Book Review: Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II by Anne M. Blankenship

[1] Our personal security is more of a fantasy than we can comfortably admit, and appeals to national security can conceal the darkest chambers of social bigotry. Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt eighty years ago on February 19, 1942, devastated the lives of more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent (Nikkei) by effectively authorizing the military to forcibly remove these families from their homes in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona. Later determined to have been completely unnecessary to the defense of the country,[1] this mass detention was carried out in the name of national security amid a storm of uncontained hatred of Japanese Americans. Approximately 25 percent of these unjustly imprisoned Nikkei were committed Christians whose lives centered around ethnic churches of multiple denominations, and it is their story that Anne Blankenship sets out to tell in Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II.[2]

[2] Blankenship’s study is part of an accelerating wave of publications— ranging from children’s books and graphic novels through oral histories and memoirs to scholarly and legal analyses—examining the Japanese American incarceration. This twenty-year surge in attention reflects in part the willingness of recent generations of Japanese Americans to confront and publicize experiences that previous generations shrouded in silence.[3] What makes Blankenship’s book distinctive, and particularly relevant for JLE readers, is that she alone has focused on the “intertwined” stories of the religious faith of the incarcerated Christians and the social activism of the Christians who aided them but perhaps also failed them. As she says, “No one has looked inside the church doors to see what was happening, why it looked the way it did, or what happened afterward” (5).

[3] While Blankenship aspires to offer a comprehensive treatment of Christian life in the ten “relocation camps,” her study skews towards one camp in particular and toward mainline Protestants overall. Nikkei Christians from the Seattle area are “a special focus of this book” (6) because they “left unparalleled textual records, oral histories, photographs, and material artifacts” (12). Because nearly all Nikkei from the Northwest were removed to Minidoka in Idaho, she studies that camp more extensively than any other. This anchoring focus is a deficit only to the extent that Minidoka seems to have been an atypical camp. Among officials, it was known as “the good camp” (145), and its boundaries were more porous than the term “incarceration” might imply.[4]

[4] Quakers, Roman Catholics, and Protestants are her composite subject, but by far the most pages are allocated to Protestants. (The religious life of the large number of Buddhists is beyond the reach of her study.) This disproportionate emphasis is understandable (if sometimes a little frustrating) for three reasons: (a) Most of the Christian Nikkei belonged to ethnic churches within the Congregationalist, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterians (U.S.A.), and American Baptist denominations, reflecting the missionary work (foreign and domestic) of those churches. (b) Not only were multiple denominations involved, but their ecumenical agencies were tasked both with work in the camps and with the resettlement programs that that the government encouraged and that permitted Nikkei to reclaim their freedom. The Protestant strand of the history is thus institutionally complex, encompassing both a rich record of resourceful cooperation and a discouraging chronicle of cumbersome negotiations, debilitating tensions, and open conflicts. (c) Moreover, the Protestant story is not only the story of activity related to the camps but also the story of the ecumenical movement more broadly. This larger movement—with its dedication to peace, its “dreams of global unity,” and its aspiration “to reform the nation and the world through the church” (59)—provides the explanatory context for Protestant cooperation with government authorities, commitment to ecumenical worship, and blinkered planning for post-war congregational integration. This is a book that records an important chapter in the history of twentieth-century ecumenism.

[5] The accounts of Quaker and Catholic activity are, in contrast, relatively spare. Quakers, working exclusively through the well-organized and experienced American Friends Service Committee, concerned themselves primarily with material aid, legal action, and resettlement, apparently without having much of a presence in the camps. The Maryknoll Order managed all Roman Catholic activity, and the number of Nikkei Catholics was small (less than 10 percent of all Christian Nikkei). Although Minidoka was one of the two camps with the largest number, Minidoka required only one priest, having just 200 Catholic prisoners (in contrast to several thousand Protestants).

[6] This volume is not, however, simply a book about Christian life in the camps. As the title announces, Blankenship is writing about social justice—in three registers. First she examines the social justice commitments of the involved churches—what they did (and refrained from doing) in the face of this domestic emergency. Second, on the larger canvas of twentieth-century church history, she advances several arresting insights about Christian social activism. Chief among these is her argument in support of “an expanded understanding of the civil rights movement” that treats this mobilization of energy in pursuit of social justice for Japanese Americans as the precursor of and preparation for the involvement of the churches in the Civil Rights Movement two decades later (3-4). Finally, Blankenship exposes and analyzes, from a twenty-first century perspective, moral lapses to which she believes the people involved were blind. Five instances stand out (not counting her brief ascerbic remarks (132-33) on the invisibility, in the historical record, of the hard-working wives of pastors and missionaries):

  • The silence of the churches in the face of appallingly unjust government action (chapter 1, 18-42)
  • The temptations of the Good Samaritan (chapter 2, 60-69; chapter 5)
  • Prejudicial assumptions underlying attempts to safeguard religious freedom in the camps (chapter 3, 99-115)
  • The possibility that faith encouraged the complicity or collaboration of the victims with their captors (chapter 4)
  • Missteps in race relations by leaders who cared passionately about improving race relations (chapter 5, the introduction, and the epilogue)

The book provokes and contributes to continuing conversation on all these still intensely relevant topics. Lacking space to explore all five, let me say a bit more about three.

The Silence of the Churches

[7] In the days immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, about 5,000 prominent first-generation Nikkei males (who remained permanent resident aliens because existing immigration law proscribed their seeking naturalization or owning land) were rounded up and imprisoned by the FBI as probable enemy aliens. Their assets were frozen, their dependents were left without financial support, and most of them remained in Department of Justice high security camps for the duration of the war. That left about 107,000 Nikkei, most of them American citizens by birth, along America’s Pacific coast. For the first four weeks after Executive Order 9066 was signed, these West Coast Nikkei were urged to voluntarily migrate to the central and eastern parts of the country (about 5,000 did). On March 19, 1942, both houses of Congress passed Public Law 503 authorizing involuntary evacuation.  On March 24, Lieutenant General John DeWitt issued the order to evict all Nikkei from Alaska and the West Coast, and on March 27 voluntary relocation was banned, with all remaining Nikkei being forcibly confined to their residential areas until the army removed them to temporary assembly centers (fairgrounds and race tracks) for detention in miserable conditions while the ten permanent “relocation centers” were hastily built in remote deserts and swamps. Between March and June 1942, the United States government, without investigation or appeal, incarcerated 115,000[5] Americans (some of them legal permanent residents but about 70 percent of them American citizens). They were forced—in a matter of a few weeks, sometimes in just a few days—to sell or lease “their houses, businesses, farms, and belongings at immense financial and personal loss” (18). They could take with them nothing more than the bags they could individually carry. They were stripped of their civil rights and freedoms for no crime other than looking like the enemy.

[8] Despite the despair of the Christian Nikkei and the outrage of the Christians who worked directly with them on the West Coast, during those terrible first months when policy still might have been altered, no church except the Quakers unequivocally denounced this injustice. “Quakers’ definitive condemnation of the incarceration, frequent admissions of responsibility, commitment to [public and legal] action, and requests for forgiveness set them apart from other Christian denominations” (18). The silence of the rest had complex roots, but Blankenship highlights two concerns. First, church leaders avoided confrontation with the government out of fear that public condemnation would lead the government to deny them all access to those who were evacuated. Protestants, especially, judged that cooperation with authorities would best serve Nikkei in the long run. Preserved documents show that pastors and local officials counseled Nikkei themselves to “cooperate with the authorities, and believe that all things work for good to those who love God” (34). Second, church leaders were concerned about public and congregational reactions to actions that would be perceived as unpatriotic in a time of war. Some leaders, having no direct acquaintance with the Japanese American communities and influenced by the media frenzy about alleged fifth-column activities by Japanese immigrants, genuinely believed the evacuation to be necessary. With respect to the Catholic hierarchy in particular, the author notes that “a history of persecution in America may have caused Catholic leaders to withhold criticism of widely accepted policies” (39).

[9] Such fears were not unreasonable (though it is worth noting that it soon became clear that the Quakers’ outspoken protests did not in fact jeopardize their aid efforts). Both concerns point to the agonizing compromises that must sometimes be crafted between principles and political realities, but Blankenship clearly believes that, with the exception of the Quakers, the churches betrayed their calling and that their caution and cooperation amounted to complicity in a grave evil. She implies but does not argue that racial prejudice in the churches was also a factor.  As she documents, Pearl Harbor unleashed vicious anti-Asian sentiment against which Christian faith provided little immunity.

[10] All this is not to say that the churches stood by and did nothing. The book is a meticulous record of the extraordinary work that the churches did do. In those first eight months, not only did ministers, missionaries, and Christian agencies care for the needs of their traumatized communities, but they—especially Catholics and Quakers—made extraordinary efforts to assist voluntary evacuations as long as they were possible.[6] Moreover, all the churches began at once to conduct public relations campaigns, which continued throughout the war, to combat anti-Asian bigotry, since resettlement of Nikkei was only possible to the degree that prejudice against them could be overcome.

The Temptation of the Good Samaritan

[11] Blankenship persistently raises questions, not about the intentions of the aid workers, but about their unexamined assumptions. The white Protestant leadership (denominational or ecumenical) regularly made decisions for and about Nikkei Christians and their churches without consulting Nikkei ministers or laypeople.

[12] Even before the camps had been built and occupied, non-Nikkei decision makers determined that only ecumenical Protestant worship would be “supported,” and this seems to have been the grounds on which the War Relocation Authority (WRA) decided that there should be one Buddhist, one Catholic, and one Protestant church in each of the camps. While it is true that the Japanese Church Federation of Northern California “recognized the authority” of the ecumenical Protestant Commission organized by the churches to oversee Protestant religious life in the camps and authorized by the WRA to do so, no one asked the Nikkei ministers who were busy themselves organizing their churches in the camps whether they wanted ecumenical worship or the help of outside organizations. The Protestant Commission began the complicated process of matching white clergy with positions in the camps, well before the imprisoned Nikkei issued any invitations (61).

[13] By 1943, the white leadership of the allied denominations had independently decided to integrate Nikkei into predominantly white churches after the war rather than replicating the pre-war ethnic churches (61). They did not discuss post-war arrangements with Nikkei before deciding that assimilation was the best path for people of Japanese ancestry. In July 1943 “the Protestant Commission organized a conference for Nikkei pastors,” but most attendees were white. “Nikkei held subordinate roles” as all session were chaired by the white leadership. The conference was designed to inform Nikkei pastors of the plans that had already been made regarding the future of Japanese American Christianity. The conference seems to have been notable for the degree to which Nikkei leaders actively protested their exclusion from the councils at which decisions affecting their lives and those of their parishioners were being made. Blankenship notes, however, that white Christians interpreted the complaints as evidence of a lack of timely and full communication on their part; “national leaders . . . failed to recognize that Nikkei wanted an active role in making those decisions, not simply to hear about them” (69). All that said, Nikkei leaders had few options and were nothing if not pragmatic. As Blankenship writes in the chapter summary, “If anyone was looking for a savior in this situation, Christian churches were the lone candidate” (96). When the Home Mission Council voted to disband the Protestant Commission, Nikkei pastors and congregations agitated successfully for its preservation reasoning that “its constituency of former missionaries could ‘work . . . as if they were of [the Japanese’s] own number, intimately, understandingly, and wholeheartedly,’ something denominational leaders in the East could never manage” (67).

[14] Troubling as this unwitting arrogance is, I am not sure that the conclusion Blankenship draws is entirely fair. Buttressing her assessment with anthropological theorizing about gift economies, she writes, “Aid strengthened preexisting bonds between Protestant Nikkei and national churches, while also solidifying the churches’ power and domination within a stratified racial hierarchy. Receiving aid reaffirmed the Japanese Americans’ lower social status and their sense of obligation to the outside churches” (96). Gift economies (sometimes called reciprocal altruism) usually involve free and at least semi-equal partners with a capacity to give on both sides. Nikkei were not free and had no resources of their own; they were thrown against their will into a position of absolute dependency. For a proud people, this must have been at least as devastating as their material poverty. How, in such circumstances, was receiving aid any more a mark of lower social status than being imprisoned was an indicator of criminality? It seems self-defeating to conflate the responsibility to help with the inclination to power and domination. Yet paternalism is a real danger, and the impulse to exploit differences in capacity and need is a genuine temptation that must be consciously resisted. The relations between those who give out of their abundance and those who receive in their destitution are psychologically very complicated, and her analysis is a sobering reminder of that.

Race and Social Justice

[15] Blankenship considers race relations between the white Christians providing aid and the imprisoned Japanese American Christians; between the dominantly white denominations and the ethnic congregations struggling for their identity within those denominations; and within the churches where Christian congregations displayed racial (or nativist or nationalistic) prejudice in supporting the creation of the camps in 1942 and resisting the integration of their congregations after the war.

[16] Just as the ecumenical work in the camps was part of a larger vision of Christian unity that powered much mid-century Protestant thinking, so the insistence on the post-war integration of Nikkei into white congregations was part of an emerging strategy for resolving racial tensions in America. The fifth and final chapter of the book, focused on developments surrounding the closing of the camps, “analyzes attempts [by church leaders—all white] to mend the nation’s racial divisions by ending the segregation of white and Japanese Protestant worship” (14). The ruling conviction, also enshrined in national policy, was that assimilation was necessary to the peace and cohesion of a melting-pot nation.[7] When Protestant Nikkei left the camps, denominational leaders “instructed” them to join the established churches of their denomination rather than resurrecting their pre-war ethnic churches. Policy makers embraced it as an opportunity “to reduce national racial tensions” by “dispers[ing] Nikkei throughout the country. They saw the reentrance of Nikkei into American society as the opportunity to eliminate the segregation of Japanese Americans” (270). To force such integration, some churches refused to restore ethnic church properties to returning Nikkei after the war (194-95). The chapter lays out the ensuing acrimonious “debate about the role of racial minorities within the church” (14; 172-77). Blankenship is careful to note that the argument did not break neatly along racial lines. Some prominent Nikkei supported integration for reasons of Christian unity or as a pragmatic path to social acceptance; conversely, white Methodists steadfastly refused to consent to plans to close the ethnic churches. And, sadly, many Protestant congregations (also not consulted by church leaders) were adamantly opposed to “worshiping alongside people they saw as the enemy” (176).

[17] The story she tells of the post-war resettlement of 120,000 Nikkei who had lost everything is almost as heartbreaking as the story of their original extraction. For church leaders, what that period made clear, slowly and painfully, was that the program of integration was a “failed battle” (204), an initiative that “failed spectacularly” (4)—with the end result that subsequently “liberal Protestants did not attempt to force the integration of any other racial or ethnic minority” (205). Blankenship highlights three forms of blindness that become clear retrospectively:

  • “Agendas intending to achieve racial equality by restricting the agency of racial minorities were doomed to fail” (206).
  • Church leaders did not recognize imbalances of power as just that; instead they saw naïve newcomers who needed authoritative wisdom and guidance in navigating the ways of their new country. The result was a paternalistic plan that deprived the Nikkei of their own existing power and authority in their communities, and, if successful, would have locked them into a permanently subordinate position in the name of equality.
  • The path to unity is not paved by right intentions and does not pass through the valley of authoritative instruction and financial pressure; rather, it finds its beginning in the recognition of equals, in the asking and listening that in this story too seldom happened.

[18] The book is not an easy-reading narrative history.  It requires at least moderate interest in churches and their history as complex, worldly institutions. Blankenship has developed this account from prodigious work in archives and special collections at thirteen sites (universities, church bodies, museums, and the National Archives) and draws heavily on original documents to provide evidence for her claims. As a result, on the initial reading, it is easy to feel drowned in the constant rain of detail; it is when one steps back and sees the wider outlines of the story that the true importance and contemporary relevance of her work become clear. The book’s remarkable contribution lies not just in its attention to the neglected subject of the Christian faith of the victims of unspeakable injustice but also in its meticulous account of the involvement of an array of other-honoring white Christians who accompanied the Nikkei into those camps, worked tirelessly to resettle as many as possible, and maneuvered slyly and resourcefully through the thicket of government regulations while also advocating the cause of the Nikkei to the larger church bodies of which they were a part and to the nation as a whole.


[1] “Not a single spy or saboteur of Japanese descent was ever discovered” (2). In their 1983 final report Personal Justice Denied, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, appointed by President James Carter, exonerated the Nikkei of disloyalty, attributed their imprisonment to racism, and recommended reparations. Five years later, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The United States government officially apologized to the unjustly imprisoned Japanese Americans and provided financial restitution in the amount of $20,000 to each of the 82,000 still living internees.


[2] The majority of Nikkei—possibly two thirds—were Buddhist. For a parallel examination of the role of religion among incarcerated Buddhist families, see Duncan Ryūken Williams, American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2020).  Two additional studies will be released in 2022: Duncan Ryūken Williams and Emily Anderson, eds., Sutra and Bible: Faith and the Japanese American World War II Incarceration, (Kaya Press/Ito Center Editions); and Tom Kenji Sugimura, The Church behind Barbed Wire: Stories of Faith during the Japanese American Internment of World War II (independently published).


[3] This past year saw the publication of six notable studies: Daniel James Brown, Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II (New York: Viking, 2021); Tom Coffman, Inclusion: How Hawai‘i Protected Japanese Americans from Mass Internment, Transformed Itself, and Changed America (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 2021); Stephanie D. Hinnershitz, Japanese American Incarceration: The Camps and Coerced Labor during World War II, Politics and Culture in Modern America Series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021); Susan H. Kamei, When Can We Go Back to America? Voices of Japanese American Incarceration during World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021); Bradford Pearson, The Eagles of Heart Mountain: A True Story of Football, Incarceration, and Resistance in World War II America (New York: Simon & Schuster, Atria Books, 2021). Rachel Schreiber, Elaine Black Yoneda: Jewish Immigration, Labor Activism, and Japanese American Exclusion and Incarceration (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2021).


[4] Twin Falls, where non-Nikkei church workers lived, was unusually close to the camp. “In a typical week, Minidoka’s administrators issued shopping passes to three or four hundred incarcerees” (131). Nikkei frequently left the camp for events in their pastors’ homes. They supplemented the camp’s ecumenical worship with denominational worship in town. Some chose to be baptized or married in local churches or their white pastors’ homes. Youth activities (like Boy Scouts) often brought Nikkei and townspeople together, as did adult religious programs and activities (like choirs). Nikkei assisted with harvests on surrounding farms. Camp administrators even allowed Nikkei to make trips back to Seattle for burials.


[5] This is Blankenship’s figure (p, 18); the figure usually given is 120,000.  The discrepancy may reflect the fact that 6,000 children were born in the camps.


[6] While voluntary relocation was possible, the Maryknoll order threw their energy into a “colonization plan” to establish a Nikkei community in St. Louis. Families were encouraged to prepare to move. By late March 1942, 7,000 Los Angeles Nikkei families of various faiths (more than 23,000 individuals) had signed up. “With such great numbers, Maryknoll leaders realized the impossibility of such an undertaking. No community in the United States could absorb such a large population, and Maryknoll could not locate enough sympathetic regions if they divided Nikkei. Maryknoll lacked the money to support such a project as well” (41).


[7] Blankenship notes that “Catholics and Quakers more frequently recognized the need for solidarity and fellowship within the ethnic group” (170).

Diane (D.M.) Yeager

After retiring from teaching ethics and philosophical theology in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Diane Yeager is now delighting in a totally new phase of learning as a docent at the Smithsonian's  National Museum of Asian Art.