Engaging History: Japanese Internment & “Infamy”

Editor’s Note: This guest post is by Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz who is currently writing a monograph, Wages of War: Japanese American Incarceration and Prison Labor during World War II, on Japanese Internment.

In August of 2019, Alexander Woo—co-creator of the second season of AMC’s horror anthology “The Terror”—sat down with interviewers from Vanity Fair to discuss the inspiration for the “Infamy’s” focus on Japanese American internment during WWII. “We didn’t want the viewers to feel safe the way you might if we did a period piece…It’s not sitting on a shelf in a museum…All that fear, all that dread you might feel watching a horror movie gives you access to the emotional lives of the people who are living through a wartime internment camp.” For Woo, the experiences of Japanese Americans removed by the Army from their homes along the West Coast and placed in “relocation centers” after Pearl Harbor is a horror story. Reviewers have remarked that “Infamy” had potential to be a riveting drama based on an often overlooked piece of American history, but was muddled by a confusing ghost story about a yuurei (or demon) seeking revenge on the Japanese American community of Terminal Island, California. Even if the supernatural element of Woo’s screenplay comes up short, the ghost story that drives the series recreates the rich history of Japanese Americans in the United States—one that doesn’t begin with nor is defined by internment alone.

“Infamy” may indeed be many viewers’ introduction to the daily horror of life for Japanese Americans during World War II. In February of 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which called for the creation of “military zones” that were vulnerable to another Japanese air attack and the exclusion of people or persons from within. EO 9066 did not explicitly mention Japanese Americans, but Western Defense Commander General John L. DeWitt applied the order accordingly. The Army created the Wartime Civil Control Administration (a part military-part civilian agency) to oversee the removal and detention of Japanese Americans in temporary “assembly centers” before the War Relocation Authority (WRA – a civilian agency created by executive order in March) took custody of Japanese Americans and transported them to the “relocation centers.” Japanese Americans were able to “voluntarily” relocate on their own by making plans for accommodations beyond Military Zones 1 and 2 (along the West Coast) established by DeWitt, but by May of 1942, the Army began the process of transporting them to the assembly centers via train and bus. The approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans removed from the West Coast were allowed to take two suitcases with them (leaving the rest of their possessions including homes and property either with sympathetic friends or under the supervision of government agencies). Of those 112,000 nearly 80% were American-born citizens—primarily children and young adults.

“Infamy’s” fictional Nakayama family were part of this real history. The season focuses on Chester Nakayama, a nisei (or second generation citizen of Japanese descent) who has dreams of graduating from college and becoming a renowned photographer. He’s an “all-American boy” who carouses with white sailors and is devoted to his girlfriend, Luz. He helps his father, Henry Nakayama (an issei, or first-generation immigrant), on his fishing boat, but has no desire to continue the family business and turn into another permanent resident of Terminal Island. His plans to travel the country snapping photos of landmarks with Luz are put on hold first by Luz’s sudden announcement of her pregnancy and later the evacuation of Japanese American communities. The FBI arrests Henry on charges of subversion and the murder of a white fisherman, and Chester and his family are forced to prepare for the inevitable evacuation. While Henry is detained, Chester and his mother arrive with those from Terminal Island—including Chester’s nisei friend Amy and the elder issei Yamato-san—as well as other California communities to the Santa Anita racetrack near Los Angeles where they await processing.

The reviewers were correct in their accolades for the realistic portrayals of camp life. Much like in the show, Santa Anita—a former racetrack—served as a dilapidated, temporary home for Japanese Americans. Dirty horse stalls doubled as barracks and military police and barbed wire guarded and confined the detainees 24/7. Luz—pregnant with Chester’s baby—decides to voluntarily join his family out of love but also because any person with “one drop of Japanese blood” (per WCCA leader Colonel Karl Bendetsen’s orders) was considered Japanese and required to be interned. Chester’s father eventually returns—broken and traumatized by the questioning—and the residents of Santa Anita are later transported to a fictional concentration camp in Oregon. Woo’s ability to render the day-to-day life of the Nakayamas’ and others true to form is praiseworthy. Striking the balance between WRA administrators who provided movies, games, and even parties for prisoners and the severe limits placed on Japanese Americans’ freedom is not easy, but “Infamy” gets it right. Life in a camp was complex and nuanced—and some Japanese Americans had different experiences. Amy, for example, is able to secure a job (at her mother’s behest that she earn money while also proving her “loyalty”—a common survival tactic) as a secretary to the military officer, Major Bowen, in charge of the camp. Her position affords her privileges and a chance to hone her secretary skills for her eventual release, but also places her in an easily exploitable and– as later episodes–reveal dangerous spot. Acts of kindness were offset by harsh suppression of basic liberties—violently if need be.

Okay—but where does the ghost story come in? Well, if you’re like many of the reviewers, even by the end of the show, you’re not entirely sure. I won’t go into too much detail to avoid spoilers, but I found the supernatural element to be a creative way of understanding that Japanese Americans had lives before, during, and after internment. The show begins with a Japanese American woman donned in a traditional geisha kimono and makeup committing suicide in a gruesome manner. Her halting walk and anxious twitches let the watcher know that there is something else at play here and we learn shortly after that her husband—a known alcoholic—repeatedly abused her while the community did nothing. After her funeral, Chester attempts to take a photo of family and friends when a sudden wind knocks the coffin over. Chester’s parents and other issei interpret this as a sign that she is cursed and the community might also suffer at the hands of angry ghosts because of their complicity in her sorrow and pain. Chester and Amy grow frustrated with the insistence of their parents and other issei that they will all be cursed by the old spirits who “found their way from Japan across the ocean to America.” When bad luck starts to follow Chester on Terminal Island and later to the assembly center and concentration camp, issei start to suspect that he’s the one who might be cursed, linking him to their hardships brought about by removal and internment. There’s a tension between the nisei and issei over the willingness to believe in the supernatural and the “traditional” ways of their culture that is accurately portrayed in “Infamy.” For issei, maintaining old customs and folklore were ways to hold on to Japan, or even make sense of sudden changes, such as internment. For nisei, superstitions were proof that their parents lived in the past.

Of course, this is a horror story so that means there is a ghost—or demon—who represents a dark secret harbored by Chester’s family. The demon frequently possesses the bodies of most of the main characters to exact her revenge. Without giving anything away, she is essential to the plot. Woo is able to use the spirit to examine Japanese American life pre-internment, going back to the early 1900s to look at the migration experience and the challenges of resettlement. Woo and the season’s director, Lily Mariye, deserve credit for focusing on the special struggles of Japanese woman who came to the United States hoping to fulfill dreams and only to have them dashed.

There are other commendable aspects of the season. Episodes 9 and 10 provide painfully true depictions of the uncertainty of being released from the camps in January of 1945 after the Supreme Court ruled the internment of loyal citizens as unconstitutional. Leaving is followed by the heartache of returning to Terminal Island—only to find their homes and property gone and replaced by military facilities. Amy is also a fascinating character who emerges from internment questioning her time in the camp, the decision of the U.S. to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and what the future holds for her people.

Infamy isn’t so much a story of internment; it’s a story of Japanese American history, struggles, and resiliency—which were all placed in sharp relief by the horror of their wartime experiences.

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