Anne Blankenship, assistant professor of religious studies at North Dakota State University, tells the story of how Japanese American Christians wrestled with their faith, theodicy, and betrayal when they were forced into internment camps during World War II and abandoned by their White Christian neighbors. This is a story of suffering and uncertainty with significant ramifications for those pursuing racial reconciliation in churches today.
The Climax of Decades of Xenophobia, Racism, and Patronization
By the beginning of World War II, there were roughly 140,000 Japanese Americans living in the US. They were first-generation Japanese Americans who had immigrated from Japan and their second-generation children who were born in the US. This immigrant community had established a reputation as hardworking, honorable, and intelligent—as “model” minorities.
Some associated these qualities to their physiology, others to their genes, and still others to their culture. Whatever the case, many of their non-Asian counterparts in academia, business, etc. harbored intense jealousy, and desired for their expulsion from the US. In the end, World War II and the executive order to intern all Japanese Americans residing in the West Coast proved the perfect opportunity to dispose of their competitors.
Silent Betrayal and Abandonment
As a significant minority in the Japanese American community, Christian Japanese American pastors and congregants were herded like cattle into internment camps during World War II. They were initially abandoned by their White Christian brothers and sisters to fend for themselves. Various nativist groups celebrated the decision and most evangelicals voiced indifference to their plight by appealing to the “doctrine” of the spirituality of the church. They argued that the church had no ethical responsibility to intervene on behalf of Japanese American Christians, because this was a matter of the state, not a spiritual one.
Case in point, some Arkansas Southern Baptists rejoiced at the opportunity of the nations coming into their backyard when it was announced that a internment camp would be built in the State of Arkansas. They launched evangelistic campaigns in the camps, but little to no effort was made to improve conditions or to appeal for the Japanese Americans’ release.
Many mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, however, slowly overcame their initial silence and held ecumenical worship services and provided meals at the internment camps to the encouragement of many Japanese American Christians. These progressive Christians eventually appealed for the release of the interned Japanese Americans by appealing to their work ethic, integrity, intellect, and overall value to American society.
However, it was the Quakers who not only anticipated this crisis, but asked all Christians in America to join them in publicly accepting full responsibility for what had happened. They believed this human rights disaster could have been avoided if Christians had sufficiently advocated for the rights of Japanese Americans prior to the outbreak of war. In the end, no other group joined the Quakers in their desire to ask Japanese Americans for forgiveness.
Integration, Reconciliation, or Imperialism?
In their desire to facilitate a smooth transition back into American society and promote reconciliatory efforts, the Federal Council of Churches, an ecumenical association of Protestant denominations in the US, voted for existing Japanese American congregations to integrate with their White American counterparts. The results of these integration efforts were disastrous—the vast majority of Japanese American Christians eventually stopped attending church services.
Despite facing significant opposition by Japanese American pastors, the measure was passed and Japanese American warnings proved prescient. Japanese American Christians were treated as perpetual guests and faced constant discrimination and patronization. In other words, they were expected to conform to the norms of the majority culture and abandon their Japanese American heritage. To add insult to injury, their White American counterparts refused to share their power and positions of influence within their churches. As the author summarized, “They are invited to join but not lead” (206).
The majority of the Japanese American churches that thrived were homogenous, but a few multi-ethnic churches fared well. Two qualities existed in the churches that successfully integrated Japanese American Christians into their churches: 1) The leaders made interracial worship the primary goal which, as a result, encouraged them to abandon superficial/patronizing efforts for integration; 2) The leaders sought interracial empowerment to positions of influence and ownership of worship space.
This compelling narrative contains few, if any, critiques worth considering in a formal review. But we are left with a few questions that even the author may be unable to answer. One wonders what percentage of Japanese American Christians abandoned the faith and what percentage continued to regularly attend church services after the war in homogenous and integrated churches. One also wonders what percentage of Japanese Americans immigrated back to Japan in the years following the war, and how their trauma may have impacted future Christian missionary work in Japan.
The plight of Japanese American Christians reminds us again that the model minority myth is simply that—a myth. On the one hand, various nativist and evangelical groups only welcomed Japanese American immigrants to the degree they did not threaten their status of power and privilege. Most evangelicals appealed the “doctrine” of the spirituality of the church to justify their inaction and indifference to the suffering of their fellow Christian brothers and sisters.
On the other hand, most mainline Protestant and other progressive groups attempted to justify their reconciliatory efforts by appealing to the model qualities of the Japanese immigrants, and by patronizingly expecting them to conform to the values of the majority culture. In the end, both groups displayed racist instincts by failing to empower and humanize their Japanese brothers and sisters by appealing to the Imago Dei.
The once thriving Japanese American church never fully recovered from the silent betrayal of the broader American Christian community. After the war, Chinese and Korean Christian communities eventually overshadowed Japanese communities in conversions, church planting efforts, and missions in both East Asia and the US. After World War II, many disillusioned Japanese American Christians left the church altogether and many more Japanese Americans immigrated back to Japan with hardened hearts towards the gospel. This is the legacy of complacency and cowardice towards injustice. This is the legacy of xenophobia, racism, and patronization. This is the legacy of Christianity in America.
The messy history of Christianity reflects the broken nature of its followers. However, hope to overcome this great stumbling block can be found on the cross where our Savior humbled himself even to the point of death so that others may have life. Therefore, we must embrace a posture of humility that fully embraces our past mistakes if we are to become a prophetic voice in this world. We must never forget this dark chapter of Christianity in America if we want to avoid repeating history. In light of recent events, this imperative could not be more important.