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Of Coercion and Accommodation: Looking at Japanese American Imprisonment through a Law Office Window

Abstract

Crucial to the implementation of the War Relocation Authority's (WRA) regulations of its detention camps for the uprooted Japanese American community of the West Coast were the WRA “project attorneys,” white lawyers stationed in the camps who gave legal advice to administrators and internees alike. These lawyers left behind a voluminous correspondence that opens a new window on the WRA's relationship with its prisoners, a relationship heretofore understood as encompassing coercion on one side and either compliance or resistance on the other. This article uses the voluminous correspondence of the project attorney at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming as a new lens for viewing the regulatory relationship between the WRA and the imprisoned community. It focuses on three of the many matters about which the project attorney gave advice: the design of the camp's community government, its criminal justice system, and its business enterprises. Evidence from this one law office suggests that on many key issues, the relationship between the WRA and the internees was marked not so much by coercion as by reciprocal accommodation, with each taking account of some of the preferences of the other. While the data are from just one of the ten WRA camps, they suggest a need to reconsider our understanding of how this American system of racial imprisonment operated.

Crucial to the implementation of the War Relocation Authority's (WRA) regulations of its detention camps for the uprooted Japanese American community of the West Coast were the WRA “project attorneys,” white lawyers stationed in the camps who gave legal advice to administrators and internees alike. These lawyers left behind a voluminous correspondence that opens a new window on the WRA's relationship with its prisoners, a relationship heretofore understood as encompassing coercion on one side and either compliance or resistance on the other. This article uses the voluminous correspondence of the project attorney at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming as a new lens for viewing the regulatory relationship between the WRA and the imprisoned community. It focuses on three of the many matters about which the project attorney gave advice: the design of the camp's community government, its criminal justice system, and its business enterprises. Evidence from this one law office suggests that on many key issues, the relationship between the WRA and the internees was marked not so much by coercion as by reciprocal accommodation, with each taking account of some of the preferences of the other. While the data are from just one of the ten WRA camps, they suggest a need to reconsider our understanding of how this American system of racial imprisonment operated.

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emuller@email.unc.edu
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He thanks the following people for helpful comments on at least one draft of the article: The anonymous reviewer for Law and History Review, Leslie Branden-Muller, Alfred Brophy, Alexa Chew, Andrew Chin, Dan Ernst, Andy Hessick, Karen Inouye, Tom Ikeda, Catherine Kim, Heidi Kim, Joe Kennedy, Lon Kurashige, Bill Marshall, Abby Muller, Brian Niiya, Greg Robinson, Deborah Weissman, and Alice Yang. Josephine Kim provided research assistance.
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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

John F. Embree , “The Indian Bureau and Self-Government,” Human Organization 8 (1949): 1114

John Collier , “The Indian Bureau and Self-Government: A Reply,” Human Organization 8 (1949): 22

Felix S. Cohen , “Colonialism: A Realistic Approach,” Ethics 55 (1945): 167–81

Thomas Biolsi , “‛Indian Self-Government’ as a Technique of Domination,” American Indian Quarterly 15 (1991): 2328, at 27

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Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
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