That Damned Fence

“Loyalty we know, and patriotism we feel,
To sacrifice our utmost was our ideal,
To fight for our country, and die, perhaps;
But we’re here because we happen to be Japs.”

“That Damned Fence” Author unknown, Poston Camp 1942

Nation of “Immigrants”

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that America started around the 1500’s as the English and Spanish monarchies were exploring more and more of the mysterious land that is now the North, Central, and South Americas. The English’s first colony on the new continent was Jamestown, in what is now Virginia. By 1611 we begin to see the first African slaves in North America. They were previously found in the southern Spanish colonies, and white Europeans were beginning to find that the cheap labor could lead to faster and less expensive processes. Prior to the colonization of the America’s, slavery meant something completely different than what we associate with it today. Previously, slavery was between feuding religious groups or large cities where the defeated were placed into indentured servitude. Indentured servants were often allowed the opportunity to work out of their servitude through repayment, religious conversion, or sometimes they worked off their debt in hopes that their children could be free. In the building stages of early America, indentured “white and black servants worked side by side” (Goodman 18). These are the days before “white” and “black” were used in legal terminology. Race did not exist yet. It was much later, in the 1700’s, that we see deepening racial categories. Slowly, more and more propaganda that was released helped to create deep social divides between the lower class. Racial scientists sought out “evidence” as to what made each race so different. Carolus Linnaeus described the six distinct people; he even determined what each race was “governed by” and their “universally shared” attributes (Goodman 20). Benjamin Franklin wrote false articles about the danger and violence that the Native Americans were causing for the settlers, “leaking” them to the French newspapers and other European circles in hopes of gaining sympathy – money and resources – from them (Parkinson). These same fake articles made their way back to the colonies, stirring up concern from the white populace, and encouraged the racial distinctions between the immigrants and the indigenous peoples.

Build A Wall:

Since 9/11, white America has been most concerned about middle-eastern and Mexican immigrants. The government has increased its budget from 7.5 billion to 417 billion on border protection and immigration enforcement (Pringle). There are articles every day about children that are being separated from their parents when caught crossing the border. Recently there has been controversy over whether the children are being treated properly after reports of a child that died just days after release (Sacchetti). Families are risking their lives just for the chance to make it across America’s borders. Restrictions and increased security have only changed the routes that the illegal border crossers are taking, and there is inconclusive evidence that the heightened security is actually decreasing the number of people who try (Pringle). Jason De Leon, an anthropologist studying the routes and lives of the migrants, says that “the more recent the migrant site is, the smaller and more remote it tends to be” (Pringle), people are now rock climbing, risking coyotes, dehydration, etc. In terms of racial strife, our Mexican border is the tip of the iceberg. There have been Muslims targeted, refugees are being denied entrance to the country, there have been mass shootings, and public arenas have been bombed; all in the name of Making America Great Again. And while it would be easy to blame the violence on our current political leaders, given that was their slogan, reports show that while there was a spike in hate crimes following the beginning of our 45th president’s term, the number of incidents is on a decline in most major cities (Farivar). America’s racist history is far from being healed over. In a time full of hatred and turmoil, it is absolutely shocking that we are not looking back at what damage our racial division has caused previously, especially past events that haven’t even reached their centennial.

“Our misfortune to be here in the west / To keep us penned behind that DAMNED FENCE:”

It is a common misconception that tensions between whites and Japanese Americans were due to World War II. In actuality there were many events leading up to the war where the Japanese Americans faced blatant hatred and racism. Down in Arizona, during the depression in the early 1930’s, there was a “cantaloupe blight” (Walz), which led the white farmers to band together in protest of the Japanese farmers who were only guilty of turning a profit from a fruit the white farmers had stopped growing. A protest of white farmers descended to the streets of Glendale, Arizona, with signs demanding that the Japanese residents “LEAVE BY NOON AUGUST 25th OR BE MOVED” (Walz).  The protest was followed by a series of hate crimes; bombing the Japanese farms, firing shots at the Japanese farmers, or vandalizing their farming tools. By 1940, the numbers of Japanese farmers in Arizona went from an estimated 121 to 52 (Walz), over half of the original Japanese population.
In Washington, there is evidence that “US government had been monitoring the activities of Japanese Americans on Bainbridge Island” as early as 1922 (UW), with no evidence then and no evidence now to show that they were guilty of espionage. Japanese Washingtonians were first evacuated from Bainbridge Island. They were given six days to pack up their belongings, sell their homes, and be ready to board the ferry. There weren’t too many events of Japanese rebellion. It was a shared belief that by following what the American government asked, they would be protected. In the book Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, author Jamie Ford tells the story of a young Chinese Seattleite, Henry Lee, who falls for Keiko Okabe, a Japanese American girl whose family is taken in 1941 to an internment camp. While visiting the Okabe family in Camp Minidoka, Keiko’s father explains to Henry why they do not fight being relocated. By following the restrictions, they are proving their loyalty to America, “We don’t agree, but we will show our loyalty by our obedience” (Ford 229). He goes on to talk about if they issue a draft for the Japanese men that he would go in a heartbeat, that “the only way we can prove we are American is to bleed for America’s cause…. In the face of what’s being done [to us]” (Ford 230).
Henry’s father expressed similar feelings of making a sacrifice of himself, for the sake of being considered American. He accepts the fate of limited conversation with his twelve-year-old son so that he will be proficient in English. He sends his son to an All-American white school, to further assimilate Henry to American culture, instead of local Chinese schools where Henry would be more welcome. But his sacrifices for Americanization have a limit, and once he has the money saved he sends Henry to China to finish up school instead of staying in the United States. This was also a practice that Japanese Americans followed; raising their children in America, but sending them back home to finish up their educations. In fact, many American born Japanese were stranded in Japan during the war, only to speak very little English upon their return (Walz).
It was not only white people who expressed distrust towards the Japanese; Chinese Americans also expressed hatred and prejudice to their Japanese neighbors. During WWII, the Japanese were not just fighting with Americans, they were also fighting with China. I think that the hateful attitude Chinese Americans expressed was not just because of the war happening on China’s soil, but also because most Americans, and including some Asian Americans, couldn’t tell the difference between the two ethnicities, and so the fear of being mistaken as “the enemy” led to Chinese Americans doing all that they could to distance themselves from the Japanese. In the book, Henry is worried about getting trapped in the Idaho camp because “Caucasian people” wouldn’t know the difference between him and the Japanese prisoners (Ford 226). He couldn’t even tell that Keiko was of Japanese descent when they first met. Recognition came from cues like traditional dress, language, and names.

“find the sweet among the bitter:”

While the Japanese Americans had difficulty bringing their religious beliefs with them to the very Christian America, they were able to bring over some of their other traditions and cultural knowledge. Walz notes that Japanese farmers utilized traditional farming methods they had learned from family back in Japan. Growing lettuce and green onions involved similar irrigation processes that are used to grow rice. In Henry’s family, we see that they maintain the use of traditional Chinese dining habits; using chopsticks, the lazy-Susan they use for serving, the proper etiquette followed when serving tea. Throughout the book Henry describes the Chinese meals that he eats at home, such as preserved duck egg, or jook – “thick rice soup, mixed with diced preserved cabbage” (Ford 45); meals that would not usually be served for breakfast by “traditional Americans.”

Never Again:

The United States has this nasty issue of major problems that are built on a history of false perceptions and irrational fears. From selective housing reforms, to the Trail of Tears, to literally rounding all the Japanese residents and shipping them off to camps; America and its values are so intertwined in race and racism that it will take centuries to have an established system that isn’t still benefiting from prior injustice. Distributing funds to the families that were mistreated is not a solution, it is a band-aid. We as a country need to work to create opportunities for each other. We need to acknowledge the damage that our ancestors have caused. We need to learn from our history and the personal accounts of people who have been wronged. We need to develop a better system of letting people come into our country and take a holistic approach to the issues that surround immigration. Until we take these steps, we are doomed to keep making the same mistakes.

(anonymous poem circulated at the Poston Camp)

They’ve sunk the posts deep into the ground
They’ve strung out wires all the way around.
With machine gun nests just over there,
And sentries and soldiers everywhere.
We’re trapped like rats in a wired cage,
To fret and fume with impotent rage;
Yonder whispers the lure of the night,
But that DAMNED FENCE assails our sight.
We seek the softness of the midnight air,
But that DAMNED FENCE in the floodlight glare
Awakens unrest in our nocturnal quest,
And mockingly laughs with vicious jest.
With nowhere to go and nothing to do,
We feel terrible, lonesome, and blue:
That DAMNED FENCE is driving us crazy,
Destroying our youth and making us lazy.
Imprisoned in here for a long, long time,
We know we’re punished–though we’ve committed no crime,
Our thoughts are gloomy and enthusiasm damp,
To be locked up in a concentration camp.
Loyalty we know, and patriotism we feel,
To sacrifice our utmost was our ideal,
To fight for our country, and die, perhaps;
But we’re here because we happen to be Japs.
We all love life, and our country best,
Our misfortune to be here in the west,
To keep us penned behind that DAMNED FENCE,
Is someone’s notion of NATIONAL DEFENCE!

Poston was one of the largest camps run by the War Relocation Authority and was built on the local Native American reservation. I found the poem on:

This essay was one that I wrote for my American Life and Culture class this past summer. We were instructed to read the book House on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford and then talk about racism within the book and American culture. One of the most surprising things I learned in this class came from Ford’s book, and that was learning that the Puyallup Fairgrounds in Puyallup Washington was used as a temporary relocation camp during the Japanese Relocation. I grew up in the area but had never know previously that it had a darker history. That solidified this idea to me, that we have to talk about our history, even the bits we aren’t proud of so that we can respect what people were forced through and to honor them by not repeating those mistakes. We’ll never get any kinder as a species if we don’t pay attention to our past. The world is as kind or cruel as we make it.

~ Raelee


• Farivar, M. (2018, August 10). Are Hate Crimes in US Peaking? Retrieved from
• Ford, J. (2009). Hotel on the corner of Bitter and Sweet a novel. New York: Ballantine Books.
• Goodman, A. H., Moses, Y. T., & Jones, J. L. (2012). Race: Are We So Different. Hoboken: Wiley.
• Parkinson, R. G. (2016, November 25). Fake news? That’s a very old story. Retrieved from
• Pringle, H. (2011, January/February). Archaeology Magazine – The Journey to El Norte – Archaeology Magazine Archive. Retrieved from
• Sacchetti, M. (2018, August 01). Migrant child died after release from detention, attorneys group alleges. Retrieved from center child died&d=5051093762706675&mkt=en-US&setlang=en-US&w=IEsYmSEpmmT4-P15wMAAOkzoAKz-fdke
• San Pedro Daily News, Volume 8, Number 227, 12 October 1910.——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1
• University of Washington Libraries. (1997). Japanese American Exhibit and Access Project. Retrieved August 14th, 2018 from,
• Walz, E. (1997). THE ISSEI COMMUNITY IN MARICOPA COUNTY: Development and Persistence in the Valley of the Sun. The Journal of Arizona History, 38(Spring), 1-22. Retrieved August 14, 2018, from

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