Is it possible to condemn one empire without supporting another?

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When Karl Yoneda heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he felt compelled to act. In the name of an American-Japanese newspaper, he immediately wrote a telegram to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to “pledge to cooperate fully in all efforts aimed at ensuring the victory of the democracies”. He was eager to join the war against “Japan’s vicious military fascists”.

Before Yoneda could send the telegram, however, FBI agents surrounded his family’s home with machine guns and arrested him. The FBI had begun monitoring Yoneda months earlier, assuming that his communist affiliation, union organization and racial background somehow meant he was likely a “secret agent for [the] Japanese government. Within months, in 1942, the U.S. government would incarcerate Yoneda and other Japanese Americans in concentration camps.

In the 80 years since, historical accounts of World War II have generally refuted the alleged “disloyalty” of Japanese Americans, most often by asserting their “loyalty”. But fidelity to what? Although Yoneda ardently pledged allegiance to the United States, he continued to be viewed and treated as an enemy of the American state. Its wartime struggles force us to recognize that the moral condemnations of a great rival – Japan, in this case – can only serve to preclude consideration of a deeper history of race and empire.

When the United States and Japan went to war in 1941, they did so as rival empires, each claiming an anti-imperial mantle. But these claims rang false to those who were subject to colonial rule on the other side of the Pacific. For example, the United States had purchased the Philippines from the Spanish Empire at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. But the Filipino revolutionaries rejected their new colonial master, declared independence and went to war against the American empire.

On July 4, 1902, after more than three years of bloody conflict, President Theodore Roosevelt declared victory in the Philippine-American War. This statement reflected his imperial fantasy more than anything else, as Filipinos continued to resist the American empire through outright war, labor strikes, and anti-colonial movements.

Artemio Ricarte, who had first taken up arms against the Spaniards and then the Americans, scoffed at the pretensions of the American empire. “Where is the right of assembly, freedom of the press and freedom of expression?” he asked in 1903. He hoped that an impending war between Japan and Russia would produce unstable conditions in Asia that might incite an anti-colonial revolution in the Philippines towards its liberation and independence.

The Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) marked Japan’s bold entry onto a world stage then dominated by the European and American empires. While Roosevelt hosted Japanese and Russian delegations to facilitate the end of the war, his administration conducted secret negotiations with Japan to maintain colonial order in Asia. Japan promised to honor American authority over the Philippines; the United States agreed to respect Japan’s growing claims on Korea. Empires had to work together.

Privately, however, Roosevelt sensed that a race war was brewing across the Pacific. “I’m not at all sure that the Japanese people make any distinction between Russians and other foreigners, including ourselves,” he noted. Beginning in 1906, to defend the territorial claims of the American empire across the Pacific—including the Philippines, Hawai’i, and Guam—the United States Army’s War Plans Division prepared for war specifically against Japan.

Anti-colonial revolutionaries like Ricarte stoked growing American fears of Imperial Japan. Imprisoned repeatedly for refusing to swear allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, Ricarte was banished to the British colony of Hong Kong, where he hoped to stage a revolution against American colonial rule. Ricarte then sought exile in Japan, far from the clutches of the American and British colonial authorities. At the same time, the Japanese government tried to cooperate with the British and American empires to protect its growing imperial ambitions.

Racial divisions have escalated. The denunciation of Japan’s imperial ambitions turned into an enduring justification for American officials to defend the American empire. “Japan has for many years desired to unite the peoples of Asia, with itself as the dominant and controlling power,” a US military intelligence officer said in 1907. From this distorted perspective, US officials saw in Filipino grievances against American colonial rule only Japan’s nefarious designs to mobilize a pan-Asian movement to undermine American authority and strengthen its own influence in the world.

Report after report, whenever and wherever Japanese and Filipinos have converged – physically, ideologically, symbolically and otherwise – US state national security agents have suspected a pan-Asian conspiracy orchestrated by the Japanese government. In 1907 a senior American official in the Philippines became so convinced of impending war that he called on the American government to “strengthen our navy as quickly as possible and deliberately bring about war with Japan and destroy her sea power before she does.”

This historical context informed how the U.S. government would treat Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, including Yoneda and others who fervently pledged support for the U.S. war effort. Born in California, Yoneda spent his teenage years in Japan, where he learned about anarchism and Marxism. In 1926, he returned to California to escape military service in Japan. He soon joined the Communist Party, inspired by the communist movement’s forceful stance against colonialism and racism. Yoneda organized with Filipino workers to create a grassroots labor movement on the Pacific Coast.

The war between Japan and the United States complicated Yoneda’s allegiances and priorities. After his release from the FBI in December 1941, he learned that the leadership of the Communist Party of the United States of America had expelled all Japanese Americans. Although devastated by the racist act, Yoneda focused on the main task at hand, which in his mind was “to help crush the fascist imperialists of Japan who were knocking at our door!”

To fight against fascism, Yoneda swore loyalty to the United States. As the U.S. government moved ever closer to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, it reiterated its commitment to American nationalism. “If it is deemed a military necessity that all … be evacuated from military areas,” Yoneda wrote to a congressional committee, “we are ready to go.”

During World War II, Yoneda even became a volunteer FBI informant, offering information about other Japanese Americans he believed to be pro-Japanese. His incarceration in Manzanar, one of the American concentration camps, did not change his views. In the summer of 1942, he suggested that the U.S. government segregate Japanese Americans based on citizenship and loyalty. In the meantime, US officials have continued to watch Yoneda as a “dangerous rouge”.

On the other side of the Pacific, Ricarte was heading in the opposite direction. Shortly after Japanese forces attacked Hawai’i and the Philippines, he agreed to return from Japan to his home, the Philippines. Once there, he hoisted the Japanese flag and delivered a speech urging Filipinos to cooperate with their Japanese “liberators”. For many Filipinos, that moment must have felt like 1898 all over again, with the Japanese empire taking the place of the American empire. Ricarte helped organize the despised Makapili, a Filipino unit armed to fight alongside Japanese forces in the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Despite his anti-colonial aspirations, by collaborating with Japan, much as if he had pledged allegiance to the United States earlier, Ricarte worked to advance the empire.

Especially in times of war, loyalties and allegiances may appear necessary, with clear boundaries between allies and enemies, between morality and criminality. But fidelity to what? Neither Yoneda nor Ricarte found release through their differing wartime loyalties. Today, as US and European officials loudly condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine, their statements may ring hollow because they are not accompanied by an acknowledgment of their own histories of imperialism and violence. Beyond moral condemnations of old and new rivals, perhaps the path to justice and democracy lies in an honest and critical examination of the colonial pasts around us.

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