Just out! “When You Can’t Tell Your Friends from the Japs: Reading the body in the Korematsu case.” Journal of Transnational American Studies special issue in honor of Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, spring-summer 2012 (4(1)).
Fred Korematsu, plaintiff of the landmark 1944 case Korematsu v. United States, famously had cosmetic surgery on his face to try to escape the ‘internment,’ the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. This article examines the popular and legal discussion of his surgery at that time, which show that fears of Japanese spies and the supposed inability to distinguish Japanese, captured in the famous Life magazine article “How To Tell Your Friends from the Japs,” directly influenced the courts’ rulings on the legality of the internment. The deliberate decision of the Supreme Court to excise this issue from the Korematsu opinion, which disclaimed racism as a root cause of the internment, is exposed through archival documents and drafts that betray a deep interest in his surgery, as do the government and lower court documents. As a heroic figurehead of civil rights, Korematsu complicates the discussion of surgical patients as complicit, drawing attention instead to the legalized discrimination that drives such choices. Likewise, key Supreme Court cases benefit from a close reading of the issue of mutable appearance and racial passing, as they show a common anxiety and inability to define race precisely on the body.
The issue is available for free online.
I was delighted to be able to participate in an issue to honor Sau-ling Wong and her many contributions to the field of Asian American studies. In particular, her idea of “food pornography” is always a hit with students!