This essay is part of the forum “Investigating Infrastructures”

As the grandchild of two people relocated to work on sugar beet farms during WWII, my family’s silence around their experiences of internment, and the postwar conditions of their lives produced a stubborn, yet shapeless form of that history in my mind. However, it is a shared history much larger than my family, and much more intricate than our silence suggested. It required multiple, moving parts, with decided shapes and functions. From the use of the War Measures Act to racialize Japanese Canadians as the enemy (Oikawa, 2012: 9), to the drafty shacks in internment camps designed by the British Columbia Security Commission (BCSC) that were constructed with the labor of Japanese Canadians (Oikawa, 2012: 128-129), the striking presence of multiple, overlapping infrastructures becomes apparent. Here I link the Canadian state’s political, legal, and material infrastructure with its own violent practices which are simultaneously its foundation and its means of reproduction. Specifically, the discussion is focused around Japanese Canadian internment during WWII and its redress in 1988 to ask how wartime and post-internment infrastructures can produce conditions that make particular bodies incarcerable at one time and incorporable into the nation at another. Further, this essay articulates the ways in which the state’s actions, policies and practices form a type of infrastructure. In particular, this infrastructure allows for certain kinds of movement and actions for Japanese Canadians while limiting others.

As Oikawa (2012) argues, it is “notable that the subjects who established and enforced the internment […] have been less written about and hence less scrutinized” than the people who were interned (304). Part of my aim here is to make visible the state legal and political infrastructure that made internment possible, and which continues to play a role in constructing a more desirable Japanese Canadian subject. That is, a fully redressed and absolutely assimilated Canadian national who remains symbolic of the triumphant narratives of inclusion achieved through the state’s justice system. This is not a critique of those who sought redress, since their efforts ultimately illuminated the violence systemically perpetuated by the state and demanded systemic reparations. However, the fact that the state made an attempt at reparations in the form of redress does not indicate the repair of violence. Rather, this discussion is concerned with the potentials and limitations of attempts to repair state violence.

The Japanese Canadian as a subject can be understood as a convergence of deeply racialized current and historical material realities that carries the threat of being subjected to state violence and the promise of the state’s benevolence. Furthermore, this subject must also be understood through various, overlapping infrastructures including the “social, economic and cultural infrastructures” that existed within Japanese Canadian communities pre-WWII (Miki, 2004: 229), as well as the massive, legal, political, and material infrastructures required on the part of the state to enact internment. These internment infrastructures took on new forms post-WWII, which shaped the possibilities of Japanese Canadians following internment, such as the policy of dispersal. The forms of these infrastructures are discussed below, detailing the ways in which state infrastructure produced conditions of incarcerability in the moment of internment, and later the conditions of redress.

Beginning in 1942, with Canada’s declaration of war on Japan, the Canadian state used the War Measures Act against all people with Japanese heritage. This allowed for their initial detainment—usually in pens meant for livestock at the Pacific National Exhibition grounds in Vancouver—and the beginnings of their relocation (Oikawa, 2012). Shortly after, the 100 mile “protected zone” stretching from the entire coast of British Columbia inland was established, barring persons “of Japanese descent” (Miki, 2004; Oikawa, 2012). Over 23,000 people with Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from this protected zone and placed into numerous carceral arrangements, which included internment camps, infrastructure projects such as road work and agricultural work (Miki, 2004; Oikawa, 2012). The end of the war did not end internment, and until 1949, most internees were still held in their carceral institutions or arrangements.

From the protected zone which excluded them, to the camps and fields that contained them, the bodies of Japanese Canadians were subject to material and political boundaries which worked alongside the racial logic that made them the enemy. As Oikawa (2012) argues, during the war years, the state “created a network of surveillance, policing and control simultaneous to the production of sites to which Japanese Canadians were sent” (9), and which “required tremendous structural and legal maneuvering” (22). The physical relocation of Japanese Canadians was reinforced with legal infrastructure that included a permit system that regulated movement and remained in effect until 1949; “repatriation” or the forced exile and stripping of Canadian citizenship of many internees; and finally, a postwar policy of dispersal which was meant to be synonymous with eventual assimilation (Miki, 2004; Oikawa, 2012). This policy, which prohibited Japanese Canadians from returning to the protected zone was designed to encourage the assimilation of Japanese Canadians and was a key way to prevent them from building the kinds of community that had previously formed in BC (Miki, 2004: 128). In some instances, the policy of dispersal was unofficially enforced to include a ban on the gathering of Japanese Canadians who were not members of a nuclear family (Miki, 2004: 108). Dispersal was meant to rid Canada of Japanese Canadian communities, which were constructed as “degraded sites,” or “ethnic ghettos” and as the bodies of Japanese Canadians were dispersed, they were also meant to be absorbed into the “cleaner,” more controllable general population (Miki, 2004: 141, 310). It was a new form of containment, one that proved to be much more effective in the long term. What dispersal achieved in terms of social and economic infrastructure was to break and replace the community relations, networks and interdependence with the “opportunity to prove themselves worthy of Canadian citizenship” (Miki, 2004: 312).

Unable to live in the same area, and sometimes to even meet, dispersal fractured community ties between different families. The function of memory for how many third, fourth, and fifth generation Japanese Canadians relate to internment, if they do at all, is an example of how the previous community infrastructure has been splintered and replaced by the family unit. Oikawa (2012) points out how generations later, rather than a community-based and centered knowledge of internment, an uneven memory-scape exists for many Japanese Canadians, constructed through memories shared and withheld to varying degrees, and often unique to and irregular between individual family members (231-232). She argues that “holding survivors alone accountable for communicating their memories denies the importance of communal support, and as a result, the exclusionary hegemony of an autonomous family space is recreated” (Oikawa, 2012: 230). I would argue that through dispersal, the family unit, now disconnected from their community lacked the social and community infrastructure which might work towards remembering together and forging different, new postwar connections. In this way, the eventual assimilation of Japanese Canadians was facilitated. However, this assimilation functions more as a vehicle through which the state denies its own violence through its selective politics of inclusion rather than an example of successful Canadian multiculturalism. The Japanese Canadian redress movement came into being during the same time that multiculturalism was adopted as an official national policy. It was a moment of building national narratives that emphasized tolerance of difference, and that accommodating such difference was a Canadian value (Miki, 2004). In 1988, the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) reached a “redress agreement” with the federal government, and officially became “redressed” subjects, the first in Canada to reach a large settlement with the federal government for a past injustice (Miki, 2004: 8). The settlement totaled $300 million and was intended to redress all liquidated property, the trauma of dispossession and the stripping of rights (2004). In other words, redress was an attempt to repair the fact that Japanese Canadians were “a community whose social, economic and cultural infrastructures had been destroyed” (Miki, 2004: 229), and were prevented from recovering in the postwar period. The settlement included individual payments to “eligible” persons of $21 thousand, $12 million to undertake “educational, social and cultural activities,” and a further $12 million for the creation of a “Race Relations Foundation” (Miki, 2004: 9). The narrative produced by the state surrounding redress presented internment as one unfortunate incident that in the end was best for everyone, since it resulted in the incorporation of Japanese Canadians into the country (Miki, 2004: 310). In essence, the state was able to spin the comprehensive destruction of Japanese Canadian communities as a boon for the nation, and for Japanese Canadians themselves. In fact, dispersal is credited with the perceived economic and educational success of post-internment Japanese Canadians (Miki, 2004; Oikawa, 2012). While the movement towards redress itself can be considered a success on behalf of the Strategy Committee of the NAJC, former members of the committee, such as Roy Miki (2004) reflect that very little was actually repaired. Oikawa (2012) and Miki (2004) note that most younger Japanese Canadians construct their identities based around Canadianness primarily and that a sense of community for Japanese Canadians is rare and fractured. The same logic which excluded and incarcerated them -that Japanese Canadian communities were sites of degradation—now formed part of the basis of their inclusion. In the end, redress was an act of repair perhaps mostly for the state and its ability to reproduce itself as a benevolent source of justice.

In discussing the redress of Japanese Canadians, it is important to highlight that carceral infrastructures do not begin and end with internment, rather, as Oikawa (2012) notes, they have deep, colonial roots, exemplified by “practices used against Indigenous peoples and authorized by the use of settler-state law, including the Indian Act, such as expulsion, forced displacement, incarceration, segregation” (96). Without reducing colonization to the root of other incarcerations and exclusions made by the Canadian state, it is important to recognize how colonization “established techniques that could be adapted for the policing of immigrants and the eventual formulation and administration of the Internment” (Oikawa, 2012: 96). As such, internment of Japanese-descended people in Canada should not be conflated with colonization, but rather be viewed as “an extension of the efforts of white settlers to secure the territories taken from Indigenous peoples” (Oikawa, 2012: 97). Within this configuration of carceral infrastructures, and post-internment political maneuvering, the redress of Japanese Canadians is made possible by containing their internment to a discrete, discernable event, rather than a continuation of the colonial violence perpetuated by the state, which has not ended. Redress, in its official capacity, allows for the state-authorized version of events to emerge. One where the state infrastructures of internment and dispersal are re-imagined as beneficial to Japanese Canadians.

Suh (2010) suggests that the process of redress allows for the state to “transform” because it ultimately shifts the conversation from accountability and compensation to one where the state is able to construct itself as just because the state allows for marginalized peoples’ narratives to be heard (513-514). However, this transformation is only possible through a concerted disavowal of the violence which is foundational to the state. Yoneyama (2016) argues that redress raises important questions about why it happens when it does, often long after the event that is being redressed, and how “certain historical losses and violence have been privileged over others” (172). According to Yoneyama what is at stake with redress is what can be constituted as violence, what claims can be legitimated, the discourse of the nation and how history is remembered or obscured. This in turn shapes what is possible within the nation. In particular, my contention is that Japanese Canadian redress allows for narratives to emerge of the nation as a nurturing home for worthy non white national subjects in contrast to and in denial of its history as a site of carceral containment.

At issue then for the state, is not whether or not reparations can be made, but whether or not the state will still be standing after. Since the internment of Japanese Canadians is only one example among many where the Canadian state has incarcerated, detained, or otherwise arbitrarily limited the movement or rights of a particular group, it becomes important to question why it was officially redressed while others have not. Beyond the monumental efforts of the activists who demanded justice, I contend that the reason Japanese Canadian redress “worked” is because the state could afford it, monetarily and politically. Indeed, the acknowledgment of and reparations made for internment do not harm the state and have proven to be useful for it to build up its narrative of inclusion. Since institutional racism has always been the foundation of how Canada as settler colonial states have operated and continue to operate, the real risk of reparations is that were they to occur, in a meaningful way, the state would not be recognizable. My intention with this essay was to posit that the state policies and practices at play during and after the internment and into the redress of Japanese Canadians forms a kind of infrastructure that allows for the circulation of ideas and the materialization of realities which ultimately allow for the Canadian state to attempt to continue with and justify its theft of Indigenous land. The racialization of Japanese Canadians which once worked to excluded them as enemies has coalesced to produce Japanese Canadians ostensibly as model citizens who are evidence of the success of Canadian multiculturalism. Finally, the incorporation of Japanese Canadians into the national fabric of Canada also serves to help legitimate any state violence which ultimately appears to result in the integration of marginalized groups.



Miki R (2004) Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice. Vancouver: Raincoast Books.

Oikawa M (2012) Cartographies of violence: women memory and the subjects of the internment. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Suh J (2010). Truth and reconciliation in South Korea: confronting war, colonialism, and intervention in the Asia Pacific. Critical Asian Studies 4(4): 503-524.

Yoneyama L (2016) Cold War Ruins: Transpacific Critique of American Justice and Japanese War Crimes. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Katrina Fukuda is a PhD student in the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. Her interests lie broadly in Asian Canadian Studies, the study of settler colonialism, gender, and sexuality.