David 'Mas' Masumoto

David Mas Masumoto: Identifying the enemy by the faces they wear

A Life magazine article on Dec. 22, 1941, indicates how to differentiate Japanese and Chinese people based on facial characteristics.
A Life magazine article on Dec. 22, 1941, indicates how to differentiate Japanese and Chinese people based on facial characteristics.

People claim to know the face of the enemy. Some wrongly believe we are under attack by Islamic State terrorists everywhere. They have infiltrated all of our communities. They might be our neighbors. The proper course of action, they contend, is to flush them out and identify them by the faces they wear.

This misguided thinking results in branding anyone who looks like a Muslim as evil. It happened recently in Fresno when an elderly Sikh man was beaten because he wore a turban and supposedly had the look of a terrorist. Throughout the country, scores of people are harassed and intimidated because some think they look like the enemy. It’s suspected that many others are brutalized and killed because of their physical features.

But Muslims are not our enemy. No one characteristic identifies an adversary. You can’t single out a terrorist by appearance.

In December 1941, the faces of my family changed. My dad was a senior in high school and played on the basketball team. My mom was 14 years old and had a crush on a few boys. They both worked the fields of California with family, helping grow fruits and vegetables for the nation. But they were labeled as the enemy because of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They were accused of collaborating with a foreign government across an ocean. They were guilty of looking like the enemy.

I know all this because a series of extremely racist and ludicrous articles published in Life magazine and Time magazine told me so. Both national magazines in December 1941 ran stories to help Americans identify the good guys from the bad guys according to the way they looked. The articles were titled: “How to Tell Japs From the Chinese” and “How To Tell Your Friends from the Japs.”

Each publication closely examined faces and body types in order to empower the average American, the majority who had never seen nor met a Japanese American, with the skill to recognize and classify people. Reading these articles decades later seems like a joke, a satire of misguided intentions. It would be funny, except the intentions were real.

The Life magazine article, with photographs comparing a Chinese diplomat to General Tojo of the Japanese military, concluded the following: Chinese eyes are more fluent with a greater frequency of epicanthic folds in their eyes (they have attractive double eyelids). Japanese betray aboriginal traits, with a flatter nose, massive cheek and jawbones. Chinese have a lighter facial structure and a more finely bridged nose. Chinese are longer and narrower in build; Japanese are broader and shorter.

Likewise, Time magazine offered to help clarify the confusion. They printed “Rules of Thumb” with idiotic ways to discriminate between Asians. Chinese are tall; virtually all Japanese are short. Japanese are stockier and broader hipped. Japanese (except for wrestlers) are seldom fat; they often dry up and grow lean as they age. The Chinese put on weight, particularly if they are prosperous.

Chinese avoid horn-rimmed spectacles. Japanese eyes are closer set. Japanese are hesitant, nervous in conversation, laugh loudly at the wrong time. Chinese expression is more placid, kindly open; the Japanese more dogmatic, arrogant. Japanese walk stiffly erect, hard-heeled. Chinese are more relaxed with easy gait.

These bigoted articles attempted to explain how to segregate good Americans from enemies of the state. These two stories were trying to help reduce injury and threats to “our friends” – namely the Chinese in America. In order to reduce mistaken identity, there was a call for identification buttons or tags to distinguish friends from foes.

Anyone who believes Life and Time magazines were justified in making such lists, you are wrong. No one can identify the content of a person’s character by physical characteristics. No one should judge a person by a face or body. No one can determine good from evil by the slant of their eyes, the color of their skin or the clothes they wear.

Yes, evil people have committed crimes in the United States and world. They have killed and injured many, and we must seek to prevent such acts. We should be aware. But it’s a leap to then accuse anyone who “looks like the enemy” and jump to conclusions and call for action based on someone’s physical traits. I ask again: What does the enemy look like? In 1941, could you separate friends from the enemy? Were we not also at war with Germany and Italy? How could you have singled out good Germans or Italians from bad ones?

A few years ago, in a response to the anti-Muslim assaults perpetrated on those who “look like Muslims,” a misguided article attempted to educate the public about turbans. For example, the Sikh turban is different from the traditional Muslim. A “turban primer” was published, as if we all needed to beware of the turban.

The flaw with this approach is that it sanctions hatred of all Muslims. It proclaims that Sikh turbans are OK; Muslim turbans are bad. Again, this is wrong. Muslims are not the enemy. It’s wrong to attack anyone and everyone because of the way they look or the religion they follow.

The enemies are those who promote hate and harm of others, not those with Asian features or turbans. Evil should never be tolerated. We are in an era where our guard must be vigilant. But that does not mean we become vigilantes who judge others by the faces they wear.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and award-winning author of books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.”