Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II

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Anne M. Blankenship
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , November
     2016.
     296 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781469629209.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The relationship between religious meaning and violent government control motivates Anne M. Blankenship’s Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II. Between 1942-1946,“while purportedly fighting a war against ideas of racial supremacy propagated by fascist regimes, the U.S. government incarcerated nearly 120,000 legal residents and American citizens of Japanese descent on the sole basis of their ancestry” (1). During this time, incarcerated Nikkei—people of Japanese descent—created meaningful theologies and navigated government-regulated religious pluralism. Blankenship offers an insightful and deeply researched account of Christian experiences and responses to the Japanese American incarceration, while also raising questions about the limitations of liberal religion.

Blankenship begins with the responses of Quakers, mainline Protestants, and Catholics to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, and those groups’ organization of Christian aid. Blankenship then describes the organization of worship of the three government-authorized religions at the camps—Buddhism, Protestantism, and Catholicism—as well as Nikkei’s experiences of Christianity and interfaith practices in the camps. She concludes her account with the difficult resettlement process, and the collapse of many pre-war Japanese American churches. Blankenship has two main goals: to offer a portrait of Christian encounters with the incarceration within and beyond the camps, as well as to elucidate an origin of Asian American liberation theology.

Blankenship achieves both goals admirably. She studies a wealth of primary sources and demonstrates detailed, original research. Among the book’s strengths is Blankenship’s engagement with a range of voices and perspectives on the incarceration. Readers hear from Protestant, Catholic, and Buddhist Nikkei; Quakers, Catholics, and mainline Protestants from outside of the camps; people who worked in the camps, and government leaders. Blankenship is careful to point out differences and similarities among and within these groups in order to illuminate nuanced larger themes, such as the tensions and improvisation of ecumenism on the ground, and the lived religious encounter with injustice and suffering. Her attention to material and visual culture is also commendable as she guides readers through events in camps—such as memorials—by interpreting photographs.

Blankenship’s thoughtful analysis of “the lived theologies of the incarcerated laity” shows how Christian Nikkei who were incarcerated created varied meanings of the incarceration by placing themselves at the center of Christian stories (159). In her analysis, Nikkei described the suffering and injustice they faced as well as avenues for community building. Some even expressed “positive sentiments” toward the incarceration (166). Blankenship argues that the experience of the incarceration “inspired numerous Nikkei Christians to begin civil rights activism after the war,” and also laid the groundwork for “pan-Asian unity to consolidate power and address their unique concerns” (209, 214). By conveying the diversity of Nikkei’s theological interpretations of incarceration, Blankenship cultivates a nuanced portrait of religious struggle, resistance, and activism. She avoids the temptation to make a false binary between resistance and submission, and instead gathers her arguments from her sources’ textured and diverse voices. Blankenship’s project builds upon existing scholarship and invites further work in American religious history on Nikkei Christianity, Nikkei Buddhism in the camps, and Asian American liberation theology to further situate the lived theologies of Nikkei Christians in the camps. In particular, additional examination of Buddhism in and beyond the camps—which Blankenship discusses—but, understandably, does not explore as fully as her chosen focus of Christianity, could further expand scholarly understanding of religious responses to and experiences in the camps.

In addition to describing the Christian encounter with the incarceration, Nikkei’s theologies and their afterlives in civil rights, and pan-Asian unity, Blankenship makes additional contributions to American religious history about the limitations of liberal religion. She describes how war-related ceremonies such as funerals and induction banquets “became unique interfaith collaborations” (138). Instead of the popular triad of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, the camps engaged the notion that Buddhism, Protestantism, and Catholicism presented their own version of “tri-faith America.” By looking at negotiations of interfaith efforts in the camps, Blankenship demonstrates that Nikkei developed practices of interfaith cooperation that extended beyond the liberal Christians’ “newly conceived Judeo-Christian tradition,” and that liberal Christians generally did not encourage such interfaith ceremonies (154). In other words, she shows how actual practices, as developed by Nikkei, incorporated aspects of Buddhism, Protestantism, and Catholicism—as well as patriotism—challenged the narrowness of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Her project raises the question of what other religious and racial limitations of the Judeo-Christian tradition existed in the twentieth-century United States.

This book will be important to scholars and activists invested in conversations at the intersection of religion and war, liberal religion in America, religion and incarceration, race and religion, and Asian American religions. Blankenship’s book will also be useful in the classroom on a similar array of topics, especially given that students may already be thinking about questions of religious and racial exclusion in relation to current events. In the classroom, instructors might read sections of the book with attention both to Blankenship’s nuanced arguments as well as the primary sources she analyzes—such as the photographs of memorial services in the camps, memoirs of Nikkei who were incarcerated, and government policies. Blankenship’s work will likely spark productive classroom discussions about the complex layers of power, agency, struggle and meaning in the religious experiences and ideologies of the incarcerated, the incarcerators, and bystanders.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Leslie Ribovich is a doctoral candidate in religion in the Americas at Princeton University.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anne M. Blankenship is Assistant Professor of American religious history at North Dakota State University.

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