Skip to Main Content

When Can We Go Back to America?

Voices of Japanese American Incarceration during WWII

Foreword by Norman Y. Mineta

In this dramatic and page-turning narrative history of Japanese Americans before, during, and after their World War II incarceration, Susan H. Kamei weaves the voices of over 130 individuals who lived through this tragic episode, most of them as young adults.

It’s difficult to believe it happened here, in the Land of the Free: After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States government forcibly removed more than 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific Coast and imprisoned them in desolate detention camps until the end of World War II just because of their race.

In what Secretary Norman Y. Mineta describes as a “landmark book,” he and others who lived through this harrowing experience tell the story of their incarceration and the long-term impact of this dark period in American history. For the first time, why and how these tragic events took place are interwoven with more than 130 individual voices of those who were unconstitutionally incarcerated, many of them children and young adults.

Now more than ever, their words will resonate with readers who are confronting questions about racial identity, immigration, and citizenship, and what it means to be an American.

Photograph by Rebecca Little

Susan H. Kamei received her JD from the Georgetown University Law Center. She teaches at the University of Southern California on the legal ramifications of the incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II and how they apply to constitutional issues, civil liberties, and national security considerations today.

“I can’t stress how moving this book is and what a huge impact it will have. The history of the relationship between the US and Japan is fascinating, but what makes this book truly special are the first-hand, diary-like accounts from the young people who spent months imprisoned by their own country—people who loved and respected this country and who instead of being treated as citizens, were treated as enemies. It’s impossible to read these accounts and not be moved. There are very few books, especially in the YA genre, on this sobering chapter of US history, and exploring this history is unfortunately particularly relevant right now.”

—Krista V., Senior Editor, on When Can We Go Back to America?

As a US History teacher, I consider When Can We Go Back to America? to be a valuable teaching reference. Packed full of diverse incarceree perspectives, it includes useful features such as primary source excerpts, a time line, a glossary, and explanations of incarceration geography. Kamei’s strength as a legal scholar comes through in making the historical context and legal significance of key court cases accessible to high school students. The work motivates us to apply the lessons learned to current events and inspires us to consider ways we could act in allyship with other communities.

– Russell Spinney, The Thacher School, Ojai, California

In When Can We Go Back to America?, Susan Kamei relates the whole range of Japanese American experiences during World War II—from the camps to the courtrooms, from the soldiers of the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team to the draft resisters—restoring a much-needed sense of agency to people who triumphed over prejudice during a period of nationwide fear. At a time when Asian Americans face new threats in their own homeland, When Can We Go Back to America? is a bracing reminder of the challenges facing minorities—and their hard-earned successes.

– Robert Asahina, author of Just Americans: How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad

When Can We Go Back to America? is spell-binding tour de force that illuminates the heart-wrenching reality of lives forever changed by a national atrocity of inhumane proportions. In drawing upon first-hand accounts of those incarcerated, Kamei has created a moving record that shows the consequences of unchecked political power. For those examining the case for reparations for Black American descendants of slavery in the United States, some events are frighteningly familiar—denying a disfavored group the right to own property or vote, rounding up innocent unsuspecting people at gunpoint and rendering them homeless, and confiscating and appropriating their property. The hitherto untold stories of confusion, disbelief, frustration, anger, protest, and resolve provide a legacy of inspiration for current and future generations. They also serve as a warning of what can happen when racism and hysteria drive our nation’s thinking instead of justice.

– A. Kirsten Mullen and William A. Darity Jr., authors of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-first Century

The incarceration of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry is often characterized as a tragic “mistake” arising from wartime hysteria. Susan Kamei’s absorbing page-turner reveals that what happened was no mistake—the reasons asserted to justify forcing these Americans at gunpoint into concentration camps were entirely made up—and the government knew it at the time. She deftly synthesizes crisp historical narrative with powerful first-person accounts to illustrate the perils to democracy when “alternative facts” hold sway over the real ones. Despite being unjustly targeted, the voices of incarcerated Japanese Americans show their unwavering faith in America, and their stories provide important lessons for our country’s present and its future.             

– Donald K. Tamaki, 2020 American Bar Association Spirit of Excellence Award winner and member of the team that overturn

When Can We Go Back to America? provides readers with an immersive look at the experience of Japanese incarceration during World War II. Teeming with first-hand accounts of both the experience in the camps and the fight over what incarceration did and should mean to the American nation as a whole, Susan Kamei's book is an invaluable resource for any related history course. In addition, thanks to the richness of the material captured in a single volume, the text is brimming with opportunities to teach critical thinking skills suitable for any History or English course.

– Jason LaBau, Waterford School, Sandy, Utah

The voices of the incarcerated Japanese Americans in When Can We Go Back to America? pack a gut-wrenching punch. Their raw emotions force the reader to step back and consider what it is like to be imprisoned by the US government for an indeterminate amount of time without regard to one’s innocence. The power of their stories compel us to face up to our country’s past, a necessary step towards having a more just society today and in the future.

– Ronald K. Ikejiri, attorney and former Washington, DC representative of the Japanese American Citizens League