The first generation of Japanese Immigrants (Issei) first arrived in Hawaii. Between the years of 2861 and 1940, 275,000 Japanese people immigrated into Hawaii and the US mainland. Most of these Japanese were hired to work as laborers in sugar fields in Hawaii or the farms in California. In Hawaii, these Japanese laborers were often worked to the bone, even being described as “worked like horses”. In the mainland, the majority of immigrants settled to become farmers in the west coast. The Japanese people were unparalleled in their cultivation of marginal lands leading them to achieve a level of success. However, their success made other people envious and prejudiced against the Japanese. This resulted in laws that prevented these Japanese from being naturalized citizens or owning property. However, in spite of all this institutionalized bias, the Japanese were successful in establishing their roots and eventually the second generations of Japanese people, the Nissei, were born in America and were therefore American citizens from the beginning. These Nissei were exempt from the laws that prevented their parents to become citizens or become property owners.
In the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attacks, the American public was seized with an irrational fear of the Japanese Imperial forces. There was widespread concern that Japan could invade California just as easily as they invaded Pearl Harbor. Additionally, people became very wary of people with Japanese descent, whether they are immigrants or full fledged American citizens. There was a concern that the loyalty of these Japanese people was not with the United States of America but rather with the Japanese Empire. Even Japanese-Americans who were born in America and know no other nation were not exempt from this unfair judgment.
All of these fears of the Japanese came to a boil when President Roosevelt, under the advice of everyone from all levels of government authorized Executive Order 9066 in February 19, 1942, two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. E.O. 9066 gave the military the capacity to forcibly ban any citizen from a fifty to sixty mile wide zone along the West Coast, extending from California to Washington. Internment camps were hastily made up in California, Arizona, Washington and Oregon to house these displaced citizens. E.O. 9066 was used against several ethnicities. With E.O. 9066, 3200 American-Italians were arrested and 300 sent to the camps, 11,000 German residents and even some American citizens of German descent were arrested and half were deported to the internment camps. However, the most sweeping use of E.O. 9066 was used against Americans of Japanese descent. At the end of 1942, 120,000 residents of Japanese descent have been uprooted from their homes and moved to the camps. The camps were commonly located in very isolated places to prevent its “visitors” from doing any espionage and sabotage activities for the Emperor.
Internees were told to bring only what they could, this resulted in Japanese people selling everything they have or losing them all. Entire houses, pets, heirlooms, businesses, farms which have been the product of years of hard work were sold hastily often times at a loss. This was because unscrupulous buyers purposefully bid low in anticipation of the lack of time of the Japanese to have their affairs in order. Some families resorted to simply destroying their property, in anger of the violation of their liberties and as a way to prevent their underselling. Many families however still lost everything due to the relocation and internment. The entire property loss was estimated to be 2.6 billion dollars. Net income loss was at 5.46 billion dollars. Both values are in 2006 dollars.
Then secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes had this to say about the matter in an interview with the Washington Evening Star dated September 23, 1946.
“As a member of President Roosevelt’s administration, I saw the United States Army give way to mass hysteria over the Japanese…Crowded into cars like cattle, these hapless people were hurried away to hastily constructed and thoroughly inadequate concentration camps, with soldiers with nervous muskets on guard, in the great American desert. We gave the fancy name of ‘relocation centers’ to these dust bowls, but they were concentration camps nonetheless.”
(taken from http://americanhistory.si.edu/perfectunion/non-flash/internment_permanent.html)
Some camps faced severe heat and dust like those at Manzanar, Poston and Gila River. Some suffered torrent rains and some were under the bitter cold of Heart Mountain. However all these camps had one thing in common – their complete isolation to civilization.
While at the camps, the Japanese were in constant fear. Fear not only from the rife bearing guards at patrol and at watchtowers above them, fear not only of their children mindlessly wandering outside the gates and being shot, but most importantly there was the fear of uncertainty. There were no guarantees of how long they were going to live there. There wasn’t even any guarantee that they were to be fed the next day.
Aside from losing their freedom, the camps were places to lose dignity, pride and self-respect. The prisoners were fed entrails day after day, meals that consisted of rice, macaroni and potatoes with beef brains, kidneys, livers and tongues. There was no freedom inside the camps, people lined up for everything – mail, movies up to toilets and bathtubs. There was a complete lack of privacy; partitions were inexistent in the toilets and the barracks. Their most private moments became shared community experiences.
At the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, all people of Japanese descent were classified as “enemy aliens”. In 1943, the internees were given one of two questionnaires, the first questionnaire going to draft-age Nissei men and the second to the general populace. While titled as “Application for Leave Clearance”, these questionnaires were nothing more but loyalty checks on the prisoners of the camp. Two questions stood out, one asking if you were willing to serve in the US Military and the second asking if you swear complete allegiance to the United States and forsake all loyalties to the Japanese Empire. The questionnaire was given out to 75,000 people, out of these 6,700 answered no to both questions and were known as the “no-nos”. Some of them answered no out of fearing it was a trick (the Issei were not American citizens and rejecting allegiance to Japan would effectively make them Stateless), some answered no because joining the army would mean leaving their families in the camps and still, some answered no out of sheer anger and principle.
The camps were also a place where Japanese nationalism rose among the imprisoned residents and American citizens. This was especially true in the camp at Tule Lake. Tule Lake was a segregation camp, a place where the misfits at the other camps were deported to. Tule Lake was also the final destination of those who answered the loyalty questionnaires “unsatisfactorily”. In Tule Lake, strikes arose over working conditions, and riots broke out over food distribution. The stockade was always full of dissenters and protestors. However, the authoritarian attitude of the camp personnel only served to make martyrs of those at the stockade. By the summer of 1944, there were already three seinendans (‘young men’s groups’) at Tule Lake who chanted pro Japan chants at their morning exercises. This was a very political move, especially considering that these seinendans were composed of the “no-nos”. At the end of WWII, 4,274 Americans of Japanese descent repatriated to Japan. Of these, 1,949 were American citizens. A total of 1,116 adult Nisei renounced their citizenship, “throwing it back [at the United States]” according to Edward Ennis of the Department of Justice.
Not all internees shared this sentiment. Many of them still chose to remain loyal to the United States. Some even went so far to fight in the war for the country that held their family members in prison. In the period of 1944 to 1945, 2800 inductees were drawn from the internment camps. These inductees welcomed the opportunity to serve as a way to reinstate their rights as citizens, expecting the draft to bring the end to the camps and the restoration of the normal way of life for Japanese citizens. This was not so and in protest, 315 Nisei refused to appear for their physicals, 263 of them later convicted and imprisoned for draft evasion.
The Japanese served valiantly in the war. The 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat team were exceptional units in that they were composed entirely of Japanese-Americans who wished to defend their country. With the motto of “Go for Broke”, together the two units saw action in Italy, Belgium, France and Germany, earning a total of 3,600 Purple Hearts and 500 Oak Leaf Clusters for injuries sustained in combat. By the end of the war, 680 members of the unit have given up their lives for the safety of the United States of America. To date, a total of 23 Congressional Medals of Honor have been awarded to the men of the 100th /442nd.
On December 17, 1944 Public Proclamation 21 ended the mass internment of foreign nationals in the camps. This was only a pre-emptive move as the next day the Supreme Court would rule these internments as illegal. The internees were given $25 and transportation tickets upon release. They returned to their addresses to discover their communities have vanished and that their homes and businesses have already been lost.
Many of those incarcerated were resolved to bring to light their hardships and resolve all issues that resulted in their internment. The US government formally apologized forty more than years after the last Japanese American walked out of camp with the passing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The Internment of the Japanese people was a mistake in the history of this nation, and a bigger mistake would be to not learn our lessons from that episode. As the most fitting conclusion to this episode, we remember the words of President Harry S. Truman to the Japanese men who fought for the United States in the 100th and the 442nd: “you fought not only the enemy, you fought prejudice, and you have won”.
Americans.net. (n.d.). 21 Asian American World War II Vets to Get Medal of Honor. In MedalofHonor.com. Retrieved May 10, 2007, from http://www.medalofhonor.com/AsianAmericanWorldWarIIRecipients.htm.
Smithsonian Institution. (n.d.). . In A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution. Retrieved May 10, 2007, from http://americanhistory.si.edu/perfectunion/non-flash/overview.html.
University of California. (n.d.). Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives. In CaliSphere. Retrieved May 10, 2007, from http://www.calisphere.universityofcalifornia.edu/jarda/.
 Dollar values in 1983 dollars taken from http://americanhistory.si.edu/perfectunion/non-flash/removal_moving.html.
Conversion to 2006 values used historical CPI data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. ftp://ftp.bls.gov/pub/special.requests/cpi/cpiai.txt