Skip to main content

World War II

By 1940, people from many different ethnic and racial groups had settled in California. But the war with Japan worsened racism at home.
Read full overview|Go to first item


By 1940, people from many different ethnic and racial groups made their home in California. A set of maps show the distribution of racial and national groups in the greater Los Angeles area, based on the 1940 US census. Asian groups listed include Japanese, Filipino, and “foreign born from Asia.” A news photo taken shortly before Pearl Harbor shows a diverse group of chefs at a Los Angeles restaurant — a Filipino, a Japanese American, and a Chinese American. According to the caption, "And they get along too."

During the War

As the century progressed, Japanese Americans became established in industries related to growing and selling produce and flowers. By the time of the US entry into World War II, these industries were thriving, and many Japanese Americans had entered the middle class.

After the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, however, the federal government rounded up and relocated 120,000 Californians of Japanese descent in the name of national security. Dorothea Lange took the photograph of farm families boarding an evacuation bus in Centerville, carrying parcels (evacuees were only allowed to take what possessions they could carry). Two-thirds of the Japanese Americans were actually American born, and thus citizens. Most were incarcerated in 10 remote and guarded “relocation camps” for more than two years, despite never being convicted — or even formally accused — of a crime. Conditions were bleak in the camps: a photograph shows a man resting on a cot after moving his possessions into a cramped room; and a painting by internee artist Estelle Ishigo portrays a family at home in the camps. To prove their loyalty and patriotism, many men joined the segregated all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated military unit in American history. See more images of Japanese American internment.

Chinese Americans were well aware of the virulent racism made worse by war with Japan. As the photograph illustrates, some wore buttons that read “I am Chinese” to distinguish themselves from Japanese. Given China’s ally status, Chinese Americans suffered less discrimination than Japanese. Many Chinese joined the military. A photograph of Chinatown’s American Legion post shows veterans of World Wars I and II. Like other American women during the war-based labor shortage, Chinese American women worked on the home front — illustrated here by a woman on a construction site.

In 1943, Congress passed the Magnuson Act, which repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The reasons were twofold: the United States sought out China as an ally during WWII, and also sought to deflect Japanese propaganda in Asia that called the United States a racist country for its exclusionary and segregationist practices. Due to provisions of the Magnuson Act and a later War Brides Act, Chinese Americans were able to bring wives to America, beginning a new generation.

Approximately 250,000 Filipino men joined the US armed forces to fight in World War II. Anacieto Soriano, Sr. (at right) and his friend are shown wearing their 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment uniforms. But after the war, President Truman signed the Recission Act of 1946, effectively erasing their service records and denying them military benefits. Many of these California veterans live in near poverty today. As of mid-2007, S. 57, The Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 2007, has not been voted on.

Postwar Life

Upon release at the end of the war, many Japanese Americans found themselves destitute, stripped of their homes, possessions, and businesses, forced to begin again to build lives in the United States.

Recognizing the injustice of the relocation campaigns, the US Congress made partial reparations to Japanese Americans in 1948. Years later, after intense lobbying by community activists, Congress passed the 1988 Civil Liberties Act. It mandated a formal apology, $20,000 compensation for former internees, and the creation of a fund to educate the public about the camps and the unconstitutional nature of the internment. But the stigma of being labeled national enemies simply because of their race lingered among many second-generation Japanese Americans.

Although life may have improved for some Filipinos following their service during WWII, many remained in a world of migrant labor. However, many Filipinos unionized following the war and became active in the United Farm Workers. Philip Vera Cruz, for example, was a part of the UFW leadership along with Mexican Americans Césár Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

|Go to first item

Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.


"Asian Americans: World War II" was curated and written by the University of California in 2005 as part of the California Cultures project.

Using this exhibition:

The text of this exhibition is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. You are free to share and adapt it however you like, provided you provide attribution as follows:

Asian Americans: World War II curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2005, Regents of the University of California.