The enforced relocation and internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII is a stain on our history. When viewed in retrospect from the perspective of the 21st century it is appalling to realize that the government did this to a segment of Americans regardless of the circumstances and, moreover, that it was supported by the general populace. Yet, we did. As Casey Stengel was fond of saying: “You could look it up.”
The time was early 1942. On the previous December 7 Japan had launched a surprise attack on our naval base at Pearl Harbor, devastating our Pacific Fleet and plunging the US headlong into WWII. In one of the most famous speeches in Presidential history President Franklyn Roosevelt had characterized December 7, 1941 as “a date that will live in infamy.” Americans were shocked, furious and vengeful. There was a strong anti-Japanese sentiment in the country. It was focused not only on Japan, but also on the Americans of Japanese descent living in the US.
As a result of Japanese imperialism the US government was very wary of Americans of Japanese descent. It had been secretly monitoring Japanese-Americans since the 1930’s in order to identify potential subversives. In early 1942 it seemed to many that Japan was about to launch a follow-up attack on our West Coast, which was essentially defenseless. The climate was right for the government to take drastic action against Japanese-American nationals.
In February 1942 FDR signed the first of a series of Executive Orders by which authority the government began the forced relocation and incarceration (“R & I”) of between 110,000 and 120,000 Japanese nationals. This was effected without any due process. The legality of this so-called “exclusion order” was subsequently validated by the Supreme Court (but not the incarceration without due process). About 112,000 of the 127,000 Japanese Americans living in the US at the time were domiciled on the West Coast. Anyone with as little as 1/16 Japanese blood was subject to enforced R &I. Curiously, in Hawaii where the 150,000 Japanese-Americans comprised approximately 1/3 of the total population only about 1,500 were interned. I’ll explain the reasons later.
It is important to distinguish among the three groups of Japanese involved.
- About 2/3 of the aforementioned total were “Nisei,” literally “second generation.” They were native born children of Japanese immigrants and, as such, were American citizens.
- “Sansei,” or “third generation” were children of “Nisei,” also American citizens by birth. Both of these groups should have been entitled to the full protections of the Constitution, just like any other US citizen.
- “Issei” were “first generation” immigrants who had been born in Japan and, based on specific legislation, were ineligible for citizenship.
Many of them had emigrated from Japan or Hawaii beginning in the 1860’s to find work, principally in agriculture.
Time was to prove that fears of disloyalty were unfounded as there were few, if any, instances of espionage by Japanese Americans. In fact, the FBI had dismissed all rumors of espionage as being unfounded. Nevertheless, the R & I proceeded. It seemed that the enforced R & I was motivated more by racial discrimination than anything else. Ironically, one of the prime proponents of R & I was the Attorney General of California, Earl Warren, who, later, as Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, would be a strong advocate of civil rights.
Some of the strongest proponents of R & I were California’s Caucasian farmers. This was likely due to their economic self-interest as the Japanese farmers had been competing with them. They saw a chance to acquire their land below market prices and eliminate them as competitors. In a further irony, the mass R & I created a labor shortage in Agriculture, which, ultimately, was filled by importing Mexican laborers.
That brings us back to Hawaii. Hawaiian businessmen were also motivated by their own self interest. They realized the critical role of the Japanese laborer to the Hawaiian economy. For example, nearly all of the carpenters, transportation workers and agricultural workers were Japanese. Incarcerating them would cripple the Hawaiian economy and severely inhibit the essential rebuilding necessary after Pearl Harbor. So, they lobbied their government to enact laws to retain the Japanese citizens’ freedom. (Remember, at this time Hawaii was a territory, not a state.)
Life in the internment facilities was extremely degrading with one hardship after another. Most detainees survived by following the principle of “gaman,” which means “endurance with dignity.” The facilities were operated by various groups, including the Wartime Civil Control Administration, the War Relocation Authority, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Department of Justice. There were three types:
- Civilian Assembly Centers were temporary facilities. These were where families were sent initially. Typically, they were located in race tracks or fairgrounds.
- Relocation Centers, aka internment camps, were the next stop for most people.
- Detention camps were for perceived trouble makers. Really hard cases were sent to Citizen Isolation Centers or Federal Prisons.
Living conditions varied widely from bad to worse to worst.
1. The best were the INS camps, which were governed by international treaty. The food and housing were the best of all the venues (although not so great by civilian standards).
2. In some camps, people lived in tar paper shacks with no plumbing or cooking facilities.
3. In the camps located at race tracks people were forced to sleep in the stables.
4. Many camps were enclosed with barbed wire and were patrolled by armed guards.
5. Toilet facilities were primitive.
6. Medical care was subpar as doctors, nurses and medicines were in short supply. Illnesses, such as food poisoning and dysentery were common.
7. Even though there were many children of school age, there was insufficient resources devoted to education. There was a shortage of qualified teachers and books. The classrooms, themselves, were often converted prison blocks that lacked windows and were poorly ventilated, and therefore were sweltering in the summer.
8. Few students were able to attend college.
Perhaps, the most egregious indignity was the so-called “loyalty questionnaire.” All adults were required to complete it. Two questions were particularly controversial. Number 27 asked if an individual would be willing to serve in the US armed forces. Number 28 asked the person to forswear allegiance to the Emperor of Japan. Those questions confused, frightened or angered many people, so they answered “no” to both. These people were labeled “no nos” and were sent to a special camp for troublemakers. About 20,000 Japanese Americans did serve in the armed forces, many of them with distinction.
Internment ended when the Supreme Court, as mentioned previously, ruled in December 1944 that loyal citizens could not be detained without cause. Nevertheless, the ramifications were lasting and severe, for example:
1. Many died as the result of the living conditions in the camps.
2. Others had lost their land, businesses or other assets due to confiscation or unscrupulous dealings.
3. Many suffered psychological problems such as depression.
Beginning in 1948 Congress commenced efforts to provide reparations and redress to those affected in the form of money, educational grants and an official apology . These efforts met with mixed success because many victims had died and their heirs had difficulty proving the validity of claims. In 1976 President Gerald Ford proclaimed that the internment was “wrong” and a “national mistake.” In 1988 President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided $20,000 for each surviving detainee for a total of $1.2 billion.
One of the detainees was the actor, George Takei, who was imprisoned as a child with his family in camps in Arkansas and California. Mr. Takei is best known for his role as Sulu in the original Star Trek TV show. His experiences have been chronicled in the 2014 film “To Be Takei” and the current Broadway hit play “Allegiance.” I recommend the play. I have not seen the movie.