simon and Schuster, has received critical acclaim for its comprehensive historical narrative. She has appeared in broadcasts by media outlets such as NPR, C-SPAN, France 24, PBS, and NBC. Her op-ed pieces and other articles have been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Conversation, and Discover Nikkei. Susan draws upon the stories of her incarcerated grandparents and parents, as well as her experience as a volunteer leader in the legislative campaign for the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. She created and teaches a popular University of Southern California undergraduate course on the incarceration and its constitutional and social implications today. In recognition of her scholarship and contributions to USC, she received several awards. She currently serves as the managing director of the USC Spatial Sciences Institute. Susan, thank you for joining us.

Susan Kamei: Thank you for including me.

Lee Wochner: Nice to have you here. Let’s jump in and talk about your book. What was the United States incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and how did it happen?

Susan Kamei: The Japanese American incarceration during World War II was the result of Executive Order 9066 issued by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on February 19, 1942. This order authorized the U.S. military to remove all persons of Japanese ancestry from designated military zones along the West Coast. Over 125,000 individuals, including first-generation immigrants and American-born children, were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in temporary detention facilities. They were later moved to 10 concentration camps in the interior of the country. The War Relocation Authority, created to execute this removal and detention, held them as prisoners behind barbed wire for the duration of the war. Even after the war, when the executive order was lifted, they had to rebuild their lives from scratch, having lost businesses and livelihoods.

Lee Wochner: Let’s talk about language for a moment. Your book is very precise in its use of language. Why is it important to get this language correct, such as using terms like incarceration and concentration camps instead of internment camps?

Susan Kamei: The term internment legally refers to the government’s power to detain and expel non-citizens, particularly enemy aliens. However, this term should only apply to the first-generation immigrants, not American-born citizens. The vocabulary used by the government during that time was purposefully euphemistic. Terms like “evacuation” and “internment” were used to downplay the severity of the situation. In reality, the Japanese Americans were considered a threat and were forcibly removed from their homes. President Roosevelt himself used the term “concentration camps.” While there is a distinction between concentration camps and death camps in the Holocaust, using the phrase “concentration camps” helps differentiate the situation in America. I prefer to use terms like “incarceration” and “welcome centers” instead of “assembly centers” to accurately convey the experience.

Lee Wochner: Understood. Thank you for clarifying.

Susan Kamei:
Referring to specific assembly centers like the Santa Anita assembly center, we prefer to use alternative terms such as temporary detention facilities. Similarly, for the war relocation authority centers, such as Manzanar and Heart Mountain, we use the term war relocation authority centers instead of internment camps.

Lee Wochner:
Speaking of Santa Anita, was that where your family was temporarily housed before being moved elsewhere?

Susan Kamei:
Yes, my mother and her parents were in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. They were relocated to barracks hastily constructed on the parking lot of the Santa Anita shopping center. Although they were not placed in the actual horse stalls, many others were housed there. Later, they were transported by train and bus to Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

Lee Wochner:
Heart Mountain, Wyoming must have had a different climate compared to Santa Anita.

Susan Kamei:
Indeed, extreme temperatures and harsh conditions were common in all the camps. They faced scorching heat in summers, freezing cold in winters, and constant dust. These camps were located in isolated areas, adding to the difficulties faced by those incarcerated.

Lee Wochner:
After the camps were disbanded, the book highlights the loss suffered by Japanese Americans. Their possessions and businesses were gone. Some were fortunate to have neighbors who safeguarded their belongings, but others experienced opportunistic neighbors who took advantage of their situation. Now, 75 years later, what was the economic impact on Japanese Americans?

Susan Kamei:
It is difficult to quantify the economic loss with a dollar value. Attempts have been made, but it’s also important to consider the psychological trauma and intergenerational effects. The first-generation immigrants, known as Issei, as well as my parents’ generation, the Nisei, experienced immense emotional devastation. Starting over was not only demoralizing but often impossible due to health issues and emotional strain. The interruption in education limited opportunities, including higher education. Many Nisei had to give up their dreams to support their families. Families like my father’s had to abandon their farming business in Orange County, leaving behind valuable crops. Despite the hardships, they showed remarkable resilience in rebuilding their lives.

Lee Wochner:
What inspired you to write this book?

Susan Kamei:
It started with the course I teach at USC, which led me to realize the lack of a comprehensive resource on the topic. Existing literature focused on narrow aspects of the Japanese American incarceration, requiring readers to navigate multiple sources to piece together the complete story. I wanted to bring together primary sources, including digitized materials and oral histories, to create a cohesive narrative that intertwines personal stories with historical context. Moreover, the relevance of this history to the present day compelled me to bring the story forward.

Lee Wochner: Excuse me. I had a general awareness of this story, but I learned a great deal from your book. It wasn’t taught to me in school. Why do you think this story isn’t more deeply known?

Susan Kamei: There are many reasons, I think. One of them is that it was mainly a West Coast phenomenon. Back then, without the internet, social media, or television, news from other parts of the country was limited to syndicated columns in newspapers and radio broadcasts. The information people received portrayed Japanese Americans as untrustworthy enemies, incapable of distinguishing between the loyal and disloyal. This perception has persisted over the years. Additionally, outside of the West Coast, most people had no personal connection to Asians, let alone Japanese individuals. Moreover, there was shame and silence surrounding the experience of being wrongfully imprisoned and considered guilty before proven innocent. This led to a lack of awareness about the stories and experiences of those affected. Lastly, difficult history is often suppressed or overlooked, and there are individuals who prefer not to acknowledge or teach it.

Lee Wochner: I was disturbed to learn more but excited and glad to learn more. So thank you for that. We’re here speaking with Susan Kamei, author and scholar, and we’re gonna take a short break, and then we will be right back, and we’re gonna discuss how Susan has done a bang-up job marketing this book.


Lee Wochner: We’re back, talking with scholar and author Susan H. Kamei about her book, “When Can We Go Back to America? Voices of Japanese American Incarceration During World War II.” Susan, I’m impressed by your commitment to marketing your book. What have you learned as an author promoting her book?

Susan Kamei: My literary agent told me that major trade publishers publish numerous books, and many of them fall off the radar after the initial launch. Only a few books make it to the New York Times bestseller list. After the launch, the longevity and ongoing awareness of the book depend on the author’s efforts. I’m grateful to Simon & Schuster for their support during the launch, but I also realized that the responsibility of promoting the book would largely fall on me. This included maintaining a website, engaging in social media, leveraging personal connections, and seizing opportunities for media coverage. I’ve also learned that being available and responsive to media requests is crucial as timing is everything. Woody Allen once said, “99% of success is just showing up.”

Lee Wochner: That’s true. Thank you for sharing your insights.

Lee Wochner: My perception is that you’re actively promoting this book with events and bookstore visits. It seems like you’re constantly engaged in promoting it.

Susan Kamei: Yes, it may feel that way because there’s a lot of preparation and communication involved before each event. I tailor my talks to the specific audience and venue, so there’s customizing involved as well. And there’s follow-up work after each event. It’s a process of talking about the book before, during, and after the events, as you taught me, Lee. It’s about telling people what you’re going to tell them, telling them, and then summarizing what you told them.

Lee Wochner: That’s right. You have a busy schedule, and I’m impressed by your dedication in promoting the book. How have you utilized social media to spread the word?

Susan Kamei: The Counter Intuiti team advised me to not just focus on promoting my book but also be a part of the community. I share information about organizations I believe in, such as Densho, the Japanese American National Museum, and the Heart Mountain Foundation. I also collaborate with other authors in this field, participating in author panels and conversations about their books. We support each other and promote each other’s work. Social media is not just about my events; it’s also a resource for those interested in learning more.

Lee Wochner: You’ve become a recognized subject matter expert. You’re an SME now, which is a marketing term for a subject matter expert. I appreciate your expertise and dedication to educating others. You’re also an attorney, and in the book, you present a strong case for the unconstitutionality of the incarceration of Japanese Americans. It’s commendable that you thoroughly address this issue, especially considering that many of those affected were American citizens.

Lee Wochner: Some of us had a feeling that this could happen again. How can we prevent such a recurrence?

Susan Kamei: Thank you for the question. Our mission is exactly to address that. First, many people are unaware that it happened. So the first objective is to raise awareness. There are groups and organizations where no one knew about it before, and they were shocked. The second is that even when it was happening, many Nisei, the American-born citizens, believed it wouldn’t affect them because they were citizens. The government referred to citizens as non-aliens to downplay their citizenship. The Nisei experienced this tragedy when there were few effective allies for them. The Quakers, the French, and a few individuals provided support, but it was insufficient. As a result, Japanese American descendants today feel the need to stand up for others, as we didn’t have enough support back then. So it’s about sharing the fact that it happened and being allies to prevent its recurrence.

Lee Wochner: Be the change that you want to see in the world, right?

Susan Kamei: Well, I received a comment after my op-ed ran, which was the first email I got. The comment said, “Get over it and move on.”

Lee Wochner: Nice, classy.

Susan Kamei: Yes, it’s important to share these experiences so that people understand there are those who dismiss it. Currently, there’s a proposed alien land law in Texas that targets citizens of China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. It’s similar to the alien land laws in California and other states that barred Asian immigrants from owning real estate. In my talks, I emphasize the importance of understanding this and how it affects our safety and civil liberties.

Lee Wochner: This makes it crucial to spread awareness about the Japanese American incarceration to prevent history from repeating itself. I could talk to you all day, and I hope you’ll come back. I’d love to discuss your experiences as a leader and change-maker in academia.

Susan Kamei: I would be delighted to come back anytime.

Lee Wochner: If people want to learn more about you and your book, where can they go?

Susan Kamei: They can visit my website, Simon & Schuster also has a webpage for the book, which can be easily found by searching “Simon & Schuster Kamei.” The book is available online on platforms like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Walmart. I also encourage supporting local independent bookstores.

Lee Wochner: Susan Kamei, you are a civil rights hero. Thank you for everything you’re doing and spreading awareness. I’m grateful that you handle difficult emails and appreciate your book and your work.

Susan Kamei: Thank you for the opportunity. I’m always available for a conversation with you.

Lee Wochner: We will definitely have you back. Bureaucracies exist in every large institution, and your skills can provide valuable insights. Thank you so much.

Susan Kamei: Thank you.

Jaclyn: Thanks for listening! We’re glad you came. That’s What C! Said is produced by Lisa Pham and engineered by Joe Curet. It’s available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts. Please like and follow the show. Visit to sign up and learn more.

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