Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

2 Scopus citations


In 2002, Julie Otsuka published her debut novel, When the Emperor Was Divine [WTEWD]. WTEWD is told from the perspective of four characters: a Japanese American family detained by the US government during World War II. The novel begins with the issuance of an executive order demanding the forced relocation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast of the United States, follows the family’s internment and imprisonment during the war years, and concludes with their return to a community that does not want them back after the war. Stripped of their names and referred to only as “the woman, " “the girl, " “the boy, " and “the man, " Otsuka’s novel at once presents the family as paradigmatic of the experience of the over 120, 000 Japanese Americans held in concentration camps during the war, while also taking the reader inside the singular experiences of each meticulously crafted character. Otsuka withholds the perspective of the “man” until the final pages of the book. He, like other male community leaders, was disappeared by the FBI in the days following the attacks on Pearl Harbor and is held in a separate internment camp. In the novel’s final, heartbreaking moments, he finally makes an appearance to issue a forced confession to his captors. He agrees to submit to all the varied, unfounded, and sometimes impossible accusations against him if only they will let him go. Observing the fact that Otsuka’s novel was published in the year after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the New York Times’ review of the book curiously remarked: “Maybe it’s a sign of progress that, while numerous detentions and arrests inevitably followed the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, no wholesale roundup of Arab-Americans was even contemplated” (Upchurch 2002). In the months and years that followed the attacks of 9/11, however, a de facto regime of surveillance, racial profiling, deportation, and detention for racialized and Muslim bodies was instituted both within the United States and its global sphere of military influence (Puar 2007: 114-202; Rana 2011). With an eerie resemblance to the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II, incidents of hate crimes drastically increased for brown and Muslim populations throughout the United States; federal and local authorities instituted legally questionable policing techniques, including surveillance and thinly veiled profiling; and rates of detention and deportation for Asian and Arab immigrants increased significantly in the early part of the twentyfirst century. Perhaps most famously, in 2002 the Bush administration began to import prisoners, classified as “enemy combatants, " to the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba. The Justice Department took the position that the prisoners, because located outside of the United States, were not subject to Constitutional protections nor, because they were deemed non-traditional combatants, international law (Denbeaux et al. 2009). Held indefinitely, without charge, and placed outside the law, their lives took on a familiar resemblance to the story of “the man” in Otsuka’s novel. The imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II has often been understood as exemplary of the racialization of Asian Americans as always already foreign, inassimilable, and suspect bodies (Shimakawa 2002: 10-11; Chuh 2003: 58-84; Ngai 2004: 175-201). At the same time scholars such as Elaine H. Kim have warned that the continued critical focus on the World War II imprisonment of Japanese Americans reifies a hegemonic narrative of Asian America at the risk of foreclosing the consideration of a diverse range of Asian American experiences. In a justified and powerful critique of the cultural nationalism undergirding Asian American studies, Kim argued: “Indeed, it might be said that until recent years, Asian American communities and cultures were shaped by legal exclusion and containment, while contemporary experiences are being shaped by internationalization of the world’s political economies and cultures” (Kim 1995: 13). She encouraged Asian Americanist scholars to move “beyond railroads and internment” in order to “create an Asian American studies for the future” (18), one that could be more robust and better incorporate feminist, queer, and pan-Asian perspectives into the field. Importantly, Kim’s remarks (published in 1995) could not have anticipated the rapid expansion and consolidation of the national security state in the early twentyfirst century. As noted above, the historical precedent set by the World War II imprisonment of Japanese Americans was imbued with unanticipated political and social significance in the post-9/11 era. Thus, Asian American studies must increasingly understand “exclusion and containment” as inextricably related to, rather than separate from, the “internationalization of the world’s political economies and cultures” in order to account for Asian American racialization in both the past and present. In many ways, we cannot move “beyond” the concepts of imprisonment, internment and detention because they are part of the connective tissue that links together the processes of internationalization, globalization, and the racialization of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans throughout the modern era. In what follows, I will historicize “imprisonment, " “internment, " and “detention” in relation to three key events: the forms of incarceration to which Asian immigrants were subjected during the period of Asian exclusion, the Japanese American imprisonment of World War II, and the practices of detention and imprisonment that characterize the contemporary moment. As each of these terms has had a significant impact on Asian American cultural production, I will use particular works of literary and cultural production to illustrate the discussion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781317698418
ISBN (Print)9780415642484
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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