In Honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I thought I would cover a topic a little closer to home.
In 1942, Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese military forces, which launched the United States full force into World War II against the Japanese. With a devastating blow on American soil, it was no surprise that the American government was quick to act. They launched into action, sending troops to East Asia to fight for their country.
Just like with any war, animosity and hatred toward “the enemy” tends to bleed over, affecting the view at home as much as it does on the battlefield. Such was the case with America during World War II when tensions quickly heightened between the majority population and Japanese-Americans. It wasn’t only Japanese citizens that were rounded up: some Italian and German citizens were also gathered and interned during this period. But the majority of the burden fell on the Japanese: the “other” who were easily identified by their appearance.
But exactly how far were we willing to go to protect our citizens from the so-called threat of Japanese Americans?
Why it Matters
The internment of Japanese citizens is a dark stain on American history–One most would much rather brush under the rug. I only learned about this in 10th grade, while attending private school where teachers were given more freedom in their curriculum. We covered World War II in every American history class I’d taken up until that point, but this was largely left out of mainstream education.
We were shown photos of children locked behind chain-linked fences topped with barbed wire. Offensive propaganda posters drawn by a beloved children’s author whom I would never look at the same way again. We were told how even after their release, most never got their property back, leaving many with no home to go back to.
Our enemy was over 5,000 miles away, but we chose to strip our own citizens of their humanity just because they looked like them. A majority of those locked away in these camps had never set foot on Japanese soil: many were first, second, or even third-generation Americans with no direct connections to their country of origin.
When I first heard about this, it immediately struck me. The first memory that came back was the backlash experienced by our Muslim population immediately following 9/11. People trying to make an honest living were harassed and their homes and businesses were damaged by angry citizens.
Comedian Hasan Minhaj has an incredibly powerful story about his interactions with his father regarding this. I first heard this story on The Moth Podcast, where his story takes a bit of a darker tone, but even in his stand-up this story really drives home the way war affects our perspective at home. I highly recommend checking it out, but be warned that the clip contains very strong, offensive language and described violence.
The same fear that drove us to lock away our Japanese citizens is the same fear that drove some people to commit violent acts against Muslim-Americans. Both occurred immediately following a violent attack on American soil. Both were committed by those who looked identifiably different from the American perspective of black or white. Both springboarded a major war for the United States. Both were perpetuated by the fear and paranoia that war ignites.
In February of 2020, the first cases of COVID-19 began sprouting up in the United States. As word spread and the origins of the virus became common knowledge, racial discrimination came to the forefront yet again. Public figures would use terms like “Kung-Flu” and “The Chinese Virus,” which only perpetuated the aggression towards the Asian-American communities across the country. Hate crimes and acts of violence against Asian-Americans grew. If you thought our racist past was behind us, you need only look three years back to see that isn’t true.
The problem with not teaching these types of mistakes is that they will inevitably happen again. The only way to prevent repeating history is to teach it.
It would not be days or weeks, but mere hours after the attack in Hawaii that the Navy would act, swiftly arresting Japanese citizens for the crime of being born Japanese.
Of course, with the threat looming over the United States from Europe as well, some Italians and Germans were arrested around this time too. But while many of our European adversaries were taken in much the same way, there was palpable evidence against the majority of those arrested in reaction to the War in Europe. This was partially because Germans and Italians looked like most everyday American citizens, but also because the quantity of European immigrants from these nations far surpassed those of Japanese descent. Simply put, arresting Italians and Germans in America to the same effect would do far too much damage to the American economy.
Japanese arrestees were chosen for so little as selling goods to Japanese cargo ships that had made deliveries on American soil. And nobody was exempt from these arrests: distinguished scholars and small business owners alike were taken in as prisoners. The FBI was sent in, raided homes, and took away spouses.
Fake news is a term commonly used in the modern era, but in the 1940’s this was simply called propaganda. Articles sensationalized the presence of the Japanese in America, making claims of espionage and planned attacks with no evidence to back these up. There were also journalists defending the citizens who were just as patriotic as their white counterparts, but their pleas often fell on deaf ears with so many accusations circulating the press.
Eventually, West Coast Japanese were offered the option to move inland willingly. Many refused, but even those who were willing to pack up their lives and leave everything behind were only met with hatred and ran out of town on the other side.
Overnight, it seemed that entire communities turned on their friends and neighbors. Racial rhetoric filled the streets, with white citizens shouting hateful words at Japanese citizens and immigrants alike as tensions continued to rise. Suicides rose among Japanese citizens, resistance grew, and even those wanting desperately to help defend their country were denied entry into the military at the start of the war.
This was only the beginning, though–Things would only get worse.
The decree to relocate Japanese living in America came in February 1942, by way of Executive Order 9066. Notices were given out that ordered the “evacuation” of American Citizens and immigrants alike within 48 hours. They could only bring what they could carry in their hands. They left their homes and possessions behind.
Some sold their property for minuscule fractions of their worth. Others entrusted neighbors and friends to look after their property and possessions. For some, the only option was to leave their belongings behind, hoping for the best once they returned.
Some resisted relocation. Fred Korematsu is perhaps the best-known resistor of the relocation order. He filed a case stating his rights were violated by the act. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, but he ultimately lost his battle and was found guilty of resisting a government order. It would not be until 1983 that the conviction would be overturned.
Japanese were rounded up and forced to relocate to “assembly centers,” which were largely makeshift repurposed facilities like race tracks and fairgrounds. Tanforan was one such race track, where the Japanese housed there were not-so-ironically treated like cattle. They were forced to live in barely-altered horse stalls, share restrooms without walls, and were offered no privacy.
Couples were forced to decide between relocating with their spouse or family, and some had to decide if they wanted to marry immediately to avoid separation from their significant other. Despite being told families would be able to stay together, they were often separated due to such discrepancies.
The press painted a very different picture of the arrival of Japanese Americans arriving at the camps, proclaiming they gladly arrived, smiling and happy to do this for their country. This false narrative strongly mirrored Germany’s sentiments at the start of Jewish internment, when Terezin was used as a “model camp” to show how wonderful life was there.
The reality was very different. There was a lot of confusion and disorientation upon arrival. Children did not understand what they had done to be marked as an enemy of the state. Adults had just been stripped of everything they had besides what they could carry in their hands. They were angry, confused, and upset.
The camps the Japanese Americans were sent to were nowhere near as horrific as those created by Nazi Germany. Still, with the chaos, confusion, and hatred being spread, some went into the camps expecting their execution. As different as the reality may have been, the fear was the same at the start.
The camps were built using Japanese labor and were not fully completed when families began being moved from assembly centers to relocation camps (which even President Roosevelt later confessed were concentration camps). The military-style barracks were constructed using Tar paper and had very little insulation. Given that many of these camps were set up in the remote deserts of the mid-west, extreme weather made life there unbearable at times. In blistering cold people had little to keep warm. On sweltering hot days, there was no escape from the heat, and there was almost no protection from the sandstorms which swept through the areas.
The media portrayed the camps as a security measure for the Japanese: They were keeping them safe from their white neighbors who distrusted them and wished them harm. Still, it was difficult for those placed in the camps to ignore the guard towers and machine guns which never seemed to point out to guard the camps. Henry Sugimoto recounts the moment of their arrival:
“Already before we get out of the train, army machine guns lined up towards us–not toward the other side to protect us, but like the enemy, pointed machine guns toward us.”-Henry Sugimoto
Beyond a lack of adequate shelter and a growing sense of danger from the guards, the Japanese had many other challenges to face in the wake of their new living situation. Bugs like lice and fleas infested the beds. Plumbing and accessibility to hygiene were limited. Food was inadequately provided, often leading to food poisoning. Disease was given plenty of space to spread while the people lived in cramped quarters.
If they did fall sick, a new problem arose. The recommended ratio was one doctor to every thousand patients and one nurse to every 200, yet time and time again these camps seemed to fall severely short of this requirement, and with limited supplies, treatments were not readily available to help cure those locked in the camps.
The military was fantastic at organizing and relocating the Japanese of America. They were excellent at controlling the population and utilizing force to maintain order for the most part. But rebuilding a sense of normalcy in the midst of chaos was a task far beyond the reach of the American military, especially when the entire event had been a scramble from its onset.
Because of this, The Japanese had to create their own society. Teachers were allowed to come in to help maintain the education of school-age children, but when it came to farming, community organization, and civil regulation, this was largely left to the communities. They bound together to create their own sort of governing body, held community events, and did their best to create communal farms in the infertile lands that were handed to them.
Eventually, a few freedoms were granted to those with reason. Some were allowed to attend colleges that would take them to continue their education, and others were permitted to leave to work in fields where labor was short. But for most, the camps would be their home from 1941 until 1944 and as late as 1945, depending on the camp.
As war raged on in Europe and Asia alike, the need for soldiers became more and more evident. In many Hawaiian units, as well as a few scattered throughout, documentation had already been forged to claim they did not have any members of Japanese descent when in reality they did have Japanese members. Hawaii especially had units with large Japanese populations, given the already dense Japanese population which occupied the state. Japanese citizens born in the United States were also utilized as translators for the United States Army, though many of them did not know much or any Japanese due to their distance from their parents’ homeland.
But it now felt like time to open up recruitment efforts to a wider audience. They just needed to weed out the good from the bad. The loyal from the traitors. This came in the form of a survey with a number of questions meant to test an individual’s fortitude and dedication to the United States. Most questions seemed mundane, but two questions are commonly cited as the decisive questions for the form:
#27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
#28: Will you swear unqualified allegiances to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or other foreign government, power, or organization?
These questions caused confusion for non-English-speaking Japanese in the camps and created a divide between the Japanese-American populations within the camps. Some answered yes to both, with some not knowing exactly what they were answering. Some would write in their own answers to declare that they were willing to fight should they and their families be freed. Others, known as the “no-nos,” answered no to both questions and were thereby placed on watch or arrested as enemies of the State.
For those who did choose to fight and were allowed, many were assigned to the 442nd combat regiment, an all-Japanese unit due to segregation laws still in place. Many Japanese-Americans sacrificed their lives for their country as the death toll grew for the unit. The 442nd became the most decorated combat unit in United States military history and proved to be an invaluable asset in winning the war in Europe.
Coming Home to Nothing
Japanese-Americans began being released in 1944 up through 1945. They were given $25 and a bus ticket to their hometown. Upon returning home, the lucky few who had arranged with reliable friends to maintain their things were able to reclaim their lives. Others weren’t so lucky. If they still had a home to go back to–California law meant that banks or the state could take abandoned land, therefore many homes were auctioned off while the owners were incarcerated–they found their property had been looted, their possessions were stolen, and their shops had been destroyed in their absences.
Homelessness and poverty became commonplace for Japanese families that had been locked in the camps. Homes, businesses, and livelihoods were lost. Despite the war coming to a close, the Japanese were still treated as pariahs in their communities for years to come.
Legislation was also passed in certain areas banning the Japanese from owning property, meaning that even if they once owned their homes their right to the property had been stripped away from them. Even if they wanted to start a new life in the Midwest, states like Wyoming had placed bans on Japanese-Americans living in their state.
For all the loss and peril that the Japanese suffered at the hands of their own government, very little was done to make up for their losses. The Japanese American Claims Act was passed in 1948, which would allow those who were incarcerated to apply for benefits if they were able to irrefutably prove the losses they accrued. But with everything stolen or destroyed including their financial documents in their absence, only a small fraction of the claims would be approved.
It took over thirty years for a formal apology to be issued by the United States. Gerald Ford was the president who gave said public apology in 1978. Ten years later, in 1988, a stipend of $20,000 was offered to any living survivors of the internment.
In terms of American history, the event was largely swept under the rug. When compared to the horror of the holocaust during the same era of history, it was easy to overshadow the inhumane treatment imposed upon those Japanese living in America at the time.
Advocates of Japanese internment education have risen up to bring awareness to the injustices imposed upon Japanese Americans during World War II. Perhaps the most famous of these advocates is George Takei, the famous Star Trek actor who spent his early childhood in the camps from the age of five. Takei has spoken openly and called for awareness on the subject, using his celebrity status to spotlight this dark point in American History. He also worked closely with Jay Kuo, using his experiences in the camps as inspiration for the Broadway Musical Allegiance, which highlights the experiences and turmoil the camps inflicted upon families. You can watch Takei take part in the Broadway recording available with a subscription to “Broadway HD” on Amazon.
There are a number of books on this subject as well which go into far more depth than I could here on some of the personal experiences of detainees. I read Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II, but I have also included a few additional books which come highly recommended.
This was a part of our history that I have always felt strongly about and wanted to share with others. It is a lesser-known blunder in American war history that is often overlooked and kept out of sight, but it is important to learn and grow from these experiences. It is important to stand up for what we feel is right and, to me, standing against this type of racial injustice is the best way to move forward into a better world.