Discover Nikkei

A Northern Lesson: Carey McWilliams and the Incarceration of Japanese Canadians

The incarceration of Nikkei communities across the Pacific world in 1942 represents one of the most notable examples acts of transnational racial exclusion. Indeed, despite the relatively small sizes of the communities affected—120,000 in the United States, 22,000 in Canada—as compared to the total population of those countries, the forced removal of the entire Nikkei communities from the West Coast of the two countries regardless of citizenship is a sad yet important chapter in their histories. Ironically, observers and Nikkei activists in each country most clearly recognized the long-term impacts of the incarceration upon the legal future of those in the other.

Carey McWilliams, circa 1941 (Photo courtesy of UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections)

Among public intellectuals, few commented on the incarceration as much as Carey McWilliams. Known before the war as California’s director of public housing and the author of the seminal work Factories in the Fields, McWilliams lent his voice toward the defense of working-class and non-white-Anglo Americans. In 1942, he testified before the Tolan Committee on how the government should offer fair treatment towards Japanese Americans.

His advocacy for Japanese Americans culminated in the publication of his 1944 book Prejudice, which explored the extremes of West Coast prejudice towards Japanese Americans among politicians and citizens alike. The book proved so influential that attorneys representing Korematsu, Hirabayashi, Yasui, and Endo included it in their arguments against Executive Order 9066.

Amid the numerous studies of McWilliams’s career, little has been said about McWilliams’s interest in Japanese Canadians. In fact, McWilliams developed a longstanding interest in the treatment of Japanese Canadians alongside his research on U.S. race relations.

One possible starting point for McWilliams’s interest in the subject was his attendance in December 1942 at the Institute of Pacific Relations’s 8th Annual Conference, held in the resort town of Mont Tremblant, Quebec, near Montreal. The Mont Tremblant Conference would prove to be a monumental chapter in the Pacific War; it brought together delegates from all the Allied Nations and several nations in exile (Thailand, Korea) to discuss the future of Asia after the Second World War and the implementation of the Atlantic Charter to create a more just post-war order.

At the conference, delegates drafted a memorandum outlining a transition away from colonialism and towards gradual decolonization. One topic that frequently came up during the conference was how American racism hindered the implementation of decolonization worldwide.

It was in this climate that McWilliams presented his report on the incarceration of Japanese Americans. As a whole, McWilliams’s report provided a detailed overview of the U.S. government’s incarceration program and offered his own account of how the government failed to curtail the rise of anti-Japanese sentiment on the West Coast.

Aside from providing a general history of anti-Asian racism in the United States, McWilliams examined in turn the ensemble of factors that led to Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066. McWilliams challenged the official narrative that military necessity was the driving force behind forced removal, stating that it “fails to characterize the complex situation which existed” in regard to prewar anti-Japanese hatred and opportunistic officials.

Although he conceded that there were certainly individuals of interest who had been legitimately arrested by the FBI, McWilliams argued that these arrests should have been the limits of forced removal. Rather, he insisted, the government went too far by pursuing a program that targeted anyone of Japanese ancestry after February 1942—a program, McWilliams noted, that the government was itself unprepared to carry out. After initial attempts to encourage Japanese Americans to resettle outside the West Coast failed, the government instead implemented a haphazard imprisonment program to organize the removal of the community.

Along with presenting the facts of the incarceration policy, McWilliams’s used his presentation to record his own attempts to prevent forced removal. In his presentation, McWilliams noted that he telegrammed Congressman John Tolan to invite his Select Committee on Defense Migration to investigate the influence of anti-Japanese sentiment on government policy.

The Tolan Committee obliged McWilliams, and hosted several hearings on the West Coast in late February 1942. At the Tolan Committee hearing in Los Angeles, McWilliams presented an alternative to forced removal that would consist of hearing boards that would investigate individual cases. Although the FBI had begun to review the cases of arrested Issei community leaders at various internment camps, government officials decided that creating a review board would take too much time.

Despite presenting in Canada, McWilliams included no mention of Canada’s incarceration of Japanese Canadians, and the official mass dispossession of Japanese Canadians had not been publicly revealed. However, McWilliams noted in his discussion of the postwar future of the Japanese Americans that in Canada, British Columbia MP Ian Mackenzie declared that he favored the wholesale deportation of Japanese Canadians. McWilliams stated that a parallel statement was made by congressional candidate Al Dingoman of Salinas, California, who promised to deport all Japanese Americans if elected.

The Mont Tremblant Conference was an important moment in McWilliams’s career. Aside from the global scale of the meeting, it provided McWilliams with a venue to share his expertise on the incarceration policy. For critics of American racism, McWilliams’s report offered key evidence of how the incarceration reflected the prevalence of American racism. It may have also given him a chance to come into contact with Forrest La Violette, one of the leading experts on Japanese Canadians at the time.

Indeed, both La Violette and McWilliams engaged in a collegial dialogue in the pages of the Institute of Pacific Relations’s journal Far Eastern Survey. As will be seen, McWilliams admired the work of La Violette, and included his studies on Japanese Canadians in his future work.

In 1943, McWilliams began transforming his Mont Tremblant presentation into a treatise on the history of the Japanese American incarceration and the long history of anti-Japanese sentiment in California. Titled Prejudice, the study was one of the first publications to challenge the government’s argument that forced removal was based on military necessity. During his research process, McWilliams collected dozens of pamphlets and newspapers articles, and corresponded with Japanese American writers and experts.

Although several studies have already discussed the impact of Prejudice on scholarship on Japanese Americans, few have noted the brief yet important section in the volume on the Japanese Canadians.

Like the United States, he noted, racist groups such as the Native Sons of Canada formed in Canada to push for anti-Asian exclusion. In some cases, according to McWilliams, the Canadian government followed United States precedents; in 1940, for example, Prime Minister Mackenzie King formed a Special Committee on Orientals in British Columbia that was modeled after one formed by the U.S. Congress following the passage of the Alien Registration Act.

Although the Canadian government initially refused requests from West Coast politicians to exclude all Japanese Canadians from British Columbia, McWilliams showed that Ottawa and Washington D.C. were both inundated with requests to remove the Nikkei communities of the West Coast, and concluded that it was such political pressure that was the driving force behind mass removal in both cases.

From there, both the Canadian and U.S. government followed a similar policy of confinement and resettlement for Japanese Canadians and Americans. Sadly missing from McWilliams’s study are the facts about the Canadian government’s seizing and auctioning off of Japanese Canadian property.

As in the U.S., McWilliams’s study received attention from Canadian readers. As a sign of the impact, Prejudice was cited in several pamphlets supportive of Japanese Canadians, such as Howard Norman and the Vancouver Consultative Council’s tract What About the Japanese Canadians? To emphasize the loyalty of Japanese immigrant communities to their new homes, the pamphlet cited the war record of the U.S. 442nd Regimental Combat Team and displayed several images of Japanese Canadians serving in the Canadian Army in Europe.

On December 23, 1944, the Japanese Canadian newspaper The New Canadian published a mixed review of McWilliams’s Prejudice. Although the reviewer, simply named as “E.C.B.,” labelled McWilliams as a “crusader” for minority rights, the reviewer noted McWilliams’s statement that the incarceration may have been good for the dispersal of Japanese Americans.

In a matter-of-fact tone, the reviewer concurred with McWilliams that the current mission of the governments of the United States and Canada is to dedicate itself to protect the rights of all Americans of all races. Although the review did not mention McWilliams’s analysis of Japanese Canadians, it argued the text was an important study in race relations.

Another Canadian to praise McWilliams’s study was Forrest La Violette. a U.S.-born sociologist at McGill University who wrote frequently about the experiences of both Japanese Canadians and Americans (my friend and colleague Greg Robinson has written an excellent biography of Forrest La Violette for the Densho Encyclopedia).

In a review in the Institute of Pacific Relations’s journal Far Eastern Survey, La Violette expressed agreement with McWilliams’s argument that the federal governments who had undertaken forced removal also needed to enforce fair treatment for those affected. La Violette also expressed his concurrence that the United States and Canada, despite their histories of racism, also provided the more space for inclusion of ethnic groups than other nation-states of the time.

Even after publishing Prejudice, McWilliams remained interested in the plight of the Japanese Canadians. Included in his personal archives are several files of Canadian pamphlets that mentioned his works, along with tracts published by the Japanese Deportation League of Canada.

In 1948, McWilliams penned a glowing review of La Violette’s study The Canadian Japanese and World War II that appeared in Far Eastern Survey. Although by the time La Violette’s book came out, three years after the United States ended the exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, Japanese Canadians were still by and large excluded from Western British Columbia. Yet the book appealed to McWilliams not just because of its analysis of the evolving situation in Canada, but also because it explained a unique phenomenon of post-war West Coast society – the reversal of anti-Japanese sentiment after 1945.

For McWilliams, the fascinating question asked and answered by La Violette’s study was: “How can it be that anti-orientalism, which for seventy years was a major pivot in California politics, has so suddenly ceased to be an issue?”

According to La Violette, the entire West Coast, from British Columbia to California, had initially emerged in isolation from the cultural cores of each country (Canada, U.S.), which were marked by efforts to create a homogeneous identity. Instead, in both California and British Columbia, Anglo settlers attempted to establish a society based on European values at the same time immigrants from East Asia arrived, thereby creating an ongoing tension that fostered bitter racial hatred. The irony, of course, was that most white settlers were unable to “reproduce” their home society—making British Columbia a British place—because of the challenges posed by their new environment, and the resulting instability caused racial conflict in West Coast societies:

Anti-orientalism on the West Coast has been an aspect (one might say a “function”) of the struggle to effect a stable social organization in a peripheral, new, and, in some respects, unique region. This aspect, rather than “race prejudice” per se or economic competition per se, has been historically responsible for the “yellow peril” agitation.

This point, for McWilliams, was the source of anti-Asian racism on the West Coast:

I think the analysis is correct and that La Violette has made a very important contribution to an understanding not merely of anti-oriental agitation on the West Coast but of larger and more encompassing regional attitudes and propensities.

Although McWilliams did not engage much with La Violette’s discussion of Canada’s exclusion policy as such, he found La Violette’s analysis of anti-Japanese hatred in British Columbia to be important for understanding the development of regional racist movements such as those in California.

What does Carey McWilliams’s interest in Canada tell us? Although he was focused on issues regarding race within his home country, McWilliams found enlightening parallels with Canada’s anti-Japanese sentiment as a means for explaining the origins of racism within the United States. It also demonstrates the cordial relationship McWilliams had with Forrest La Violette and his appreciation of La Violette’s academic work, and as such his dialogue with La Violette will be the subject of a future article. Moreover, McWilliams’s story also illustrates how the experiences of Japanese Canadian during World War II can provide new insights into the wartime experiences of Japanese Americans.

As Greg Robinson has noted, American scholars can learn a great deal by engaging with the history of the Japanese Canadian incarceration. Because of the differences in policy with the U.S., Canada offers a fascinating comparison that can help U.S. scholars understand the various ways Allied nations treated Nikkei communities during the war (a topic that is currently being researched by the Past Wrongs, Future Choices Initiative at the University of Victoria). 


© 2023 Jonathan van Harmelen

Carey McWilliams imprisonment incarceration Japanese Americans Japanese Canadians World War II
About the Author

Jonathan van Harmelen is currently a Ph.D student in history at UC Santa Cruz specializing in the history of Japanese-American incarceration. He holds a BA in history and French from Pomona College and an MA from Georgetown University. He can be reached at

Updated February 2020

Explore more stories! Learn more about Nikkei around the world by searching our vast archive. Explore the Journal
We’re looking for stories like yours! Submit your article, essay, fiction, or poetry to be included in our archive of global Nikkei stories. Learn More
New Site Design See exciting new changes to Discover Nikkei. Find out what’s new and what’s coming soon! Learn More

Discover Nikkei Updates

Nikkei Names 2: Grace, Graça, Graciela, Megumi?
What’s in a name? Share the story of your name with our community. Submissions now open!
Episode 16
June 25 (US) | June 26 (Japan)
Featured Nima:
Stan Kirk
Guest Host:
Yoko Murakawa
See exciting new changes to Discover Nikkei. Find out what’s new and what’s coming soon!