Published July 25, 2010
The Internment of Japanese Americans
by: Nathan Weissler
  Issue: 11.06
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On February 19, 1942, about two months after the Japanese military attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, followed by the American entry into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, among other things authorizing the declaration of military zones, isolating Japanese-American communities. This and subsequent events quickly led to the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans and the establishment of internment camps in several states. Countless were forced to leave their homes and jobs. Four decades later the United States Congress passed, and then-President Ronald Reagan signed into law, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, formally apologizing for the internment and granting reparations.

Although many for several years did not speak publicly about their experiences, much has since been written consisting of both primary and secondary source material. Examples include: Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and which her husband, James D. Houston co-authored--a memoir of her experiences as a young child in the Manzanar internment camp in California (primary) and historian Roger Daniels' account Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II (secondary.)

General anti-Asian prejudices, on both national and local levels pre-dating the Pearl Harbor attack by several decades, were an important contributing factor to the social and political climate, which in turn led to the internment. In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed, and then-President Chester A. Arthur signed, the Chinese Exclusion Act preventing the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States for ten years, which was sadly eventually extended indefinitely and then repealed during World War II. Further discriminatory laws passed throughout the years included the Alien Land Bill in California in 1913 prohibiting, “Aliens ineligible to citizenship” from owning land. This implicitly included Asian-Americans, who could not become citizens. However, the children of Asian immigrants were U.S. citizens because they were born in the United States.

Similar prejudices extended to widespread sentiment against other ethnic groups such as Russians and Eastern Europeans incorporating significant anti-Semitism. Thus, multiple fears, prejudices and stereotypes motivated the U.S. Congress to enact immigration quotas among other discriminatory measures in the early 1920s. To a large extent, these measures caused the exclusion of many potential immigrants on a global scale including that of many European Jews during the Holocaust.

Earlier this year, I began interviewing Japanese-Americans who experienced World War II and the internment camps. These personal accounts made my understanding of the Japanese-American experience preceding, during and following World War II a lot more vivid. Chizu Iiyama, for instance, was born and raised in San Francisco and initially interned at the Santa Anita racetrack in Santa, Anita, California, which functioned as an internment camp and then in Utah's Topaz internment camp. She recounted the social separation experienced before the internment:" Adolescence and the fact that we could not join after school activities because we all went to Japanese school after regular school limited our contacts with others."

As is well known, the December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack brought anti-Japanese discrimination to a whole new level. Discussing the immediate aftermath Iiyama told me,” We knew there was trouble between Japan and the U.S. but could not believe the headlines. .... But as the story kept repeating over our radio, we knew it was true." Masaru Kawaguchi born in San Francisco, raised there and later interned in Tanforan and Topaz internment camps in Utah recalled, "...all I knew was that...the newspaper boys were running down the street saying, 'Pearl Harbor was bombed'.... That was the first time I knew about Pearl Harbor." Similarly, Fumi Manabe Hayashi who was born in Alameda, California and like Kawaguchi was interned in Tanforan and Topaz internment camps told me that, "...when I heard about Pearl Harbor [I] had no idea where or what it all meant." Nonetheless, a large majority of Japanese-Americans made countless valuable contributions to the U.S. war effort many serving in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the 100th Infantry Battalion and the Military Intelligence Service.

The lessons of the internment and questions subsequently raised are extremely relevant today. In response to my question about what he wants young people today to remember about the internment, Kawaguchi told me that when he speaks to students he stresses the Bill of Rights which he described as, "...the best thing that we have." Manabe Hayashi told me that she emphasizes to young people, "That anything can happen--not in our wildest dreams did we believe we could all be taken from our homes and be put in barbed wire… [with] soldiers and guns pointed at us."

Awareness among local, state and federal agencies has increased greatly as demonstrated by the enactment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 discussed earlier. In 1997 the San Francisco Board of Education began presenting high school diplomas to Japanese- Americans who had been forced to leave their homes and postpone their education. Several years later, in January 2001, then-President Bill Clinton declared Idaho’s Minidoka internment camp a National Monument. A memorable quote from Farewell to Manzanar: "As I came to understand what Manzanar had meant, it gradually filled me with shame for being a person guilty of something enormous enough to deserve that kind of treatment” gave me greater understanding as to how far we as a human community have come.

Additionally, discrimination and prejudice have been widespread themes throughout Jewish History. This includes historical and biblical persecution by the Romans, the subsequent destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Medieval Crusades, the Alfred Dreyfus incident in Paris in 1896 and the Holocaust.

For more information, see the website of the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco:

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