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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.

"Riveting and indispensable...This landmark historical account shines a light on a part of American history that must be remembered."


Kamei, a lawyer instrumental in achieving redress for those incarcerated following Executive Order 9066, seamlessly combines dozens of personal narratives with detailed historical research.
These stories, drawn mostly from works in the public domain, are presented in this volume that covers the bombing of Pearl Harbor through to the redress movement, the 1983 congressional commission findings, and former President Donald Trump’s 2017 executive orders restricting travel from many predominantly Muslim countries. The author provides a framework for understanding the lead-up to the decision to intern so-called enemy aliens, along with about 72,000 American citizens of Japanese descent. From there, she shares their harrowing journey to barren desert camps, the harsh realities of life behind barbed-wire fences, and their eventual release during a time when anti-Japanese sentiments still ran high. The use of direct quotes from internees—many of them children and young adults—adds remarkable emotional weight. Many lives were ruined as people’s dreams and life goals were crushed, and readers will viscerally connect with their endurance and marvel at how many still maintained faith in the democratic system. The message of awareness of this past injustice and its connection to standing in solidarity with others who face injustice is a compelling theme of this riveting and indispensable work.
This landmark historical account shines a light on a part of American history that must be remembered. (author's note, centers and camps, timeline, glossary, abbreviations, contributor notes, sources, excerpt permissions, resources, index) 

– Kirkus Reviews, STARRED, August 15, 2021

Beginning with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and extending to the Trump administration’s discriminatory acts through 2019, activist, educator, and lawyer Kamei—who labored with Japanese American congressman Norman Y. Mineta and others in the 1970s–’80s redress movement—interweaves a personal framework, an impressive array of first-person stories (many from the public domain), and painstaking research to craft this authoritative, unblinking account of the incarceration of “approximately 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry” in the U.S. between 1942 and 1946. Kamei details how the mass incarceration was based on a blend of deeply rooted racism, deception, and outright greed, resulting in the notorious, euphemism-riddled 1942 Executive Order 9066 that forcibly removed and imprisoned citizens, who could take “only the things they could carry.” Featuring affecting narratives covering the U.S. Army enlisting controversy; an engaging account of two units’ combat prowess; and the U.S. court system, where Japanese American rights were being pursued in several landmark cases, Kamei’s exhaustive work also provides an encyclopedic A-to-Z roster of more than 150 individual contributor biographies. At more than 700 pages, this is a truly remarkable, comprehensive resource with an emphasis on allyship, indispensable for researchers and any resistor of injustice. Back matter includes lists, a timeline, a glossary, contributor notes, excerpt permissions, and sources. Ages 12–up. Agent: Kathleen Anderson, Anderson Literary. (Sept.)

– Publishers Weekly *STARRED REVIEW*, August 16, 2021

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

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

This book provides a detailed view of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II told primarily through the voices of those who either experienced it firsthand or heard the stories from those who did. The book is divided into five distinct parts. Part one includes the chapters "Day of Infamy" (referring to the bombing of Pearl Harbor), "Executive Order 9066," and "The Betrayal." Part two begins with the poem Saga of a People by Ruth Tanaka (a 13-year-old incarcerated at the Poston Relocation Center) and includes the chapters "Only What We Could Carry," "Gaman in the Desert," and "For the Sake of the Children." Part three begins with a short essay, The Years Between, written by 17-year-old Kaizo George Kubo (also from within the Poston Relocation Center) and includes chapters which cover the growing sense of discontent within the camps as well as the history of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Part four's chapters look at the actions of the Supreme Court and the process of resettling Japanese Americans after their incarceration. The final chapters include "Righting the Great Wrong," "Allyship" and the full text of Marin Konishi's valedictorian address as delivered upon her graduation from the Camp Amache Senior High School in 1943. Brief contributor biographies, chapter sources, and a list of additional resources complete this tome. Given the length of the book, "tome" is an appropriate descriptor. Given the extent of the content, this work makes an important contribution to our understanding of a historic injustice that should not have occurred. For example, one section details the jockeying of military leaders with little war experience for control over Japanese American civilians against the opposition of the U.S. Attorney General and J. Edgar Hoover, providing a powerful look into the behind-the-scenes politicking of the time. The influence of those interested in the economic and political profit to be gained from the relocation of Japanese Americans after the war is also examined. This title is definitely a must-have for secondary collections to support modern U.S. history, U.S. government, and ethnic studies curricula. Glossary. Index. Timeline. Esther R. Sinofsky, Administrative Coordinator, Integrated Library & Textbook Services - LAUSD, Los Angeles, California

Highly Recommended


– School Library Connection, October 1, 2021

Gr 9 Up–This is a narrative history of Japanese Americans, beginning with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, leading to Executive Order 9066, and ending with a chapter on the allyship of Japanese Americans with other marginalized communities facing government sanctioned prejudice, such as the Muslim American community after September 11th and under the Trump administration. This book is divided into five parts, weaving together the appalling history and personal experiences of Japanese Americans during WWII. Readers are given a thoroughly detailed and meticulously researched historical account of what was happening within the country and government at the time. Interspersed throughout are personal accounts of the atrocities faced by incarcerated Japanese Americans and the long-term impact of the government’s actions. These testaments provide a complete look at the range of experiences, from being ordered to leave their homes to family separation, life in the camps, exceptional military service, the landmark civil rights cases, and much more. Filled with over a 100 alphabetically organized, detailed biographies of those who shared their experiences, Kamei’s narrative nonfiction work dives deeply into what it means to be American, then and always. Back matter includes biographies, acknowledgements, a list of assembly centers and WRA relocation centers, a list of internment camps and their populations, a detailed time line, a glossary, and contributor notes. VERDICT This comprehensive and engaging history of Japanese incarceration during and beyond WWII is essential for all collections.–Kristyn ­Dorfman, Friends Academy, Locust Valley, NY

– School Library Journal *STARRED REVIEW*, November 1, 2021