How Anti-Asian sentiment grew out of control in both film and society

As American-born Asians residents were still barred from becoming citizens because of the Nationality Act of 1790, which remained “in effect until 1952” (Rollins 298). This group was purposely and continuously put in the category of the foreigner which limited their status in this country for almost two centuries. The Second World War period was testing time for, especially Asian-Americans, especially Japanese-Americans because of their internment in camps.

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A photo of a Japanese internment camp source: KRWG

It was after “the day that would live in infamy”, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor that everything changed for them (Roosevelt). Two months after the event that shook the nation by taking everyone out the wide isolationist mentality, that President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which “ordered all Japanese-Americans to relocate” (Reeves 60). The 9066 order by Roosevelt stated that the President authorized and directed “all Executive Departments, independent establishments, and other Federal Agencies, to assist the Secretary of War or the said Military Commanders in carrying out” the Executive Order (Roselvert).

This order resulted in the relocation of approximately “120,000 people, many of whom were American citizens” to internment camps that were spread across the country, most of them being in the West coast (Reeves 63). There were about 10 internment camps set up to accommodate the functions the executive order. Many consider the internment of Japanese- Americans to be “one of the most flagrant violations of civil liberties in American history” (Reeves 70).

As most Asian-Americans, Japanese-Americans could not “ own land, be naturalized as citizens, or vote” and the internment order came out of race prejudice because no German or Italians were ever put in such conditions (Reeves 75). In 1942, the Roosevelt administration was even “pressured to remove persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast” mostly by farmers who were seeking to get rid of Japanese competition (Reeves 75).  

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Pictured here is the All-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team Source: Hawaii Reporter

This mistreatment of Japanese-Americans was gaining steam, even as “some 3,600 Japanese-Americans entered the armed forces” ( Reeves 157). A famous but now mostly forgotten “all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team” won numerous decorations for its missions in Italy and Germany (Reeves 157). Many call “the most honored combat unit per capita in American military history” (Reeves 158).

A scene from Breakfast At Tyffany’s (1961) Source: Business Insider

In films, the emergence anti-miscegenation laws in the 1930s that prohibited marriage between the different races or even the fraternization helped “fuel yellowface on the screen” (Rollins 300). This lead to “Hollywood’s Motion Picture Industry Code prohibited any scenes suggesting miscegenation as desirable” and created a whole new wave of stereotypes. Some leading white actresses of the day had their “ faces altered by cosmetic tape” and were chosen rather than Asian-American actresses to play Asians on the big screen (Rollins 300).  Some examples include iconic actresses such as Luise Rainer in The Good Earth (1937), Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed (1944), and Shirley MacLaine in My Geisha (1962). These portrays redefined the notion of Asian beauty and suggested the negative connotation that “to be a beautiful Asian meant having more Caucasian features” (Rollins 300). Men playing Asians at that time were John Wayne as the “war-crazed Genghis Khan “ in The Conqueror (1956) and Marlon Brando playing a “sneaky, backstabbing Japanese interpreter” in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956). And seen in one of the most racist portrayals of Asians even in com Mickey Rooney playing a “squinty-eyed, buck-toothed Japanese landlord “ in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

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Katharine Hepburn in Drangon Seed (1944) Source: Takepart

The American government did not pay recommendations for the loss that many Japanese-Americans faced during their internment until 1988. In some ways, the Hollywood industry also did some injustices to the Asian- Americans by excluding from films portraying them and doing it inaccurately and exotically. Similar to what some Latino/Hispanic actors and actresses faced, where many had to be considered white, By casting whites to play Asians, their caucasian characteristics were more favorable. This lead to the misrepresentation of Asians on film that is still present today, although slowly changing and moving in the right direction.


  1. Rollins, Peter C. The Columbia Companion to American History on Film. N.p.: Columbia U Press, 2004. ProQuest . Web.
  2. Reeves, Richard. Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II. New York City: Henry Holt and Company, 2015. Print.
  3. Roosevelt, President Franklin D. “Pearl Harbor Adress” in 1941. Time Web. <;.
  4. Roosevelt,  President Franklin D. Executive Order 9066. National Park Service Museums. Web <;.
  5. The Good Earth (1937). Dir. Sidney Sidney Franklin. Perf. Paul Muni, Luise Rainer. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, n.d. Web. <;.
  6. Dragon Seed (1944). Dir. Harold S. Bucquet and Jack Conway. Perf. Katharine Hepburn, Aline MacMahon. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Loew’s, n.d. Web. <;.
  7.  My Geisha (1962). Dir. Jack Cardiff. Perf. Shirley MacLaine, Yves Montand, Edward G. Robinson. N.p., n.d. Web. <;.
  8. The Conqueror (1956). Dir. Dick Powell. Perf. John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead. RKO Radio Pictures, n.d. Web. <;.
  9. Teahouse of the August Moon (1956). Dir. Daniel Mann. Perf. Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford, Machiko Kyō. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, n.d. Web. <;.
  10.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Dir. Blake Edwards. Perf. Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard. Paramount Pictures, n.d. Web. <;.

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