Japanese Americans and the War

In 1941 the Japanese American population of the United States consisted primarily of two groups: foreign-born immigrants, called Issei; and their American-born children, the Nisei. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, both groups were classified as enemy aliens. Although the nation was also at war with Germany and Italy, the native-born Italian and German Americans faced little hostility or public reprisals.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt became concerned about Japanese Americans living in California. In November, 1941, Roosevelt asked John Franklin Carter, who ran the White House intelligence unit, was requested to investigate fifth column infiltration, particularly by Japanese living on the West Coast, whether American citizens or aliens. Carter sent a Chicago businessman, Curtis B. Munson. He later reported: "There are still Japanese in the United States who will tie dynamite around their waist and make a human bomb of themselves... But American-born Japanese were... universally estimated from 90 to 98 per cent loyal to the United States... They are very American and are of a proud, self-respecting race suffering from a little inferiority complex and a lack of contact with the white boys they went to school with."

After Pearl Harbor Roosevelt decided that he needed to take action against Japanese Americans. On 29th January 1942, the U.S. Attorney General, Francis Biddle, established a number of security areas on the West Coast in California. He also announced that all enemy aliens should be removed from these security areas. Three weeks later President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the construction of relocation camps for Japanese Americans being moved from their homes. Over the next few months ten permanent camps were constructed to house more than 110,000 Japanese Americans that had been removed from security areas. These people were deprived of their homes, their jobs and their constitutional and legal rights.

In July 1942 Mitsuye Endo, a Nisei, petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that detention in a relocation camp was unlawful. In December 1944 the Supreme Court ruled in her favour and over the next few weeks the Japanese Americans in the camps returned to their homes in California.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Mary Oyama, a Japanese American living in Los Angeles, wrote about her experiences in the magazine Common Ground (Spring, 1942)

It couldn't be true! The mythical Japanese-American war which we Nisei and Japanese had never dreamed could really happen. There was a hard, paralyzing stone inside of me.

My young sister-in-law, Sayeko, telephoned. She was the only one of her family here; her mother and father and older brother were all in Japan. The tears in her voice frightened me and I hung up quickly lest I weep, too.

Things happened fast. All the Japanese newspapers were suspended. Many persons lost their jobs. Japanese business went with the wind. Assets were frozen; checks came trickling back. Los Angeles' Little Tokyo was a ghost city; Issei and Nisei alike were afraid to venture out into the streets. Armed guards were thrown around Japanese town "for protection of Japanese nationals."

Nationals and their American-born sons and daughters went about with funereal faces. Suspected aliens were rounded up en masse, swiftly and efficiently by the FBI. The Japanese nationals were left leaderless in this bewildering hour; all the prominent people of the community were taken into custody. In the jails, crowded to overflowing, some committed suicide. A few were guilty, we do not doubt; but others - old people - clutched at death in their fear of persecution. One Issei hanged herself in her cell with her stocking.

My father's business, which depended upon the patronage of Japanese stores, was shot to pieces. My brothers' business, which was import and trade with Japan, was equally dead. Sister Lili's father-in- law, prominent in the Japanese community, was interned pending checkup and investigation. With the head of the family taken away, the young 21-year-old daughter was left as sole support of her mother and two younger brothers. Two older brothers were unable to help financially, as one was in the United States Army and the other interning at a hospital in Kentucky.

My husband was out of a job - Fred, who had never been out of work even during the worst years of the Depression. Every day after the Japanese newspapers were suspended, for which he had been employed as a radio operator, he went out job hunting - to all the factories, the defense industries, the NBC listening post, federal communications, all the employment agencies both private and state; he followed the want ads in the papers - in town and out.

(2) Wendell Willkie, Saturday Evening Post (27th June, 1942)

Today we are living once more in a period that is psychologically susceptible to witch hanging and mob baiting. And each of us, if not alert, may find himself the unconscious carrier of the germ that will destroy our freedom. For each of us has within himself the inheritances of age-long hatreds, of racial and religious differences, and everyone has a tendency to find the cause for his own failures in some conspiracy of evil. It is, therefore, essential that we guard our own thinking and not be among those who cry out against prejudices applicable to themselves, while busy spawning intolerances for others.

In addition, as citizens, we must fight in their incipient stages all movements by government or party or pressure groups that seek to limit the legitimate liberties of any of our fellow citizens. For government, which should be the very guardian of these liberties, is frequently, through excess zeal or desire for quick accomplishment of a purpose, the oppressor. And political parties, overanxious for vote catching, become tolerant to intolerant groups. I have noticed, with much distress, the excessive wartime activity of the investigating bureaus of Congress and the administration, with their impertinent and indecent searching out of the private lives and the past political beliefs of individuals. Such methods, of course, are employed with the excuse of protecting the nation from subversive activities. So are those of the Gestapo. I have been appalled at the callous indifference of high officers of the navy to the obvious and undemocratic discrimination against Negroes, and disturbed to find similar discrimination too often in the ranks of industry and labor. I have been shocked to read that the Department of Justice seeks to revoke the citizenship of naturalized citizens suspected of foreign allegiance, rather than forthrightly to prosecute such persons for whatever crime they may be guilty of. The course it is pursuing casts doubt on the rights of all naturalized citizens to the same treatment before the law as is enjoyed by their fellows who were born here. I have been sickened to see political parties flirting with remnants of anti Catholic Ku Klux Klanism and hesitating to denounce the anti-Semitism of Coughlinites and others.

For now more than ever, we must keep in the forefront of our minds the fact that whenever we take away the liberties of those we hate, we are opening the way to loss of liberty for those we love. Our way of living together in America is a strong but delicate fabric. It is made up of many threads. It has been woven over many centuries by the patience and sacrifice of countless liberty-loving men and women. It serves as a cloak for the protection of poor and rich, of black and white, of Jew and gentile, of foreign - and native-born. For God's sake, let us not tear it asunder. For no man knows, once it is destroyed, where or when man will find its protective warmth again.

(3) Eugene Rostow, Harper's Magazine (September 1945)

As time passes, it becomes more and more plain that our wartime treatment of the Japanese and Japanese-Americans on the West Coast was a tragic and dangerous mistake. That mistake is a threat to society, and to all men. Its motivation and its impact on our system of law deny every value of democracy.

In the perspective of our legal tradition, the facts are almost incredible. During the bleak spring of 1942, the Japanese and the Japanese-Americans who lived on the West Coast of the United States were taken into custody and removed to camps in the interior. More than 100,000 men, women, and children were thus exiled and imprisoned. More than two thirds of them were American citizens.

These people were taken into custody as a military measure on the ground that espionage and sabotage were especially to be feared from persons of Japanese blood. The whole group was removed from the West Coast because the military authorities thought it would take too long to conduct individual investigations on the spot. They were arrested without warrants and were held without indictment or a statement of charges, although the courts were open and freely functioning. They were transported to camps far from their homes, and kept there under prison conditions, pending investigations of their "loyalty." Despite the good intentions of the chief relocation officers, the centers were little better than concentration camps.

If the evacuees were found "loyal," they were released only if they could find a job and a place to live, in a community where no hoodlums would come out at night to chalk up anti-Japanese slogans, break windows, or threaten riot. If found "disloyal" in their attitude to the war, they were kept in the camps indefinitely - although sympathy with the enemy is no crime in the United States (for white people at least) so long as it is not translated into deeds or the visible threat of deeds.

On May 1, 1945, three years after the program was begun, about 70,000 persons were still in camps. While it is hoped to have all these people either free, or in more orthodox confinement, by January 1, 1946, what is euphemistically called the Japanese "relocation" program will not be a closed book for many years.

The original program of "relocation" was an injustice, in no way required or justified by the circumstances of the war. But the Supreme Court, in three extraordinary decisions, has upheld its main features as constitutional. This fact converts a piece of wartime folly into national policy-a permanent part of the law - a doctrine enlarging the power of the military in relation to civil authority. It is having a sinister impact on the minority problem in every part of the country. It is giving aid to reactionary politicians who use social division and racial prejudice as their tools. The precedent is being used to encourage attacks on the civil rights of both citizens and aliens. As Mr. Justice Jackson has said, the principle of these decisions "lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need." All in all, the case of the Japanese-Americans is the worst blow our liberties have sustained in many years. Unless repudiated, it may support devastating and unforeseen social and political conflicts.

(4) Studs Terkelinterviewed Peter Ota about his experiences of the Second World War his book, The Good War (1985)

On the evening of December 7, 1941, my father was at a wedding. He was dressed in a tuxedo. When the reception was over, the FBI agents were waiting. They rounded up at least a dozen wedding guests and took them to county jail.

For a few days we didn't know what happened. We heard nothing. When we found out, my mother, my sister, and myself went to jail. I can still remember waiting in the lobby. When my father walked through the door, my mother was so humiliated. She didn't say anything. She cried. He was in prisoner's clothing, with a denim jacket and a number on the back.

The shame and humiliation just broke her down. She was into Japanese culture. She was a flower arranger and used to play the biwa, a Japanese stringed instrument. Shame in her culture is worse than death. Right after that day she got very ill and contracted tuberculosis. She had to be sent to a sanitarium. She stayed behind when we were evacuated. She was too ill to be moved. She was there till she passed away.

(5) Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (1980)

It was not Hitler's attacks on the Jews that brought the United States into World War II, any more than the enslavement of 4 million blacks brought Civil War in 1861. Italy's attack on Ethiopia, Hitler's invasion of Austria, his takeover of Czechoslovakia, his attack on Poland - none of those events caused the United States to enter the war, although Roosevelt did begin to give important aid to England. What brought the United States fully into the war was the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Surely it was not the humane concern for Japan's bombing of civilians that led to Roosevelt's outraged call for war - Japan's attack on China in 1937, her bombing of civilians at Nanking, had not provoked the United States to war. It was the Japanese attack on a link in the American Pacific Empire that did it.

In one of its policies, the United States came close to direct duplication of Fascism. This was in its treatment of the Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. After the Pearl Harbor attack, anti-Japanese hysteria spread in the government. One Congressman said: "I'm for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps. Damn them! Let's get rid of them!"

Franklin D. Roosevelt did not share this frenzy, but he calmly signed Executive Order 9066, in February 1942, giving the army the power, without warrants or indictments or hearings, to arrest every Japanese-American on the West Coast - 110,000 men, women, and children - to take them from their homes, transport them to camps far into the interior, and keep them there under prison conditions. Three-fourths of these were Nisei - children born in the United States of Japanese parents and therefore American citizens. The other fourth - the Issei, born in Japan - were barred by law from becoming citizens. In 1944 the Supreme Court upheld the forced evacuation on the grounds of military necessity. The Japanese remained in those camps for over three years.

(6) Joseph E. Persico, Roosevelt's Secret War (2001)

FDR to do something to eliminate the perceived danger of the Japanese living on the West Coast and in Hawaii began to mount. California's governor, Culbert Olson, the state's attorney general, Earl Warren, later to be a liberal chief justice of the United States, and the West Coast Army chief, General DeWitt. urged the President to intern the Japanese. Supposed proof of Japanese sabotage included reports "that ground glass had been found in shrimp canned by Japanese workers and that Japanese saboteurs had sprayed overdoses of arsenic poison on vegetables... a beautiful field of flowers on the property of a Jap farmer near Ventura, California, had been plowed up because it seems the Jap was a fifth columnist and had grown his flowers in a way that when viewed from a plane formed an arrow pointing in the direction of the airport." Where no evidence of sabotage surfaced, a perverse logic provided it anyway. General DeWitt concluded, "The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken."

Yet even FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, no civil libertarian or lover of minorities, saw through the calls for rounding up the Japanese. "The necessity for mass evacuation is based primarily upon public and political pressure rather than on factual data." Hoover concluded, "Public hysteria and, in some instances, the comments of the press and radio announcers have resulted in a tremendous amount of pressure being brought to bear on Governor Olson and Earl Warren." As late as February, Donovan forwarded to the President the opinion of General Ralph Van Deman, respected chief of military intelligence during World War I, that mass evacuation of the Japanese was unnecessary and "about the craziest proposition that I have heard of yet."

However, continuing bleak news from the Pacific did nothing to elevate tolerance for the Japanese in America. Before the first month of the war ended, Manila had surrendered to the enemy, American and Filipino troops were being driven down the Bataan peninsula, and the American garrison on Wake Island had been overcome. The President, with intelligence from his three major sources, Donovan, Hoover, and Carter, telling him that Japanese residents posed no credible threat, nevertheless ordered their internment. Reaching back to the Alien Enemies Act of 1798, he issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, "to apprehend, restrain, secure and remove" presumably dangerous persons. As a consequence, over 114.000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were uprooted and kept under armed guard in remote, barren locations that FDR himself described as "concentration camps."