(Getty/Library of Congress/Corbis)

This summer, as the Trump administration has overseen the internment of asylum-seekers and unaccompanied minors in overcrowded detention facilities across the Southwest, and as the president himself has issued calls to “send back” congresswomen of color who criticize his policies, the United States seems to be awash in a brash, unveiled nativism. This environment has prompted some comparison to the events of the early 1940s, when more than 100,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in camps primarily across the American West. A new book by Duncan Ryūken Williams, Professor of Religion and East Asian Languages & Cultures at the University of Southern California, recounts that history, with attention to questions of identity, community, and patriotism.

Williams directs the USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture and is the author, previously, of The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Soto Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan and co-editor of seven other volumes on Japanese culture and Buddhist practice. In his new book, American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War, he documents the struggle of Japanese American Buddhists in the years following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Eric C. Miller recently spoke by phone with Williams about his new book. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Religion & Politics: Clearly the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II concerned nationality and race. You frame it as a religious freedom issue. Why?

Duncan Ryūken Williams: Generally speaking, when we think about why people of Japanese ancestry were targeted for incarceration during World War II—even though the United States was also at war with Germany and Italy—we think of race and national origin. But while researching this book I discovered that, well before December of 1941, the Office of Naval Intelligence, Army G2 [military intelligence], and the FBI already had Buddhist temples under surveillance. They had registries and lists of Buddhist priests who were to be arrested in the event of war with Japan. In fact, on December 8, 1941, at 3pm, before martial law had been declared, the first person arrested was Gikyo Kuchiba, the head priest at the Honpa Hongwanji temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Honolulu. So religious leaders were identified by military intelligence as a special category of threat to national security.

Later, when the mass incarceration was underway—when ultimately 120,000 or so of the West Coast Japanese would be sequestered in camps—religion would be implicated as well. In 1943, Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, the architect of forced removal, issued a report in which he justified mass incarceration based explicitly on the “race, customs, and religion” of the prisoners.

So religion played a key role in both the initial roundup and the mass incarceration. That’s why I like to cite this combination of race and religion as central to determining who gets included and excluded in America.

R&P: How did the treatment of Japanese Buddhists differ from that of Japanese Christians, or either from that of Germans and Italians?

DRW: If we stick to the question of the Japanese, as I said, Buddhist priests and Shinto priests—that is, the non-Christian clergy—were identified specifically by intelligence agencies as threats to national security that needed to be monitored. Christian ministers were not identified, even though they were also important community leaders. There were fewer of them, of course. The Japanese American community as a whole—both in Hawaii and the continental United States—was majority Buddhist, so its religious leadership was also majority Buddhist. But from the start of the roundup, religious difference factored into how arrests were conducted—into who was targeted and who was not.

From there, the government used religion to determine which members of the community were loyal and which disloyal. In 1943 the camps were issued a document called the Leave Clearance Form that sought to make this determination. Question 16 was on religion. Those who responded that their religion was Christian were given two points, those who responded that their religion was Shinto were automatically denied clearance, and those who identified as Buddhists were docked a point. This is just one example among many. The government differentiated clearly between Buddhists and Christians as to their relative loyalty to the United States. It was presumed that Christian faith indicated a higher degree of Americanization and therefore a higher degree of loyalty to the country.

And in terms of the difference with Germans and Italians, during the internment process, very few German and Italian nationals were interned for the duration of the war compared to the Japanese. And there was no mass incarceration of the German and Italian American communities.

R&P: How did Buddhist practice adapt to camp life?

DRW: Once citizens received notice that they had to report to camp, they would have about a week to 10 days to make all of their arrangements at home—store things, sell things, and decide what to keep with them. They were allowed to bring only what they could carry. In practice this meant basically whatever they could fit into a suitcase. In that context, people turned to their faith. In a time of dislocation and disorientation, religion gave them a way to make sense of what was happening. But the constraints of the situation also meant that they could not bring their religious implements with them.

Often Buddhist life in camp began with the construction of a space for Buddhist worship—using desert wood to make statues and altars, trying to find a way to gather and organize services, study groups, and social activities. Behind barbed wire, in very remote parts of the country, they had to be creative in terms of the physical space, but also in terms of spiritual space, coming together as a community in practice.

R&P: How did white American Buddhists respond to incarceration?

DRW: At that time, in the early 1940s, there were few white converts in the community. Rev. Julius Goldwater—cousin to later Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater—in the Los Angeles area and Sunya Pratt in Seattle are the two best-known examples. They were not only Buddhist converts, but had clerical status in the community. They helped with storing temple members’ belongings; they helped transport religious artifacts to the camps—in both cases they had to collect gasoline coupons to help navigate gasoline rationing. They were widely criticized by their white neighbors. They were called “Jap Lovers.” It was not easy for them to be supportive as co-religionists. But they tried their best, and they were joined by a handful of clergy from Christian denominations as well—Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists.

R&P: Even as thousands of Japanese American citizens were transported to camps, thousands of Japanese American men were drafted into the U.S. military. What was their experience?

DRW: Some Japanese American men were drafted, others volunteered, and these served on both the Pacific and European fronts. In the Pacific, the military needed people who were Japanese bilingual to serve as code breakers, prisoner interrogators, and translators. About 6,000 Japanese Americans served in the Pacific, and about 90 percent of them were Buddhists, since in order to be Japanese bilingual they would have had to have studied in Japanese language schools which were run by Buddhist temples. After the war, Gen. [Douglas] MacArthur’s office noted that the 6,000 Japanese Americans who served in the Pacific shortened the war by two years and saved a million American lives. In most cases, they did so even as their friends and families were being incarcerated in the U.S.

Those who served in the European theater did so in a segregated unit, just like African Americans. These units were always stationed at the very front of battles in Italy, France, and Germany. The media often referred to them as the “Purple Heart Battalion” because of the massive casualties they suffered. The Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team would later be recognized as the most decorated unity of its size and length of service, not only in World War II history, but in all of U.S. Army history. That group was majority Buddhist, and its members were trying to prove that, despite their race and religion, they belonged and their families belonged as well.

R&P: This distinguished service was performed always under suspicion and hostility, at a time when most soldiers had families and friends incarcerated in American camps. Were Japanese American servicemen conflicted about their service under these conditions? Or torn between the two nations?

DRW: Certainly those who served in the Pacific would have been more likely to feel conflicted than those who served in Europe. In some cases, families were divided. I document one example in the book of a Buddhist priest with five sons, two of whom served in the Japanese Imperial Army, two of whom served the U.S. on the Pacific front, and one of whom served with U.S. forces in Europe. For families like that, with siblings serving against siblings, you can’t help but feel conflicted. But it was a choice each individual had to make, based on his own sense of identification and patriotism.

R&P: After the war, Japanese Americans returned from camps and from combat and reentered American society. What was it like?

DRW: The return to the West Coast was not easy. Some scholars have suggested that the return was even more difficult than the initial move to the camps. Many people had had to sell their farms or businesses for pennies on the dollar when they left, and returned to find that the new owners were charging them exorbitant prices to recoup those same properties. They often found themselves homeless, unemployed, and dependent on temples and churches for refuge. These came to be known as Buddhist or Christian “hostels” in which people were able to stay for some months until they were able to find jobs and lodging of their own. These were the sorts of difficulties awaiting Japanese Americans after the war—and not just those who returned from the camps, but also those who had served in the military. This so-called “resettlement period” was not an easy time, but religious institutions did what they could to help people get through it.

R&P: Recently Japanese internment has been invoked in reference to the detention of Latin American migrants on the southern border. Does that history teach us anything about the present moment?

DRW: Unfortunately, it is directly relevant. Our notions of inclusion and exclusion—whether on the border or internally—often do hinge upon our notions of race and religion. With the travel ban, we see a concerted effort to downplay the significance of religion, but we know from then-candidate Trump’s remarks that the policy was conceived as a ban on Muslims specifically. He’s made similar remarks about immigration from desirable countries—like Norway—versus undesirable countries—like Mexico—that have overtly racial overtones, and this attitude is directly responsible for the situation on the southern border.

Right now, in the Japanese American community, there is grave concern about the recent announcement that Fort Sill in Oklahoma—a former WWII internment camp—will be used to house 1,400 unaccompanied migrant children who will be transferred from overcrowded facilities in Texas. The connection between these two historical moments could not be more clearly drawn.