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Analysis of the Book Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family

Updated on March 17, 2017

A Dash of History and a Dash of Book Analysis

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 Japanese-Americans on the west coast were forced to uproot themselves and move into internment camps under the orders of General DeWitt. Most Japanese-Americans had never even set foot in Japan as they were “Nisei” or second generation.[1] Yoshiko Uchida was one of these Nisei, and along with most of her family and thousands of Japanese-Americans she was forced to leave her home in Berkeley, California to first go to Tanforan Internment Camp and then Topaz Internment Camp in Utah. Yoshiko describes the racism and sense of betrayal she felt from the American government which she had always felt loyal to. The white population unfairly presumed that all Japanese-Americans were enemies of nation and needed to be watched. Despite, being uprooted from her families home in Berkeley she paints a picture of survival in the internment camps despite the lack of provisions, poorly constructed huts, brutal climate, and the violence within the camps.

Before the bombing at Pearl Harbor, racial discrimination against the Japanese-Americans had already existed. This led to most Japanese-Americans to mainly keep to themselves as opposed to intermingling with the non-Japanese. Yoshiko felt like she was inferior to her white classmates in school, because of how others treated her those of her race.[2] Yoshiko even says, “For many years I never spoke to a white person unless he or she spoke to me first.”[3] It was completely uncomfortable with her when society placed such a stigma on the Japanese, because they were seen as different. Japanese-Americans had to always check if they were accepted at beauty parlors, swimming pools, restaurants, and social events that might deny them entry because of their race, the job market was also extremely difficult to enter. Japanese-Americans also had their own churches which played large roles in their lives. The Japanese Independent Congregational Church of Oakland for instance gave Yoshiko's family a sense of unity and support for one another during a time of heightened racial discrimination.[4]

American society actually made Japanese-Americans want to deny and be ashamed of their own heritage in order to fit in. On college campuses for example Yoshiko remarks that she would never receive a leadership position in a non-Japanese club, because she was Japanese. She could never join a sorority either. Thus, she joined the only two Japanese American social clubs her campus offered.[5] This shows how alienated Japanese-Americans were from their white peers. Of course there were some white people who were friends and cared for Japanese-Americans, but there more racism and resentment in the country. This only got worse when the bombing of Pearl Harbor happened, and all Japanese-Americans were seen as enemies of the nation. Although completely unfair, Japanese-Americans were always assumed to be right off the boat from Japan, and to Americans they could be spies or terrorists. [6]

Japanese Americans reacted to their situation in surprise, and disappointment in the betrayal of the country they were loyal too. Pearl Harbor was a shock to Japanese Americans and as Yoshiko pointed out she did not even believe it could be true when she first heard it on the radio. After General DeWitt ordered the internment of Japanese Americans on the west coast families tried to make the best of it while some resisted. Some evacuated voluntarily to escape the camps, but many had nowhere to go and were forced into the camps. They had no choice but to sell off their furniture and belongings or to put them into storage. Japanese Americans were also fearful of anti-Japanese fanatics who were attacking and shooting Japanese-Americans. Fears were very high, because of all the bad and mainly false press about the Japanese-Americans. Whether they had set foot in Japan or not, all Japanese Americans were deemed “Japs” a derogatory term used to describe their enemy.[7] All the Japanese lives were put into few suitcases and shipped off on miserable long rides to the camps.

Life inside the camps was also miserable and limiting. The Japanese were essentially dehumanized and treated like herds of cattle with their families being addressed only by a number. They were also basically forced to take loyalty vows to the United States and condemn the emperor of Japan. This was a complete violation of their family honor. Those who refused were seen as a threat.[8] Their homes were poorly constructed shacks or in Yoshiko's first camp experience a horse stall. They had to deal with cold water, poor food quality, and harsh climate. There camps also had very limited resources, not enough for the hundreds at a given camp. Privacy was non-existent, there was little food, unsanitary bathroom facilities, and few medical supplies.[9] Medical care in the camps was very poor Yoshiko recalls how her uncle became blind due to improper care following cataract surgery while interned in the Heart Mountain Camp.[10]

Essentially in the camps it was everyone for themselves. Of course the Japanese Americans tried to form some kind of government within the camp, but they were shut down, because those in charge of the camp felt threatened by such a group.[11] There was such a presence of paranoia amongst Americans during World War II. This can be seen with the constant FBI contraband searches within the internment camps. Japanese-Americans could not escape the suspicions of their white neighbors. They wanted to instill fear into the internees. However, the internees sense of family seemed to get them through their internment and with their sense of community they created a church, school, and other organizations to help pass the time.[12] They also did a lot of voluntary work which the government actually paid them for, about $16 a month.[13]

Eventually complying to War Relocation Authorities policy of depopulating camps, Yoshiko and her sister are able to escape the internment camp in order to go to school in 1942.[14] After living through life in the camps Japanese Americans had an even stronger feeling of inferiority because of what the United States did to them. The Germans and Italians had not be targeted, but instead it was a direct attack on a specific racial group, because of irrational fears.


[1]Yoshiko Uchida, Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), 17.

[2] Uchida, Desert Exile, 27.

[3] Uchida, Desert Exile, 41.

[4] Uchida, Desert Exile, 40.

[5] Uchida, Desert Exile, 31.

[6]Uchida, Desert Exile, 20.

[7] Uchida, Desert Exile, 52.

[8]"Says Many Japanese In Camp Are Disloyal," New York Times, 6 June 1943, 5.

[9]Uchida, Desert Exile, 69-80.

[10]Uchida, Desert Exile, 19.

[11]Uchida, Desert Exile, 92.

[12]Uchida, Desert Exile, 123.

[13]"Group of Japs at Saint Anita are Disloyal," New York Times, 8 July 1942, 5.

[14]Uchida, Desert Exile, 128.


I actually had the pleasure of reading this book in my History 466 class last year. I loved this book. I have always been fascinated by Japanese history and this book was no exception. The book tells you about the struggles of one family trying to get through the Japanese Internment Camps. It took years for the Japanese-Americans to receive retribution and apologies for the awful conditions they were forced to live in and the discrimination they faced. If you are looking for a good read I suggest this book.


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    • lisadpreston profile image

      lisadpreston 6 years ago from Columbus, Ohio

      Muslim-American could easily be substituted for Japanese-American in this time period. I see we haven't learned our lesson. Sad to me. Thank you for an excellent write and subject.

    • everythingdazzles profile image

      Janelle 6 years ago from Houston


    • kellymom1970 profile image

      kellymom1970 6 years ago

      Great job! I think you are a great writer.Thanks