State of Exception: Japanese Canadian Internment

Japanese Canadian Internment refers to the detention camps that were set up all over Canada during World War II; British Columbia was home to the largest camp grounds for the reason that B.C. was the closet province to Japan (Rita Dhamoon, 2009). These camps confined all Japanese people beginning in January 1942 due to the attack on the American Naval base in Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941 (Rita Dhamoon, 2009). The government had allowed the confinement of the Japanese Canadians without any charge some were even deported  (Rita Dhamoon, 2009). The War Measures Act was enforced during this time in response to the attack and for the protection of the country; this act allows the government to gain powers deemed necessary in a state of war and evoke rights of those deemed a threat  (Rita Dhamoon, 2009). This act normally affected males ranging from 18 – 45 years of age; however, women and children were being affected as well  (Rita Dhamoon, 2009). Anyone of Japanese origin, who even owned land, had it confiscated from them. There was great fear that the coast lines were being monitored by Japanese for Japan’s Navy to make its way which resulted in restricting the presence of Japanese people near the coast line and if any had owned boats, they would be confiscated as well  (Rita Dhamoon, 2009). There were roughly 29,000 Canadians of Japanese descent living in Canada during the time of the war; they already had very limited rights such as no right to vote and the right to various professions but they were still required to pay tax (Rita Dhamoon, 2009).  Racism towards Japanese people was evident before the WWII; however with this attack at Pearl Harbour, the legitimization of enacting the War Measures Act only increased the racism  (Rita Dhamoon, 2009). Japanese Canadians were referred to as “enemy aliens” during this time.  Referring to the Japanese people as enemy aliens was a way to revoke any form of citizenship they had and were known as “a person of Japanese race” by the Federal government with the exception of a Japanese female who had married a Caucasian male  (Rita Dhamoon, 2009).

The living conditions on the camps were less than ideal but extremely harsh; some were placed in farm areas where people were living in barn yards and stables and others were living in poorly put together shacks made of thin planks and no insulation (McCallister, 2006). Families were crammed into shacks with little to no privacy at all and were expected to pay rent at times (McCallister, 2006). The locations of these camps were on mountains and areas where the weather during winter was extremely cold and with little form of protection from the heat (McCallister, 2006). The sanitization of the camps were also hazardous, there was not consideration whatsoever in providing any decent needs (McCallister, 2006). There was a communal tap for water in some camps and for those camps who were not provided with water, people had to go to nearby lakes or rivers for their supply (McCallister, 2006).

The actions of the Canadian government in 1942 to are a clear example of the government enacting sovereign power in the state of an exception; in this case it was a response to the attack on Pearl Harbour during World War II (Rita Dhamoon, 2009). The War Measures Act allows all the actions of the government towards the Japanese people found to be legal. After the attack it was found that the Japanese people residing in Canada may pose a potential threat during the war. There was fear of espionage and sabotage against the Canadian government which would make then the next target (Rita Dhamoon, 2009). Many Japanese people worked in fisheries and owned boats, an order was placed by the government that their boats be confiscated and banned from the coastal areas (Rita Dhamoon, 2009). There was fear that the Japanese Navy was making its way over and having Japanese people near the coast would pose a threat (Rita Dhamoon, 2009).  These were the main reasons for why such actions were taken against the Japanese people. Referring to the Japanese people as “enemy aliens” directly links to Agamben’s term homo sacar (Pavlich, 2011). This was the government’s way of riding the Japanese people of any status and placing them in a separate category of their own where they had no rights and were wanted out of sight by the Canadian government (Pavlich, 2011). The camps that the Japanese people were forced to reside on depicted the image of bare life; they were just there with very little (Pavlich, 2011). The necessities they received were of bare minimum, they were forced in the labour, and forced to pay for certain amenities while making little to no income. The poor conditions of the camps were the least of the governments concern, it is a normalized exceptionality as referred by Agamben; these camps allow for sovereign power to be exercised (Pavlich, 2011).

Various quotes retrieved from

Roy Ito, We Went to War. The Story of Japanese Canadians Who Served During the First and Second World Wars. 1984.

“The deep rooted fear and hatred of the Japanese that went back for half a century had climaxed in a manner that was perhaps inevitable. The animosity had been nurtured by many men, twisting facts and playing upon racial prejudice until the people of British Columbia perceived the distortions as the truth.” 

Angus MacInnes, Member of Parliament from British Columbia, 1943.

“I see no reason why we should deal with the population of Japanese origin among us any differently from the way in which we deal with those of German and Italian extraction. If we deal with them differently – and we have done so – we do it an account of racial prejudice.”

Prime Minister Mackenzie King, House of Commons, 1944.

“The sound policy and the best policy for the Japanese Canadians themselves is to distribute widely as possible throughout the country where they will not create feelings of racial hostility.” 

Kitagawa, Muriel. Letter to the Custodian of Enemy Property, 1943

“You, who deal in lifeless figures, files, and statistics, could never measure the depth of hurt and outrage dealt out to those of us who love this land. It is because we are Canadians that we protest the violation of our birthright.”

Kogawa, Joy. Naomi’s Road, 1986

“Every morning I wake up in a narrow bunk bed by the stove. I wish and wish we could go home. I don’t want to be in this house of the bears with newspaper walls. I want to be with Mommy and Daddy and my doll in our real house. I want to be in my own room where the picture bird sings above my head….But no matter how hard I wish, we don’t go home.”

Thomas Reid, Member of Parliament for New Westminster, January 15, 1942

“Take them back to Japan. They do not belong here, and here, and there is only one solution to the problem. They cannot be assimilated as Canadians for no matter how long the Japanese remain in Canada they will always be Japanese.”

Takashima, Shizuye. A Child in a Prison Camp, 1971

“I have to pay taxes, but have never been allowed to vote. Even now, they took our land, our houses, our children, everything. We are their enemies.”

Japanese Canadian Centennial Project, 1978.

“Let us break this self-damaging silence and own our own history. If we do not, estrangement from our past will be absorbed and driven deeper, surfacing as a fragmentation in ourselves and coming generations.”


McCallister, K. (2006). Photographs of a Japanese Canadian internment camp:mourning loss and invoking a future. International Visual Sociology Association, 133-156.

(2011). Contested Sovereignties, Violence, and Law. In G. Pavlich, Law and Society: Redefined (pp. 152-166). Ontario: Oxford University Press.

Rita Dhamoon, Y. A.-L. (2009). Dangerous (Internal) Foreigners and Nation-Building: The Case of Canada. International Political Science Review, 163-183.


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One response to “State of Exception: Japanese Canadian Internment

  1. Excellent post. You provide a detailed, engaging descriptive account of the internment policy, and a great snapshot of some of the discourses surrounding it. Note that the internment of Japanese Canadians reflects a broader trend in the operation of states of exception – the social construction of a group of people as being simultaneously present and Other, insider but foreign, the ‘enemy at home’. It is an ambiguous status that involves the explulsion – in legal, cultural, political, and spatial senses – from the ‘core’ of a national public.