The incarceration of Americans of Japanese ancestry by the U.S. government during World War II is seen as a dark chapter in American history. Unlike other populations of Americans related by ancestry to the wartime enemies of the United States, the Japanese were seen as a particular threat, a potential fifth column, and incarcerated, sometimes for years. The experience marked Japanese Americans in many ways, and many believed it explained subsequent successes, including high political engagement. But new research by HKS Professor of Public Policy Maya Sen, together with Mayya Komisarchik of the University of Rochester and Yamil Velez of Columbia University, finds instead that it had the opposite effect. Not only does this help us better understand the unique history of Japanese Americans, but it provides a universal lesson on how, even in democracies, the targeting of minorities—think migrant detention centers—can have deep and long-lasting effects. We asked Sen about what her research found and why it matters.


Q: You’re interested in studying the political consequences of state targeting of ethnic minorities. Why reach all the way back to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II? 

Unlike authoritarian regimes, modern liberal democracies such as the United States tend not to engage in large-scale targeting of entire minority groups. But, of course, there are important exceptions throughout history—and these exceptions help us learn a lot about the impact of this kind of targeting, and its consequences for these groups.

Looking at our own history, the U.S. government is no exception. In our study we look at the case of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. During the war, the U.S. government forced more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry—about 62% of whom were U.S. citizens—to leave their homes and “relocate” to remote internment camps across the western United States. Families were held for years, and people lost their homes, belongings, and livelihoods. Japanese Americans' loyalties were questioned, which, as historians have documented, created a sense of stigma for those affected. 

Much has been written about this period in history. We wanted to study the effect of such a traumatizing experience on a group of people’s political involvement. Does this kind of state-led targeting lead people to "lean in" and become more politically aware and active as they push back politically? Or does it lead to the opposite—to political disengagement and disillusionment?

Maya Sen headshot.

“Internment led to political disillusionment and disengagement. This pattern lasts across generations, meaning that we can detect the trauma experienced by one generation in subsequent generations.”

Maya Sen

Q: What are the findings of the study?

Ultimately, using a large survey of Japanese Americans combined with information on internment status, we find that the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the war had a significant and lasting impact on those affected. Specifically, people of Japanese ancestry who were incarcerated or who had relatives who were incarcerated (for example, grandparents or parents) were subsequently much less likely to participate politically, to be political leaders, or to engage in political discussion. In other words, internment led to political disillusionment and disengagement. 

This pattern lasts across generations, meaning that we can detect the trauma experienced by one generation in subsequent generations.


Q: Not every person of Japanese ancestry who was incarcerated has the same experience. How did different experiences have different effects?

Overall, we find that being incarcerated by the U.S. government during World War II had a long-lasting depressive effect on Japanese Americans’ political engagement, but there are important differences. First, we find that people who were incarcerated for longer periods had greater disengagement from politics after that. So, it’s not just being incarcerated or not, but it's also about the duration of the experience.

Second, the U.S. government sent some people to camps in California, close to where many Japanese Americans lived, while others were sent to camps as far away as Arkansas. And some camps had worse conditions than others. For example, in some camps, scarcity in food and supplies created significant tensions among those detained, including demonstrations and labor strikes. 

It turns out that this matters and that people sent to camps with more conflicts are those who turn out to be the most disengaged. In other words, the more fractured the camp community was, and the greater conflict between and among those incarcerated, the greater the depressing effect of interment on subsequent political engagement. 


Q: Could your study be helpful in understanding the effects of other types of incarceration or detention in wealthy democracies?

We think our findings have a lot to say when it comes to the use of detention centers, for example for migrant populations. Basically, we urge strong caution. If specific populations are put into detention centers—and especially if these have poor conditions that pit people against each other—we would expect to see political effects down the road. We would expect to see greater disillusionment, less political engagement, and less political participation.

Japanese Americans with photos of themselves from relocation camps during WWII.
Japanese Americans pose with photos of themselves taken while they were in relocation camps during WWII. Photo by J. Pat Carter/Getty Images

Q: How do we square your study with other work showing high levels of engagement among Asian Americans, and Japanese Americans specifically?

It is true that Asian Americans—and Japanese Americans in particular—are some of the most politically engaged communities in the country, and their political importance is only increasing. Our study doesn’t question that. But our study does question what that engagement would have looked like in the absence of internment. We speculate in our study that Japanese Americans would be even more engaged politically had they not been directly and systematically targeted for incarceration by the U.S. government.

Significantly, our work also dovetails with important work in history and sociology documenting the "stigma" that followed the community's experience with incarceration during World War II. While subsequent generations moved toward financial reparations—and successfully won these for surviving internees in 1988—scholarship documents that the generations directly affected by internment still continued to feel the stigma of internment for decades after. We think these feelings of stigma are an important part of the effects documented by our study.


Q: How are the findings useful to scholars, policymakers, and citizens now?

We might want to believe that something like the U.S. government's mass incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry would not happen again. However, it’s important to note that the Supreme Court precedent that ruled it lawful—a case called Korematsu v. United States—was only repudiated recently, in 2018. It’s not impossible that the government could do something like this again, especially in a time of war. 

If so, our findings suggest that it would be a devastating political event, leading to subsequent disengagement and disaffection. The targeting of minority populations in this way can have devastating and long-lasting effects on those groups. It's important to document that and to make policymakers aware.

Banner image: Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were incarcerated from 1942 to 1945 during World War II at Manzanar War Relocation Center. Photos are displayed alongside family tags at Manzanar National Historic Site in California. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Faculty portrait by Martha Stewart

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