Japanese American Internment Camps

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Japanese American Internment Camps

Between February and November 1942, nearly 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese descent were evacuated from their homes and sent to government War Relocation Authority camps in remote areas of the West, South, and Southwest. Many of these Japanese and Japanese Americans would spend the remainder of World War II in the camps, which were located in Gila River, Arizona; Granada, Colorado; Heart Mountain, Wyoming; Jerome, Arkansas; Manzanar, California; Minidoka, Idaho; Poston, Arizona; Rohwer, Arkansas; Topaz, Utah; and Tule Lake, California. The largest camp, Tule Lake, housed nearly 19,000 internees, while Granada held about 7,000. The camps' residents lived in crudely built barracks, and ate, bathed, and washed clothes in communal facilities. Each camp was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers. The first camp, Poston, opened in May, 1942. Nearly two years later the government began closing the camps starting with Jerome, in June, 1944, and ending with Tule Lake, in March, 1946.

The internment of the issei (first generation) and the Nisei (second generation, American-born) was authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt through Executive Order 9066 (February 19, 1942), which sanctioned the evacuation of any and all persons from "military zones" established along the coastline. Although the federal government also viewed persons of German and Italian descent with suspicion, only residents of Japanese ancestry were forced to leave their homes.

Executive Order 9066 was a response to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Following the attack, government officials including U.S. attorney general Francis Biddle, Los Angeles congressman Leland Ford, and California attorney general Earl Warren called for securing the issei and Nisei population. They believed that West Coast Japanese helped plan the attack on Pearl Harbor and hoped the internment would prevent further acts of disloyalty. Studies indicate, however, that anti-Japanese sentiment, which had been building on the West Coast since the late nineteenth century, played a role in the forced evacuation. These studies point to the fact that only West Coast issei and Nisei were removed—not those living in Hawaii or on the East Coast—and that the residents calling for their removal were California nativists, laborers, and farmers, who had long viewed Japanese immigrants as social and economic threats. The 1982 report issued by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians concluded that the removal of the issei and Nisei was not a military necessity, but occurred because of racism, wartime hysteria, and poor political leadership.

Under the direction of Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, the issei and Nisei were first evacuated to assembly centers at county fairgrounds and racetracks, and they were later moved to the permanent relocation camps. In some locations, such as Terminal Island in San Pedro, California, residents of Japanese descent were given as few as two days to dispose of, or store, their belongings before departing. In other areas, the evacuees had several weeks to prepare. Though the Federal Reserve Bank and the Farm Security Administration helped handle the property and belongings of the issei and Nisei, they lost hundreds of thousands of dollars through quick sales of their homes and land at below-market prices. While in camp the evacuees suffered additional losses through vandalism, arson, and neglect of the belongings that had been stored.

Life in the camps proved difficult. Internees had lost their jobs, social networks, and educational opportunities and were removed from "mainstream" life. Angered by the loss of their rights and freedom, and bitter towards the U.S. government, internees sometimes directed their hostility toward one another. In some camps riots broke out during clashes between pro-Japanese and pro-American factions. A loyalty test administered by the War Relocation Administration also helped to factionalize the evacuees. As a result of the turbulence, hundreds of young Nisei left the camps when the opportunity appeared. Colleges such as Oberlin in Ohio sponsored Nisei students, allowing them to relocate and resume their education. Christian churches arranged for Nisei to work in homes and offices located in the South and Midwest. In addition, more than 1,000 men joined the U.S. military forces and served in the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

Although many evacuees protested the removal, four individuals, Fred T. Korematsu, Mitsuye Endo, Minoru Yasui, and Gordon K. Hirabayashi, challenged the constitutionality of the relocation order through the courts. Initially all four petitions were denied. But in December of 1944 the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Endo's detention in the camps violated her civil rights. Following this decision, in January of 1945, the War Department rescinded the evacuation orders and arranged for the internees to leave the camps.

It was not until the 1970s that branches of the U.S. government acknowledged any wrongdoing. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford proclaimed that the evacuation was wrong. The 1982 commission report and its condemnation of the relocation sent an even stronger message. In 1983 Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Minoru Yasui, refiled their petitions, which the court granted. The change in political tenor encouraged the Nisei and Sansei (third generation) to seek redress and reparations for the forced relocation. Their organizing efforts culminated in September of 1987, when the U.S. House of Representatives formally apologized to the former evacuees and provided $1.2 billion as compensation.

—Midori Takagi

Further Reading:

Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Personal Justice Denied. Washington, Government Printing Of-fice, 1982.

Daniels, Roger, Sandra C. Taylor, and Harry H.L. Kitano, editors. Japanese Americans from Relocation to Redress. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1986, 1991.

Girdner, Audrie, and Anne Loftis. The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of the Japanese-Americans During World War II. Toronto, The Macmillan Company, 1969.

Irons, H. Peter. Justice at War. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993.

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