Incarceration, Japanese American

views updated May 11 2018

Incarceration, Japanese American








From 1885 to 1924 approximately 200,000 Japanese immigrated to Hawaii, and 180,000 Japanese immigrated to the mainland United States. This first generation of immigrants (Issei) built a vibrant community, raising families, starting churches, and forming social and business organizations. Their success met with prejudice and an anti-Japanese movement. Discriminatory laws prevented Issei from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens. They were barred from owning land, marrying whites, and sending their children to schools attended by whites. In 1924 Congress passed the Immigration Act, which barred any further immigration from Japan. The second generation (Nisei) also faced discrimination. Even though they were born in the United States, spoke English like other Americans, and often did well in school, these U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry faced discrimination in employment, housing, public settings (restaurants, stores, hotels, swimming pools, etc.), and social and civic activities.


On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked U.S. military bases in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. More than 3,500 American servicemen and civilians were killed or wounded. In the hours following the attack, the FBI arrested over 1,200 Japanese immigrant men: businessmen, Buddhist priests, Japanese language teachers, and other community leaders.

More than 5,500 Issei men were eventually picked up and held as potential threats to national security. Most of these men were taken first to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention stations and then to Department of Justice (DOJ) internment camps to undergo hearings. Officially, these internment cases were given individual legal review, but in practice the majority of Issei were imprisoned without evidence that they posed any threat to national security. Internees were not allowed legal representation. Approximately 1,700 were released to War Relocation Authority (WRA) concentration camps after these hearings, but most were transferred to U.S. Army internment camps.


On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945) signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized military commanders to designate military areas from which any person could be excluded. Congress supported the executive order by authorizing a prison term and fine for a civilian convicted of violating the military order. General John L. DeWitt (18801962), Western Defense Command, then issued over one hundred military orders that only applied to civilians of Japanese ancestry living in the West Coast states. Thus the president and Congress authorized the removal and incarceration of over 110,000 people based solely on race without charges, hearings, or evidence of wrongdoing. More than two-thirds of those incarcerated were U.S. citizensover half were children.

Ironically, over 150,000 people of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii were not removed or incarcerated. General Delos Emmons (18881965), who became commanding general in Hawaii shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, treated the Issei and Nisei as loyal to the United States. Although there were many false stories of Japanese American spies, General Emmons repeatedly rejected anti-Japanese pleas for mass removal of Japanese ancestry from Hawaii. He knew there was no evidence of Japanese American espionage or sabotage. In fact during World War II (19391945) no Japanese American in the United States, Hawaii, or Alaskacitizen or immigrantwas ever convicted of espionage or sabotage.


The general public, through books, movies, and school lessons, is most familiar with the ten WRA concentration camps, such as the Manzanar relocation center near Independence, California. The full extent of the imprisonment, however, included approximately sixty other government facilities: temporary assembly centers, immigration detention stations, federal prisons, and internment camps. Italian and German immigrants, Alaskan natives, Japanese Latin Americans, and Japanese Hawaiians were also sent to live at these sites.

Which detention facility a person entered depended on several factors, including citizenship status, perceived level of threat, geography, degree of cooperation or protest, and sheer chance. For the most part the DOJ and U.S. Army camps interned first-generation men who were arrested by the FBI, while the WRA concentration camps incarcerated both U.S. citizens and immigrants affected by the exclusion order.


As early as April 1942, even before inmates were transferred from the temporary assembly centers to concentration camps, the WRA recognized that Japanese Americans eventually would have to reenter society. Thus the WRA enacted a policy of granting short-term or indefinite leave for college or work to Japanese Americans who were U.S. citizens and who could find sponsors. Additionally, thousands of Nisei men enlisted in the military and served in combat.

To help administer the military draft and work-release program, the U.S. Army and the WRA produced loyalty questionnaires for all WRA inmates seventeen years of age and older. Two questions caused confusion and controversy for inmates. They were asked if they were willing to serve in the armed forces and to forswear loyalty to Japan. Answering yes left the Issei stateless, as they could not be U.S. citizens and the wording falsely assumed the American-born Nisei were loyal to Japan. Despite serious problems with the meaning and purpose of the questions, government officials and others considered those who answered no to these two questions to be disloyal to the United States, and they were transferred to the Tule Lake concentration camp in northern California, which was designated a segregation camp. Yes answers to these questions qualified inmates for service in the U.S. Army, and some became eligible for release and resettlement in areas outside of the West Coast exclusion zones.


In December 1944 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case brought by Mitsuye Endo, a Nisei contesting her incarceration, that a loyal U.S. citizen could not be held in a WRA concentration camp against his or her will. While the case was being heard, federal officials recognized that the continuing incarceration was not legally defensible and began preparations to close the concentration camps. In addition the exclusion orders were rescinded, and persons of Japanese ancestry were allowed to return to the West Coast. On March 20, 1945, the last WRA concentration camp, Tule Lake, was closed. The DOJ internment camps remained open longer. The last internment camp to close was the DOJ camp in Crystal City, Texas, in January 1948.

Upon release the majority of those who had been incarcerated were given $25 and one-way transportation. Many of the freed Japanese Americans returned to discover that their homes and farms had been vandalized and their belongings stolen. Even Nisei military veterans returning home in their uniforms from combat duty endured racist insults. Starting over was especially hard for the Issei, who were entering their senior years with little to show for a lifetime of work.


In the late 1960s community activists started a movement to petition the government to look into potential wrong-doings. Classified information was uncovered that showed that the exclusion order and incarceration were based on racism and falsehoods. In February 1980 Congress passed an act forming the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). This commission conducted hearings in 9 cities, heard testimonies from over 750 witnesses, and examined over 10,000 documents. In 1983 the CWRIC issued its report, which concluded that military necessity was not the cause of the mass imprisonment. Rather, the broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership (Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians 1983, p. 18).

Acting upon the recommendations of the commission, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, and President Ronald Reagan (19112004) signed it into law. This law required payment and apology to survivors of the incarceration caused by Executive Order 9066. Two years later President George H. W. Bush presented the first apologies along with payments of $20,000 to each of the oldest survivors.

SEE ALSO Civil Liberties; Civil Rights; Discrimination, Racial; Japanese Americans; Reparations; Roosevelt, Franklin D.


Burton, Jeffery F., Mary M. Farrell, Florence B. Lord, and Richard W. Lord. 2002. Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. 1983. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Repr. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

Kashima, Tetsuden. 2003. Judgment without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Niiya, Brian, ed. 2001. Japanese American History: An A-to-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present. Updated ed. New York: Facts on File.

Tom Ikeda

Japanese American Incarceration

views updated May 09 2018


JAPANESE AMERICAN INCARCERATION. In the spring and summer of 1942, the United States, as an ostensible matter of military necessity, incarcerated virtually the entire Japanese American population of the West Coast states. All told, more than 120,000 persons, over two-thirds of them native-born citizens, were con-fined for as long as forty-seven months in what the government called assembly centers and relocation centers, but which many later termed concentration camps. While fear of possible attacks by imperial Japanese forces and of sabotage by Japanese Americans was the proximate cause, a long history of anti-Japanese measures and attitudes made it possible for the public, shocked by the growing dimensions of the U.S. military debacle in the Pacific war,

to accept and even approve measures that clearly contradicted American values.

The triggering mechanism for incarceration was Executive Order 9066, drafted in the War Department and signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt on 19 February 1942, seventy-four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The executive order specified no particular group of persons, and some in the War Department would have applied it to enemy aliens and perhaps others anywhere in the United States. It empowered Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and subordinates designated by him to exclude "any or all persons" from areas he might designate and to "provide … transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations … to accomplish the purpose of this order." Read without context, it seems to be a relief measure, but government spokesmen, chief of whom was the future attorney general and U.S. Supreme Court justice Tom Clark, explained to the press that it was aimed chiefly at Japanese, who would be moved away from the West Coast.

Moving toward Incarceration

Even before the promulgation of the executive order, the lives of the West Coast Japanese, alien and citizen, had been disrupted by a series of wartime government decrees. Apart from an 8 December 1941 proclamation empowering a selective internment of Japanese "alien enemies" conforming to existing statute law, a Justice Department order forbade "alien enemies" and persons of Japanese ancestry from leaving the country. In addition, Treasury Department orders froze the bank accounts of alien enemies and all accounts in American branches of Japanese banks, which immobilized most of the liquid assets of the entire Japanese American community. In addition, a joint Justice and War Department directive in late December effectively nullified the Fourth Amendment as far as Japanese Americans were concerned, as it authorized warrantless searches of any premises housing "alien enemies," which meant, in practice, any Japanese American home.

Sometime after the issuance of Executive Order 9066, government lawyers realized that no federal law required civilians to obey military orders without a declaration of martial law. Therefore, the War Department drafted and Congress—without significant debate or recorded vote—enacted Public Law 503 on 21 March 1942. This measure made it a misdemeanor to violate an order by the secretary of war or any officer designated by him to leave a "military area." On 18 March, Roosevelt had issued Executive Order 9102, establishing the civilian War Relocation Authority (WRA) to take charge of "persons designated" under Executive Order 9066.

Carrying Out Relocation and Incarceration

With these legal underpinnings in place, the army, with the clandestine and illegal help of the Bureau of the Census, divided the West Coast states into 108 separate districts, most of which contained about one thousand Japanese persons. General John L. DeWitt, who was in charge of West Coast defense, issued a series of civilian exclusion orders, one for each district, ordering "all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien" to "report to a specified place in the vicinity," bringing whatever belongings they could carry, for transportation to an assembly center. Although the government did not confiscate property, except for fishing boats, firearms, explosives, and some radios, most Japanese American families lost, or disposed of at fire-sale prices, the bulk of their personal and real property.

Once in military custody, Japanese Americans were moved first to one of sixteen assembly centers and, from there, to one often relocation centers under the authority of the civilian WRA. The whole mass movement began on 31 March 1942, with 257 persons taken from Bain-bridge Island in Puget Sound and sent to Manzanar in the desert country northeast of Los Angeles. It was not completed until the end of October, with shipments of 655 persons from the Santa Anita Racetrack camp to WRA camps in Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas.

The assembly centers utilized existing facilities; some families were housed in horse stalls at racetracks and cattle pens at fairgrounds. The inmates were, however, not far from home and could be visited by non-Japanese friends and neighbors. The relocation centers, however—built in slapdash fashion for their current purpose—were located, by design, in desolate places.


The overwhelming majority of Japanese Americans simply complied with the successive government orders as their community leaders recommended. Several thousand were able to avoid being seized by moving to territory east of the forbidden zone that comprised California, western Washington and Oregon, and a small part of Arizona before the government closed that escape route in March 1942. A dozen or so of those who remained either challenged the government orders through the courts or tried to avoid its clutches by attempting to assume non-Japanese identities. The legal protesters greatly concerned government leaders, but they need not have worried: the federal judiciary, with a few nonbinding exceptions, simply accepted the government's rationale about military necessity and the inherent untrustworthiness of Japanese Americans.

Three of the legal challenges eventually made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In June 1943, the Court decided unanimously in Hirabayashi v. United States that an American citizen of Japanese ancestry had to obey a curfew order; the Court avoided ruling on incarceration. The two other cases were not decided until December 1944. In Korematsu v. United States, the Court, now divided in a 6–3 vote, ruled that a citizen had to obey the military evacuation orders. Paradoxically, however, in the Ex parte Endo decision handed down the same day, the Court decided unanimously that a citizen of undoubted loyalty might not be held in camp or prevented from returning to California.

Life in the Camps

Life in the concentration camps was severe but generally not brutal, although on three occasions at three separate camps, troops guarding them shot and killed unarmed inmates, most of whom were protesting conditions. The civilian War Relocation Authority, in many ways a typical New Deal agency, tried to treat the prisoners humanely as long as they obeyed the rules. In many ways the administration resembled that of Indian reservations, and, in fact, the WRA head, Dillon S. Myer, later ran the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The WRA rules allowed thousands of Japanese Americans to leave the camps for work, for education, and, eventually, for military service. Some 3,600 young men entered the U.S. Army directly from camps, first as volunteers and then as draftees. Several hundred young men, however, resisted the draft, claiming that since they had been deprived of their liberty, they should not have to serve. The courts disagreed and sentenced 263 to terms in federal penitentiaries.


After the war the government slowly receded from its actions. In a 1945 ceremony, President Harry S. Truman honored Japanese American soldiers, telling them that "you have fought prejudice and won." In 1948, the Japanese American Claims Act provided limited compensation for certain property losses. Decades later, in 1976, President Gerald R. Ford issued a proclamation revoking Executive Order 9066, declaring that "Japanese Americans were and are loyal Americans." Finally, responding to a 1983 recommendation of the Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, the government in 1988 awarded each of some eighty thousand survivors a $20,000 tax-free redress payment and eventually sent each a check and a letter of apology signed by President George H. W. Bush.


Daniels, Roger. Prisoners without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Daniels, Roger, ed. American Concentration Camps: A Documentary History of the Relocation and Incarceration of Japanese Americans, 1941–1945. 9 vols. New York: Garland, 1989. A collection of archival documents.

Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki, and James D. Houston. Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience during and after the World War II Internment. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. The best-known memoir of incarceration.

Maki, Mitchell T., Harry H. L. Kitano, and S. Megan Berthold. Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Myer, Dillon S. Uprooted Americans: The Japanese Americans and the War Relocation Authority during World War II. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1971. An apologia by the head of the War Relocation Authority.

Taylor, Sandra. Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz. Berkeley: University of California, 1993. The best account of a single incarceration camp.


See alsoInternment, Wartime ; andvol. 9:The Japanese Internment Camps, 1942 .

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Japanese American Incarceration

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