Robert Keller on The History, Literature and Ethics of Japanese Removal

Professor and author Robert Keller explores how history can help us learn from our mistakes, as in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

As Professor Emeritus at Western Washington University, Robert Keller has taught some interesting classes. From the first black history course at WWU to a course called Death and Dying to his current class about environmental history and ethics, his knowledge and interest in history and culture extends across a wide range of topics.

Keller also teaches a course on Pacific Northwest history, and in it he details the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. He brings this topic to audiences across the state as a member of the Humanities Washington’s 2010-12 Speakers Bureau.


What: Robert Keller’s Reconciling the Past: The History, Literature and Ethics of Japanese Removal
Where: Mid-Columbia Libraries, 1620 S. Union St., Kennewick [Directions]
When: 7 p.m. Thursday (June 21)
Cost: Free

In his presentation, titled Reconciling the Past: The History, Literature and Ethics of Japanese Removal, Keller explores why this particular period of American history can shed light on our view of civil rights. It also sparks conversations about how we treat particular ethnic groups when national security issues arise.

As a child growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Keller encountered Camp Harmony, a temporary internment camp for Japanese-Americans located on the Puyallup Fairgrounds. Keller also lived in Germany for many years, and shares his insights into how the Germans have acknowledged and learned from the tragic events of the Holocaust. Based on his experiences, he offers his thoughts on ways that Americans might come to terms with the mistakes of our own past in a way that promotes healing and growth.

Humanities Washington recently interviewed the professor via e-mail to discuss the Japanese internment and his thoughts on reconciliation, acknowledging mistakes and moving forward.

Humanities Washington: In your video for the Humanities Washington Speaker’s Bureau, you mention that, as a child, you witnessed Japanese-Americans being held in the temporary internment camp called Camp Harmony on the Puyallup Fairgrounds during World War II. Can you describe what you were feeling and how you made sense of what was happening?

Robert Keller: I was seven years old and although I can recall the scene I cannot remember my thoughts or those of my parents. I did think it was curious and knew that adults and children behind the barbed wire were different. My family strongly supported the war effort in general.

HW: What impact do you think that experience has had on your interest in history, civil rights and how you personally treat people today?

Keller: In retrospect I realize that I lived through something I now consider wrong. That is part of the reason for studying history, to realize how young and naive we have been at different times. It also helps us understand people with the same experiences. I would now define it as the ethical issue of complicity, but we can hardly expect a seven-year-old to raise such questions.

HW: Having lived in Germany for a number of years, in what ways do you think the Germans have come to terms with the grave mistakes of their past, particularly of the Nazi era?

Keller: Germans do a much better job today of confronting the injustices and evils of their past than Americans, especially their recent past. We see this in museums and memorials. In November, I visited the DDR (German Democratic Republic) Museum in Berlin, another place called the Palace of Tears, and then spent three hours at the site of the Wannsee Conference, now a museum about the genocide of the Jews. Previously, I have walked through the Berlin Holocaust Memorial and also the Jewish History Museum, as well as the concentration camp at Mauthausen. Literature on the Nazi era is widely read, and is taught in the schools. In Germany denial of the Holocaust is a crime, a law that I debated with several German friends who, though university professors, support it. By contrast, our American recognition and study of the slave trade, slavery, racial segregation, racial massacres and dispossession of native peoples seems mild and weak.

HW: What parallels, if any, can you draw between the interment of the Japanese in America during World War II and the treatment of Arab-Americans after 9/11?

Keller: I’d like to think that we realized and concluded, “We can’t do that again.” In both cases, we need to recognize that fear and anger can be powerful forces that are difficult to resist. I would hope that our thinking and feeling about diversity in race and religion has progressed in 70 years. Nine-Eleven gives some support to that. But irrational forces and drives can be very powerful and no people are immune. To believe we are immune is a delusion, thus a danger.

HW: What do you think we as a country can do to reconcile our past mistakes and to move towards creating a climate of trust and acceptance instead of fear and intolerance?

Keller: The German memorials do not preach or scold but set out hard information that forces viewers to draw their own conclusions. As a college professional, I consider that ideal. Yet that’s an academic attitude and much of the world is not academic. A strong, practical way to overcome negative attitudes toward other people is through direct personal contact as demonstrated by changing (improving) attitudes toward homosexuals. After gay people began coming “out of the closet” in the 70s, prejudice has slowly begun to decrease. This can also happen through literature. Some of the powerful books on Japanese-American internment create empathy and self-criticism that can transform attitudes, like (David) Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars and (Jamie) Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Both of these novels, as well as some biographies, are optional reading for students in my PNW (Pacific Northwest) History class.

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