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Essay: Relocation and Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II

On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The next day, the United States and Britain declared war on Japan. Two months later, on February 19, 1942, the lives of thousands of Japanese Americans were dramatically changed when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 (view the Order). This order led to the assembly and evacuation and relocation of nearly 122,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry on the west coast of the United States.

Racism and Prejudice

It is interesting to note that, despite the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not incarcerated en masse. Of the total Japanese American population in Hawaii-which made up nearly 40% of the population of Hawaii itself, and a large portion of the skilled workforce-only a few thousand people were detained. The fact that so few Japanese Americans were incarcerated in Hawaii suggests that their mass removal on the West Coast was racially motivated rather than born of "military necessity." Agricultural interest groups in western states and many local politicians had long been opposed to the presence of Japanese Americans and used the attack on Pearl Harbor to step up calls for their removal.

The United States was fighting the war on three fronts — Japan, Germany, and Italy — compared to the number of Japanese Americans, a relatively small number of Germans and Italians were interned in the United States. But although Executive Order 9066 was written in vague terms that did not specify an ethnicity, it was used for the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. The government claimed that incarceration was for military necessity and, ironically, to "protect" Japanese Americans from racist retribution they might face as a result of Pearl Harbor. (These reasons were later proved false by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in the 1980s.)

In fact, Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans had long been characterized as a foreign "Yellow Peril" that was a threat to the United States. Prejudice against Japanese Americans, including laws preventing them from owning land, existed long before World War II. Even though Japanese Americans largely considered themselves loyal and even patriotic Americans, suspicions about their loyalties were pervasive. Before Pearl Harbor was bombed, President Roosevelt secretly commissioned Curtis Munson, a businessman, to assess the possibility that Japanese Americans would pose a threat to US security. Munson’s report found (as cited in Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Distant Shore, page 386) that "There will be no armed uprising of Japanese" in the United States. "For the most part," the report says, "the local Japanese are loyal to the United States or, at worst, hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concentration camps or irresponsible mobs."

Despite these findings, however, thousands of families in California, Oregon, and Washington were soon incarcerated in government camps. The government — and popular sentiment — understood that German Americans were not necessarily Nazi sympathizers, and could distinguish Italian Americans from Mussolini’s Fascist regime, but they had a more difficult time separating Japanese Americans from Imperial Japan.

The majority of those interned — nearly 70,000, over 60% — were American citizens. Many of the rest were long-time US residents who had lived in this country between 20 and 40 years. By and large, most Japanese Americans, particularly the Nisei (the first generation born in the United States), considered themselves loyal Americans. No Japanese American or Japanese national was ever found guilty of sabotage or espionage.

The Camps

From March 1942 to 1946, the US War Relocation Authority (WRA) had jurisdiction over the Japanese and Japanese Americans evacuated from their homes in California, Oregon, and Washington. It administered the extensive resettlement program, and oversaw the details of the registration and segregation programs.

"Evacuated" families left behind homes, businesses, pets, land, and most of their belongings. Taking only what they could carry, Japanese Americans were taken by bus and train to assembly centers — hastily converted facilities such as race tracks and fairgrounds. Here they awaited reassignment to the "relocation camps."

The WRA controlled the administration of 10 camps in remote areas of California, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Texas, and Arkansas. Although official government photographs were careful not to show it, these facilities were fenced with barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers.

During internment (also called incarceration), families worked, studied, and lived their lives in the barracks-like living quarters of the relocation centers, which were alternately labeled "relocation camps," "concentration camps," or "evacuation centers." These camps, some of which housed approximately 8,000 people, functioned as communities. The government provided medical care, schools, and food, and adults often held camp jobs — in food service, agriculture, medical clinics, as teachers, and other jobs required for daily life.

Postwar "Resettlement"

In December 1944, President Roosevelt rescinded Executive Order 9066, and the WRA began a six-month process of releasing internees (often to "resettlement" facilities and temporary housing) and shutting down the camps. In August 1945, the war was over. By 1946, the camps were closed and all of the internees had been released to rebuild their lives.

In the postwar years, these Japanese Americans had to rebuild their lives. The US citizens and long-time residents who had been incarcerated had lost their personal liberties, and many also lost their homes, businesses, property, and savings. Individuals born in Japan were not allowed to become naturalized US citizens until 1952.

Chronology of World War II and Japanese American Incarceration

December 7, 1941 Japan bombs Pearl Harbor.
December 8, 1941 United States and Britain declare war on Japan.
February 19, 1942 President Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066. This order leads to the assembly and incarceration of over 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry on the west coast.
March 1942 The United States creates the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to assume jurisdiction over the Japanese and Japanese Americans evacuated from California, Oregon, and Washington.
April 1942 Japanese Americans sent to 10 remote relocation centers scattered across the Western United States.
December 1944 President Roosevelt rescinds Executive Order 9066. The WRA begins a six-month process of releasing internees and shutting down the camps.
August 6, 1945 United States drops first atomic bomb, on Hiroshima, Japan.
August 9, 1945 United States drops second atomic bomb, on Nagasaki, Japan.
August 14, 1945 Japan agrees to unconditional surrender.
September 2, 1945 Japan signs the surrender agreement.
June 1952 Congress passes the McCarran Walter Act, granting Japanese aliens the right to become naturalized US citizens.
1976 President Gerald R. Ford officially rescinds Executive Order 9066.
1981 Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (set up by Congress) holds hearings across the country and concludes that internment was a "grave injustice" and that Executive Order 9066 resulted from "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."
August 1988 President Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act, apologizing to the Japanese American internees and offering $20,000 to survivors of the camps.
January 1998 Fred Korematsu receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Korematsu was arrested for remaining in his home and not reporting to the local Assembly Center. He was convicted of violating E.O. 9066. The judgment was later overturned.)

About this essay:

"Relocation and Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II" was written by the University of California in 2005 as part of the Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive (JARDA) project.

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