During World War II, the United States incarcerated nearly all of its Japanese American residents. Japanese Americans were concentrated on the West Coast in makeshift internment camps. Edward J. Ennis, the director of the United States Justice Department’s Alien Enemy Control Unit in 1943 explained that, “within twenty-four hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor 1,000 Japanese aliens had been apprehended, and within a week a total of 3,000 alien enemies of German, Italian, and Japanese nationality were in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.”
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an Executive Order, Number 9066, giving the federal government the power to relocate 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps because they lived in residential zones now considered high-risk targets. The program was rapidly put in place on the West Coast. Nearly two-thirds of the Japanese Americans forced to leave their homes had been born in the United States, making them U.S. Citizens through birth, not aliens. Their first-generation immigrant parents, however, due to stringent provisions put in place by the 1790 Naturalization Act, did not have the opportunity to become naturalized citizens. This law, written during the Early Republic, limited naturalization to free white men (and later to those of African descent born in the United States during Reconstruction). This law was upheld from 1790 to 1922 by the Supreme Court in Ozawa v. United States. Takao Ozawa attempted to become a U.S. Citizen, but the Supreme Court stipulated “whiteness” had to do with being Caucasian, not lightness of skin. The only route to citizenship for an Asian in America was to be born after 1898, when the Supreme Court Case, Wong Kim Ark v. United States deemed citizenship by birth on U.S. soil acceptable. In short: even if Japanese immigrants had wanted to become citizens, it was illegal, which made them resident aliens by default. Their inability to obtain citizenship allowed for abuse by racially motivated segregation, such as California’s 1913 law, the Alien Land Act, which prohibited aliens who could not obtain citizenship from the right to “acquire, possess, enjoy, transmit, and inherit real property.” What does this mean? In California, if a Japanese family worked a farm and the parents died, their children could not inherit the property or sell it. Property could not be “possessed” in the first place, and therefore could not be “transmitted” or sold, making them a legally alien landless labor force.
Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant General John Lesesne DeWitt became the commanding general of the Western Defense Command. He spoke very candidly about the perceived threat of Japanese Americans in a report to the War Department in February 1942, before Roosevelt enacted his Executive Order.
DeWitt argued: “In the war in which we are now engaged racial affinities are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States Citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted. To conclude otherwise is to expect that children born of white parents on Japanese soil sever all racial affinity and become loyal Japanese subjects, ready to ﬁght and, if necessary, to die for Japan in a war against the nation of their parents. That Japan is allied with Germany and Italy in this struggle is no ground for assuming that any Japanese, barred from assimilation by convention as he is, though born and raised in theUnited States, will not turn against this nation when the ﬁnal test of loyalty comes. It, therefore, follows that along the vital Paciﬁc Coast over 112,000 potential enemies, of Japanese extraction, are at large today. There are indications that these are organized and ready for concerted action at a favorable opportunity. The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and conﬁrming indication that such action will be taken.”
Although no immigrants or citizens of German or Italian ancestry underwent mass removal and internment, the United States government deemed Japanese Americans a security threat. The United States claimed their geographic vicinity, cultural ties, and ancestral links to the Japanese Empire would enable them to be spies.
Japanese Americans were forced to vacate their homes, sell their businesses, and their possessions in less than two weeks (the majority only having a few days). Before they officially relocated to camps like Manzanar in California, they lived in assembly centers such as racetracks and fairgrounds, living in animal pens. Then, once they arrived at the relocation camps, the “prisoners” had to construct places in which to live. None of the Americans placed in the ten major internment camps were officially accused or charged with espionage or underwent a trial. Public outcry was minimal. It is important to keep in mind that this occurred during the height of Jim Crow segregation and before the 1954 Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board would overturn the “separate but equal” dogma in place since 1896.
Below is a film highlighting both survivors and historians that gives a wonderful overview of the relocation and internment process, the legal battle to overturn the Executive Order, and ultimately the U.S government’s reparations program in the 1980s.
If you are looking for a multimedia classroom exercise, below is a U.S.propaganda film that could be used as a discussion piece in relation to oral histories from survivors or other written primary sources.
Below is the oral history testimony of Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who the United States forcibly relocated to the California Japanese internment camp Manzanar. Her story comes in eleven parts.
In 1941, the United States sent Japanese American civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama to the Jerome War Relocation Center in Jerome, Arkansas. Her father was imprisoned the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, while two of her brothers enlisted in the United States army.
Below, actress StacyAnn Chin performs an excerpt from Yuri Kochiyama’s memoir.
For More Information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene Reading list for World War II.
- Visit the History Matter’s page on Korematsu v. United States, detailing the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld internment. While there, you can also check out their page featuring an interview conducted with an elderly Nisei.
- Ansel Adams’ photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar can be viewed on the Library of Congress “American Memory” page. The LOC’s Prints and Photographs Division also houses a number of prints addressing internment.
- Read L. E. Salyer, “Baptism by Fire: Race, Military Service, and US Citizenship Policy, 1918-1935,” Journal of American History 91: 847-876.
- Also very useful is Yoosun Park, Facilitating Injustice: Tracing the Role of Social Workers in the World War II Internment of Japanese Americans. Social Service Review, Vol. 82, No. 3 (September 2008), pp. 447-483.