1941 -1946 were years of distress and difficulty for Japanese people residing in America as well as for Americans of Japanese descent. In 1940, one year after world war two began, the empire of Japan aligned itself with Germany and Italy. On December 7, 1941 Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii which led America to officially declare war against Japan and by extension against Germany and Italy as well (Smithsonian National Museum of American History, n.d.). “The hysteria that enveloped the West Coast during the early months of the war, combined with long standing anti-Asian prejudices, prepared the way for the confinement of the Japanese in internment camps (Smithsonian, n.d. p 4).
Just hours after the bombing, police, military police and the FBI took a group of Japanese aliens into custody for questioning. These people were placed in detention while they waited to go before Enemy Alien Hearing boards who would determine whether or not they were loyal to America. By December 11th there were 1,370 people being held. On January 3rd 1942, of all the Japanese, German, and Italian aliens in the US, 2,971 of them, including 1,484 Japanese Americans, were being held by the military. Just over a month later on February 19, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which ordered that Japanese Americans be removed from their homes and be placed into camps (Smithsonian, n.d.). “Abrogation of the basic constitutional rights of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans and resident aliens came quickly” (Smithsonian, n.d. p 4). Of particular concern was the violation of the rights granted by the fourth and fifteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution (Smithsonian, n.d.).
Under this order the military had the right to remove any person from any location in the country where it was determined that national security was under threat. Generally, in order for the military to rule in such a manner or have such extensive control over civilians, there must be an imposition of martial law. However, Executive Order 9066 suspended people’s rights and subjected them to the military power without martial law. The order did not specify whether any particular group or population of people were targeted, though only Japanese Americans were ordered out of their homes and interned in camps (Smithsonian, n.d.).
Shortly before the actual removal of the Japanese from their homes and communities, all Japanese citizens and aliens were registered with the U.S. government. Once ordered to evacuate, the Japanese had little time to pack or sell their possessions before they were forced out of their homes and placed in camps. They were permitted to take only what they could carry. All heirlooms, valuables, sentimentals, pets, toys, and non essential items had to be left behind. Business owners and home owners were forced to sell their properties and homes at enormous losses (Smithsonian, n.d.). “The patterns of daily life were shattered” (Smithsonian, n.d.)
After removal from their locations on the west coast, the Japanese were not sent directly to internment camps. Most of them were first placed in temporary assembly centers until the War Relocation Camps, which were to house the Japanese, were complete. In these temporary camps the Japanese lived under horrible conditions. The sanitation, food service, and health care facilities were terrible. In one temporary center the Japanese were placed in stalls which had held horses a week earlier. Many had to remain in these uninhabitable temporary camps for months (Smithsonian, n.d.).
Over 120,000 men, woman, and children of Japanese descent had been evacuated from their homes by the end of 1942. The Japanese had already suffered tremendous discrimination, prejudice, embarrassment; they had yet to be placed in internment camps (Smithsonian, n.d.). Eventually, all the removed Japanese Americans, of whom sixty five percent were American citizens, reached one of ten internment camps, also known as “instant cities” (Smithsonian, n.d.) These camps were located in seven states. Up to four years of the evacuees’ lives were spent imprisoned in these cities (Smithsonian, n.d.).
Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, described the oppressive state of the internment camps. “The US army fell into mass hysteria over the Japanese. We gave the fancy name of ‘relocation centers’ to these dust bowls, but they were concentration camps nonetheless” (Smithsonian, n.d.) he said. Indeed, these camps were like concentration camps: surrounded by barbed wire with armed military police watching over the camp from guard towers. One internee, Mary Tsukamoto, relates how entering the camp and hearing the gate close behind “sent a searing pain into my heart…. At that very moment my precious freedom was taken from me” (Smithsonian, n.d.). Many of the internment camps were in locations that suffered from extreme weather. An internee described the violent dust storms that took place in her camp. During a storm, barracks just a few feet ahead of her were completely hidden by dust and the wind was so strong that she was petrified that she would be knocked over (Smithsonian, n.d.). Additionally, the barracks were “Hastily built, with tarpaper walls and no amenities… hot in summer and cold in winter” (Smithsonian, n.d.).Most of them didn’t even meet the military’s minimal standards of housing. A visiting judge noted that “prisoners in federal penitentiaries were better housed” (Smithsonian, n.d.). Until 1946 Japanese Americans remained in any of ten internment camps (Smithsonian, n.d.).
For many of the Japanese, there was no single event that stood out as the most cruel or dehumanizing; rather the everyday mistreatments and the repeated violation of all personal dignity were the biggest traumas. The interns had no freedom or rights. They had to line up to receive any service or any item- from meals and showers to bathrooms and movies. They felt very uneasy being watched all day by guards in towers (Smithsonian, n.d.). The food situation also left much to be desired. One Japanese woman related that “The diet of rice, macaroni, and potato was hardly a suitable diet for… anyone” (Smithsonian, n.d.). Another related that they feared that one day they would stop receiving food (Smithsonian, n.d.).
During the years they spent in the camps the Japanese lived their lives as best they could. By 1946, Japanese Americans were released from the internment camps, but the injustice of the war years was not forgotten **. The former prisoners attempted to reintegrate into American society though they encountered difficulties. Many found that their homes, communities, and jobs no longer existed. Additionally, while some west coast areas welcomed the Japanese Americans back to their neighborhoods, other communities were not very welcoming (Smithsonian, n.d.). Over the next forty years many Japanese Americans were vocal about their experiences and the indignities they had suffered. Finally, in 1988 the United States government formally apologized for the internment of the Japanese during World War II with the passage of the Civil Liberties Act (Smithsonian, n.d.). This brought a small measure of closure for Japanese Americans and white Americans alike.
During the years of the internment many American newspapers told a very different story than the one provided by the internees. They provided explanations, justifications, and minimalizations for the internment. For example, when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, the LA Times justified the need for the order and exaggerated the risk the Japanese posed to American security (The Times Editorial Board, 2017). They wrote that “Every necessary precaution must be taken to insure reasonable safety from spies and saboteurs so that our armed forces can function adequately and our industrial machinery may continue to work free from peril” and “The time has come to realize that the rigors of war demand proper detention of Japanese and their immediate removal from the most acute danger spots … it must be done and done now” (The Times Editorial Board, 2017 para). When some people called for the release of the interned Japanese the LA Times editorial board wrote that the Japanese race have a history of treachery and therefore the risks of allowing Japanese Americans and aliens their freedom far outweigh any small advantages releasing them would offer. The LA Times’ biased view of the Japanese was so inappropriate that in 2017 they published an editorial acknowledging that the newspaper’s response to the internment was shameful. The Editorial Board explained that in the 1940’s some of their reasoning was “explicitly racist” (The Times Editorial Board, 2017 para ). They also admitted that “in our desperate attempts to sound rational… we exaggerated the severity of the threat while failing to acknowledge the significance of revoking the most fundamental rights of American citizens based solely on their ancestry” (The Times Editorial Board, 2017). In the social and political context of the twenty-first century, the opinions expressed freely in the 1940’s are now considered intolerable.
In gathering the evidence of first-person accounts, legal documents and various articles and reports, it emerges that the internment of Japanese Americans in internment camps during the years of World War II was constitutionally illegal, immoral and unethical. First, the U.S. government had no real proof that the Japanese people living in America were indeed disloyal to America and sympathetic of Japan, the land of their ancestors. Additionally, the fact that nearly two thirds of those placed in camps were born in America and had never even been to Japan leads us to question the likelihood that these people were really aligned with Japan (Independence Hall Association, 2008). In fact there is much evidence that indicates that the internment was largely a result of long standing racist feelings against the Japanese.
Shortly after Asians began coming to America in the mid 1800’s they “became targets of anti-Asian campaigns, maligned as the “yellow peril.” ” (National Asian American Telecommunications Association, 2002). The Japanese also became the victims of prejudice which had previously been directed at the Chinese, especially as they began to prosper economically. Then, in the beginning of the 1900’s the US passed laws discriminating against the Japanese and preventing them from becoming citizens, owning land, and marrying into other races. Japanese Americans were prevented from participating in certain industries, and were not allowed to buy homes in some places. Some municipalities even subjected Japanese children to segregation in schools. In the 1930’s the general American attitude towards colored people was one of intolerance and non acceptance. Racism directed at the Japanese people was in part due to the fact that the Japanese are not white (National Asian Association, 2002).
Racial conflict was a large component of world war two. “While German or Italian enemies were often viewed as misguided victims of despotic leaders, Japanese people were referred to as “yellow vermin,” “mad dogs,” and “monkey men”…” Racist wartime propaganda further exacerbated fears of invasion and prejudice against people of Japanese descent” (Smithsonian, n.d.). After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry to the war, Americans became even more paranoid of Japanese Americans (Independence Hall Association, 2008). **Particularly on the west coast there were high levels of opposition regarding the Japanese (Smithsonian, n.d). Thus when early rumors that the Japanese Americans in Hawaii and the West Coast were planning sabotage and espionage were found to be false by the FBI and other government agencies, according to the National Asian Association (2002), the “findings were suppressed by high U.S. officials in government” (para ) because of their prejudices and racism. In fact there wasn’t even a single incidence where a Japanese resident attempted sabotage or espionage (National Asian Association, 2002). Racist politicians from the west coast convinced national officials that the Japanese people must be removed. Government officials then convinced President Roosevelt to follow popular opinion and sign the executive order (Smithsonian, n.d.).
Records of officials making racist comments and advocating for the internment of the Japanese further indicates that the government and military were supportive of internment because of their extreme personal dislike of the Japanese and not because the Japanese posed a real threat to American security. In one instance Secretary of War Stimson was heard saying about the Japanese: “Their racial characteristics are such that we cannot understand or trust even the citizen Japanese” (Smithsonian, n.d.). In another instance Congressman John Rankin said “I’m for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska, and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps…. Let’s get rid of them now!” (Smithsonian, n.d.).
Although the initial restrictions placed by FBI were for Germans and Italians, as well as Japanese, they were subsequently substantially relaxed for the Germans and Italians. People of German and Italian Descent were never actually interned. This further demonstrates that Japanese Americans were subjected to racism, and not to concrete suspicion (National Asian Association, 2002). Furthermore, prior to the actual internment, military commander General DeWitt issued over one hundred military “Exclusion Orders”. These orders were “based solely on race and ancestry” and were only directed at people on the west coast who were of Japanese descent (Smithsonian, n.d.). The actual Executive Order did not indicate that any specific group or population of people be removed. Under this order any citizen suspected of possibly undermining the war effort could have been removed from his home. In reality only Japanese Americans were evacuated and interned in camps (Smithsonian, n.d.). If the Japanese were indeed a threat then the Germans and Italians should have been viewed with the same suspicion and subjected to the same orders and removal. Thus it is further evident that fear of the Japanese was a result of racism and racist propaganda, leading to hysteria and the consequent internment of the Japanese (National Asian Association, 2002).
Additional proof that the internment was inappropriate and only a result of racism is the fact that while the Japanese were in camps the government actually recruited some of the internees to the Army (Smithsonian, n.d.). If the Japanese were indeed a threat the US then the US most definitely would not have allowed them to fight in the army and risk having Japanese Americans reveal their battle plans and war secrets to Japan. Finally, “in the 1980s, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians found there had been no military justification for the exclusion” and concluded that the internment was a “grave injustice” (The Times Editorial Board, 2017).
Independence Hall Association. (2008). Japanese-American internment. Retrieved from http://www.ushistory.org/us/51e.asp
National Asian American Telecommunications Association. (2002). World War II & Roundup| Exploring JAI. Retrieved from https://caamedia.org/jainternment/ww2/
Smithsonian National Museum of American History. (n.d.). A | More | Perfect | Union. Retrieved from http://amhistory.si.edu/perfectunion/non-flash/
The Times Editorial Board. (2017, February 19). 75 years later, looking back at The Times’ shameful response to the Japanese internment. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-internment-anniversary-20170219-story.html