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and then repealed during World War II.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
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
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
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: