Japanese‐American Internment Cases

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Japanese‐American Internment Cases. During World War II, the U.S. Army, acting under Executive Order 9066 signed by PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt on 19 February 1942 (and ratified by Congress a month later), ordered nearly 120,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans from the West Coast where the majority of them lived to move to prisonlike “relocation” camps in the interior of the United States. In the case of U.S. citizens, such action was taken only against those of Japanese ancestry, not against German Americans or Italian Americans. As a November 1941 civilian report stressed the loyalty of most Japanese Americans to the United States, and the FBI and U.S. military intelligence had planned only to detain potential spies or saboteurs, Roosevelt's claim of “military necessity” appears to have been a legal cover for the administration's concession to anti–Japanese‐American groups. These included economic competitors, racists, and politicians appealing to a public frightened after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Gen. John L. De Witt, army chief of the Western Defense Command, declared that racial ties made all ethnic Japanese potentially disloyal, and directed their immediate removal from their homes on the West Coast. Most internees remained in the camps until 1944; they were not closed until late 1945.

The Japanese‐American Internment Cases resulted from legal claims by Japanese Americans that these actions violated their rights as U.S. citizens. Gordon Kyoshi Hira bayashi was born in Seattle in 1918 and was a senior at the University of Washington when he was arrested in 1942 for failing to register for evacuation and for violating the curfew imposed on all ethnic Japanese. In Hirabayashi v. U.S. (20 U.S. 81) in 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the military curfew regulations under the war powers, and thus his conviction, but declined to consider the issue of Japanese exclusion from the area. The Court similarly upheld the curfew conviction of Minoru Yasui, born in Oregon in 1916, who was a lawyer and a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve.

In December 1944, the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the forced evacuation of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry in Korematsu v. U.S. (323 U.S. 214). But three justices, Robert Jackson, Frank Murphy, and Owen J. Roberts, dissented, claiming the relocation program was unconstitutional. Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu, born in Oakland, California, in 1919, had been arrested in 1942 for refusing to comply with the military's exclusion order. In a gesture to the dissenters, in Ex parte Endo (323 U.S. 283), the Supreme Court held in 1944 that the War Relocation Authority, which oversaw the relocation program, could not detain a person whose loyalty had been established.

Thus, the Supreme Court largely upheld the government during the war, limiting the Constitution's guarantees of equal protection under the law, and allowing the supremacy of military over civil judgment and authority on the basis of claims of “military necessity.”

In 1983, a team of attorneys reopened the internment cases based on documentary findings that in their original presentation to the Supreme Court, the government's lawyers had suppressed evidence and made false statements. Lower courts vacated the wartime convictions of Hirabayashi and Korematsu, but refused to hear Yasui's petition, and the government chose to end the litigation by not appealing those decisions to the Supreme Court, the sole court with the authority to reverse its own rulings. In 1988, Congress provided for partial restitution payments of $20,000 to each of the 60,000 surviving internees from the camps.
[See also Civil Liberties and War; Internment of Enemy Aliens; Supreme Court, War, and the Military.]


Peter Irons , Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases, 1983.
Peter Irons , Justice Delayed: The Record of the Japanese American Internment Cases, 1989. Personal Justice Denied. Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, 1997.

Gary Y. Okihiro

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Japanese‐American Internment Cases

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