The competition for victim status is fierce in today’s America.  Considering their disproportionate degree of success here in the United States, it is ironic that, for the last several decades, Japanese-Americans have been engaged in that competition.  The relocation camps of World War II are now called “concentration camps,” relocation itself is referred to as “internment,” and the evacuation and relocation of Pacific Coast Japanese is claimed to have been done only for “racist” reasons.  Since President Franklin D. Roosevelt was ultimately responsible for the program, conservatives and libertarians would love to find him guilty of committing great transgressions against the resident Japanese without good cause.  Such, however, was not the case.

When the Japanese perpetrated their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, there were some 112,000 Japanese living on the Pacific Coast, largely in California.  About 40 percent were resident aliens; the remainder having been born in the United States, were citizens.  That only tells part of the story, however.  The citizens were mostly children or teenagers; when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, their parents automatically became enemy aliens.  Moreover, the Japanese emperor claimed all Japanese born overseas as subjects, and the resident Japanese regularly had their children’s names inscribed on the scrolls of their home villages in Japan and sent their children to “Japanese school” on Saturdays.  The schools were staffed with Shinto priests who doubled as Japanese agents and inculcated a fierce devotion to the Japanese emperor in the children.  Some of the children, becoming Americanized, grumbled about the Saturday schooling, but, being dutiful sons and daughters, they attended class.

Meanwhile, American cryptographers had broken, one after another, various Japanese codes.  The work of the code breakers was brilliant, and, as a consequence, their decryptions became known by the name MAGIC.  The MAGIC program was top secret and only revealed on a need-to-know basis to the most senior officials of the government.  Eight volumes of MAGIC files were published by the Department of Defense in 1977.  What they reveal is, like the decryption itself, stunning: Far from the resident Japanese not acting as spies and agents of an enemy power, hundreds of them were feeding information to Japan.  If the U.S. government had arrested the individual spies, it would have been obvious that the United States had broken the Japanese codes.  Faced with such a dilemma, President Roosevelt saw the evacuation of all Japanese from the Pacific Coast as the only answer.

Throughout 1941, the United States frequently intercepted reports of Japanese resident aliens (“first generation Japanese”) and Japanese-Americans (“second generation Japanese”) providing information to Japanese agents.  In a decrypted message from May 9, for example, a Japanese agent in Los Angeles reports,

We have already established contact with absolutely reliable Japanese in the San Pedro and San Diego area, who will keep a close watch on all shipments of airplanes and other war materials. . . . We shall maintain connection with our second generations who are at present in the [U.S.] Army, to keep us informed of various developments in the Army.  We also have connections with our second generations working in airplane plants for intelligence purposes.

In a decrypt from May 11, a Japanese agent in Seattle mentions “second generation Japanese” and intelligence concerning “the concentration of warships within the Bremerton Naval Yard, information with regard to mercantile shipping and airplane manufacture, movements of military forces.”  The agent also says that “we have made arrangements to collect intelligences from second generation Japanese draftees on matters dealing with troops, as well as troop speech and behavior.”  A “first generation Japanese,” who is a union committee chairman, is identified as providing a report on the labor movement.  “[F]or the collection of intelligences with regard to anti-participation organizations and the anti-Jewish movement, we are making use of a second generation Japanese lawyer.”  And so it goes for hundreds of pages.  Names of the resident Japanese (aliens and citizens) are often mentioned, although they are blanked out in the files published by the Department of Defense. 

Occasionally, a Japanese spy was arrested but only when his arrest would not compromise MAGIC.  Richard Kotoshirodo, a Japanese-American working with a Japanese agent in Hawaii, was arrested shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  The agent’s telephone had been tapped for months, and, from the conversations heard over the line, it was clear that Kotoshirodo was supplying the agent with intelligence concerning the U.S. Navy.  Once war broke out, Kotoshirodo’s activities could have gotten him executed for treason.  However, his intelligence was relayed to Japan by the agent in code, and a trial would have required the admission that the United States had not only intercepted the signals but decrypted the code.  Kotoshirodo was simply transported to Topaz Relocation Center in Utah.  I do not know whether he was alive in the 1980’s to collect his $20,000 from Uncle Sam, but he would have been eligible to do so. 

Before the publication of the MAGIC files, the “blame America first” writers and activists had some legitimacy.  Although there were plenty of holes in their arguments, the proposition that the United States overreacted to the threat posed by Japanese aliens and Japanese-Americans on the Pacific Coast was not entirely invalid.  That most of the same writers and activists persist in their arguments in the face of the MAGIC revelations reduces them, unless they are somehow ignorant of the files, to propagandists or irrational victimologists.