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U.S. Black Eye: The Internment of Japanese-Americans During World War II

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Politics seem to trump civil liberties throughout history. There is a fine line in determining the national security of a country versus the rights of the individuals who call it home.  Any governing body has to consider the welfare of an entire nation and what constitutes a safe and secure homeland.   Democratic nations are based on what the majority of its people desire (at least in theory); most of the time it goes right; sometimes it can go very wrong.  Allies in one

Exclusion Announced; Source: Wikimedia Commons
war can turn into foes in the next.  Forcing thousands of people from their homes in the name of national security can cross that fine line as history has shown.  Let's look at one example of this:  the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.


In World War I, Japan did not immediately engage in the conflict. At the time, Japan wanted to extend its sphere of influence into China and be recognized as a great power.  To accomplish this, Japan made a proposal to the United Kingdom: it would enter the war if it could take Germany’s Pacific territories.[4]   Later at Great Britain’s request of Naval assistance in the waters off China, Japan gave Germany an ultimatum which went unheeded and Japan declared war on Germany. 

At the end of the war, Japan earned a permanent seat as a member of the League of Nations (which later was dissolved and became the United Nations) and some territories previously ruled by Germany.  Though considered a great power, in the subsequent years the economy took a down turn and Japan once again became a debtor-nation.  In 1933 Japan left the League of Nations and about the same time period, determined the need for a stronger military to show their strength as a nation.

While some rulers were allies with the United States and Great Britain, others were not so friendly.  The Japanese government had become controlled by the military and with it, its ideals of dominance in the region.  In 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact which was also known as the Three-Power Pact, Axis Pact, Three-way Pact or Tripartite Treaty.  This pact established the Axis Powers of World War II which included Germany, Italy and Japan.

Attack on Pearl Harbor

A decade before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States already had a tenuous relationship with Japan. Japan conquered Manchuria in 1931 and set its sights on taking over the whole of China.  They began the campaign in 1937 which ultimately was unsuccessful and in part led to its alliance with Germany; once part of the Axis, Japan occupied all of Indochina.

The response by the United States was to increase financial and military aid to China and began  to strengthen its military power in the Pacific and prevent oil shipments as well as other raw materials from reaching Japan.  Japan saw this as a threat to its survival because it had limited natural resources.  Japan felt there was no choice but to seize territories of Southeast Asia that were rich in resources even though this act would surely bring a war with the United States.  Looking at the Naval might of the United States, the commander of the Japanese fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, hatched a plan to immobilize the might of the U.S. fleet by a surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor.

Attack on Pearl Harbor; Source: Wikimedia Commons
For months, the Japanese military planned and trained for the attack.  The plan entailed a core of six heavy aircraft carriers accompanied by 24 support boats.  Any U.S. warship escaping the attack was to be sunk by a group of submarines lying in wait.[6]  At the same time, they planned attacks on land bases in Thailand and Malaya as well as British ruled Hong Kong.  The details of the attack are well known and have been heavily written about in one form or another.  Needless to say, the Japanese achieved a great victory by arresting massive damage to the U.S Pacific Fleet.   However, the victory was not without consequences.  It awoke the sleeping giant that had, until that point, stayed out of World War II in any direct manner.

The United States had not been attacked on its shores before and did not take the act lightly as one could expect.   It was only a matter of hours before Congress declared war on Japan.  Though a victory was achieved militarily, the Japanese military had also damaged the American people’s psyche.  There was now a feeling of vulnerability, especially on the West Coast.  National security was a grave concern and people expected the government to “fix it.”

The U.S. Reaction to the Attack on Pearl Harbor

In the weeks following the attack, the majority of the American people were supportive of those living on the west coast who were of Japanese ancestry.   They were described as “good Americans loyal to the United States.”[2]  However, about six weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor the tide started to turn.  Public opinion began to turn against those of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast.  Fear of espionage became rampant and the media fueled the concerns about Japanese-Americans.  Despite reassurance from President Roosevelt and FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, many Americans were nervous and questioned the loyalty of Japanese-Americans.   To further incite their fears, immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a civilian Japanese national and two Hawaiian-born ethnic Japanese on the island of Ni'ihau violently freed a downed and captured Japanese naval airman.[2]   The U.S. government needed to assure its people they were safe.  Unfortunately, what is “safe” for one in this case is an atrocity for another.

The attack on Pearl Harbor caused President Roosevelt to issue Proclamations 2525 (regarding Japanese in America), 2526 (regarding Germans in America), and 2527 (regarding Italians in America) pursuant to The Alien Enemies Act.  The proclamations labeled citizens and non-citizens with ancestry of the three countries as enemies of the United States.  In part, the proclamations stated:

“…being of the age of fourteen years and upward, who shall be within the United States and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured, and removed as alien enemies.”[8]

In January, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Proclamation 2537 which required all aliens to report any changes of address, employment or name to the FBI.  Restricted areas were strictly off limits to enemy aliens and violators of these regulations could be arrested, detained and interned for the duration of the war.

The Establishment of Internment Camps

The following month, on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt in the capacity of commander-in-chief issued Executive Order 9066.  This order authorized the Secretary of War and the Armed Forces to establish certain areas as military zones "from which any or all persons may be excluded.”[7]  The fate of Japanese-Americans was sealed once the order was signed.  Not only did Japanese-Americans face racial prejudice at this time, but Italians, Germans and Jews did as well, though not in the same numbers.


Map of the Internment Camps; Source: Wikimedia Commons

The zones were established mostly on the Pacific coast of the United States.  An imaginary boundary was drawn down the north to south border of California and along the rim of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington.  From that line to the Pacific coast, the region was thus classified as military restricted zones in those three states.[1]  (Essentially all of California and most of Oregon and Washington as well as parts of Arizona were considered military zones.  Pretty much the entire Pacific coast was established as “Military Area No.1.”)

The zones applied to anyone the military commanders deemed included whether citizen or not.  Eventually, the zones established encompassed about a third of the mainland United States.  Between the first days of March and the first days of May, Lt. General John L. DeWitt (head of the Western command) issued several proclamations and orders which restricted the movement, assets and freedoms of all people with Japanese ancestry, whether or not they were citizens of the United States.  Anyone with at least one-sixteenth Japanese

Posted Exclusion Order; Source: Wikimedia Commons
ancestry was lumped into these regulations.

On May 3, 1942, DeWitt issued Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34 which ordered anyone with Japanese ancestry still living in Military Area No. 1 to report to assembly centers where they would live until moved to permanent “Relocation Centers.”

The Camp System

The internment of people in the U.S. during World War II is usually referred to as the internment of Japanese-Americans.  However, the camp system included several different components.  

  • The Assembly Centers overseen by the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) were the most well-known facilities. 
  • The Relocation Centers run by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) are generally referred to as “internment camps” though they were not officially called this by government agencies or leaders.
  • Internment Camps were run by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and were used to detain people suspected of crimes or sympathy towards the enemy.

The Assembly Centers were temporary facilities often set up in fairgrounds, race track stables or other large public buildings where the “assembled” were organized before transport to a Relocation Center.   There were 18 Centers, all but four located in California.  At the onset, the centers had to be use

Typical Housing in Internment Camps; Source: Wikimedia Commons
d because Relocation Centers were not yet ready for the influx of so many people.  The Centers were quickly put up and the people typically given an army cot, one blanket and a straw tick with three families to a barracks or in many cases horse stable.  The inhabitants were under 24-hour surveillance.[2]

Ten Relocation Centers were built for holding the people excluded from the Military Zones.  Entertainers, politicians and scientists as well as farmers and shopkeepers were sent to these Relocation Centers.  The camps were:

Gila River War Relocation Center, Arizona – This camp was located about 30 miles from Phoenix, Arizona on the Gila River Indian Reservation.   Internees came from Fresno,

Gila River Relocation Center; Source: Wikimedia Commons
Sacramento and Los Angeles, California as well as 2,000 additional internees from Jerome War Relocation Center in Arkansas when that facility closed in 1944.  At its peak, 13,368 people were interned at this camp, though it was built for a capacity of 10,000.  The camp had one watchtower and was one of the few camps that didn’t have barbed wire on its fences.  Notable internee at this camp was actor Pat Morita (Happy Days and The Karate Kid) who also was interned for a time at Tule Lake.
Granada War Relocation Center, Colorado (AKA "Amache") – This camp had a maximum population of 7,318 with most coming from Los Angeles, California.  The camp was surrounded by barbed wire fences and had eight machine gun towers, though not all
Requesting leave at the Amache Internment Camp; Source: Wikimedia Commons
were occupied at one time and the guns were never used (thankfully).  The camp had its own police department comprised of Japanese-Americans interned there.  
Heart Mountain War Relocation Center, Wyoming – This camp was located on 740 acres of dry arid land in the remote northwestern corner of Wyoming.  Surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence and nine watchtowers, the camp enclosed 650 military-style buildings laid out in a street grid.  Of those buildings, 468 were designated as residential dormitories.  At its peak, the camp housed 10,767 internees who were brought by train from assembly centers in Pomona and Santa Anita, California and Portland, Oregon.
Jerome War Relocation Center, Arkansas - This camp, the last one to be built, was located near Jerome in southeastern Arkansas.  It was the first camp to close; the residents were relocated to one of the other camps.  Like the majority of the other camps, this one was
Guard Tower at Jerome Internment Camp; Source: Wikimedia Commons
surrounded by barbed-wire fence and had seven watchtowers. After its closure, the camp was converted to a holding camp for German prisoners of war.  At its peak, the camp housed 7,932 Japanese-Americans.  This was one of the few camps where the residents were allowed (with permission) to leave the camp to seek jobs.  However, the process was arduous and there was no guarantee of success in finding a job, housing and food if they left so most lost interest.  
Manzanar War Relocation Center, California – This camp, located in Owen’s Valley about 230 miles northeast of Los Angeles at the foot of the Sierras, was the first of the ten camps to be established.   Initially the camp was an Assembly Center but was transferred to the WRA on June 1, 1942.  At its peak, the camp held 10,046 internees with 90% coming from the Los Angeles area and the remainder from Stockton, California and Bainbridge Island, Washington.   The camp was surrounded by barbed-wire and had eight watchtowers manned by military police who also were stationed at the entrance to the camp. 
Minidoka War Relocation Center, Idaho - This camp was located in the remote high desert area 17 miles northeast of Twin Falls.  At its peak the camp held 9,397 Japanese-Americans, the majority from Oregon, Washington and Alaska.  The camp had 36 blocks of buildings with each block containing 12 barracks which were divided into six separate living quarters.  In addition, the blocks contained laundry facilities, bathrooms, a mess hall, and a multi-use recreational hall.
Poston War Relocation Center, Arizona – Located in southwestern Arizona on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, this camp was the largest in area of the ten Relocations Centers.  At its peak, the camp held 17, 814 internees who were prominently from Southern California.  The camp was comprised of three separate camps built three miles apart in a line.  The entire camp was surrounded by one barbed-wire fence and there was only one gatehouse to enter the complex.  Guard towers were deemed unnecessary because the center was so isolated.  Though the Indian Tribe objected to this use of their land; the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Army overruled the Tribal Council.   
Rohwer War Relocation Center, Arkansas – This center was located in rural southeastern Arkansas and at its peak held 8,475 Japanese-American, predominantly relocated from California.   It was about 30 miles from the Jerome Center.  The camp was set up much like the others with blocks for residents, communal dining halls, bathrooms and laundry facilities; and blocks of larger buildings for various uses.  The camp was surrounded by barbed-wire fence and several guard towers “strategically” positioned.  George Takei (from Star Trek fame) and his family were interned at this camp and later transferred to Tule Lake.
Topaz War Relocation Center, Utah – This center was located about fifteen miles from Delta, Utah and held Japanese-Americans relocated from the San Francisco, California Assembly Center.  At its peak, the camp had 8,130 residents.  Residents could get passes to shop in nearby Delta and some did find work there.  Reportedly, one man who found employment in Delta was subsequently charged “rent” to live in the camp.[9]
Tule Lake War Relocation Center, California – This Relocation Center was located south of the Oregon border near Tulelake, California.   Designed for 15,000 internees, the camp at its peak held 18,879 relocated persons from California, Oregon and Washington.   Tule Lake Relocation Center had the most resistance from its residents and soon became a segregation camp due in large part to a loyalty questionnaire.  Once the camp was designated as a segregation center, more barbed wire along with a double “man-proof” eight-foot high fence was added as well as more guard towers (increasing from six towers to 28 towers).[10]  One thousand military police were brought in as well.  After its closure, the Tule Lake Center was used as a prisoner of war camp for German and Italian soldiers.

Family Moving into Internment Camp; Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Loyalty Questionnaire

The War Department and the WRA deemed it necessary to ascertain the loyalty of Japanese-Americans who were being held in the WRA Relocation Centers.  The responses were also a way of helping the War Department to recruit second-generation Japanese-Americans (called Nisei; children of immigrant born in the U.S. who thus held U.S. citizenship) to an all- Nisei combat unit.  The questionnaire was given to all of the internees over the age of 17 in all of the camps. 

Most of the questions seemed “innocent” enough, asking about education, language skills, and such.  However, each of the questions was scored as to the “American-ness” or “Japanese-ness” of the response.  The most resistance came regarding questions 27 and 28; these two questions in particular, made it impossible for the internees to answer correctly (correctly according to the U.S. government).  Question 27 asked if the individual would serve in combat wherever ordered; question 28 asked if the individual would renounce allegiance to the Emperor of Japan and declare loyalty to the United States.  For those not citizens of the U.S.(immigrants or first-generation Japanese-Americans, also referred to as Issei); answering yes to question 28 meant they would have no country.   Those who answered “with stipulations” were considered disloyal the same as if they had answered “no.”

The WRA revised the questionnaire to resolve some of the issues brought forth by a Issei resistance; however for the Nisei, the form continued to cause concern as no conditions were given to restore their rights as citizens when they declared their loyalty.  In all of the camps the questionnaire was met with opposition, but none at the level in the Tule Lake Center.  While approximately ten percent outwardly resisted the questionnaire in the other camps; at Tule Lake about 47 percent resisted and were labeled “disloyal” and thus, the camp became a segregation camp.  All those deemed “loyal” were sent to one of the other camps (except those who requested to stay at Tule Lake due mostly to family cohesiveness) and those deemed disloyal at the other camps were transferred to Tule Lake.[11]

Life in the Relocation Centers

The centers were chosen specifically in remote locations and were less than ideal.  The buildings were mostly constructed with tarpaper as insulation and were ill equipped for the climate. 

Inside a Resident’s Barracks at Internment Camp; Source: Wikimedia Commons

Most of the camps endured floods, hot dry days and cold nights.  The family units were heated by coal stoves and families were encouraged not to cook in their units.  Communal dining halls, bathrooms and laundry facilities further restricted any privacy the internees might have.  Several of the centers were over capacity which further limited privacy for the families.

Each camp was designed to be primarily self-sustaining.  Most of the agriculture and livesto

Newspaper Shop at Manzanar Relocation Center; Source: Wikimedia Commons.
ck were outside the perimeter and taken care of by the residents.  The camps had multi-purpose buildings used for recreation, school and worship services.  Most of the internees received a monthly clothes allowance of $3.60 (equivalent to about $51 in 2013) and workers were paid about $8 to $19 per month ($112 to $267 in 2013) depending on their skill level.[2]  Most of the camps had various shops such as barber shops, watch and shoe repair shops and dry cleaning.  Many of the camps were one of the largest communities in their areas, which is not surprising considering the remoteness of the locations.

Culturally and socially, the internees did they best they could under the circumstances.  In

Boys Scouts from Internment Camps; Source: Wikimedia Commons
some of the camps, the residents built playing fields for baseball or football, engaged in Boy Scouts and had school dances.  (Being in Boy Scouts ended up having an additional benefit as it was considered a “positive” response on the loyalty questionnaire.)   Some made attempts to make their environment more pleasing by building elaborate gardens.

While most of the people accepted their fate, some rebelled against the injustice of their incarceration as well as issues that came up as were bound to happen in such a situation.  Wage differences, black marketing items which were in limited supply, and accusations of spying and “tattle-telling” to authorities cropped up in many of the camps.  Punishment was usually swift with dissenters finding themselves arrested and jailed or sent to one of the DOJ facilities or Tule Lake after it became a segregated center.

Closure of the Internment Camps

The exclusion order was finally rescinded on January 2, 1945.  Japanese-Americans were freed from the

Leaving Poston Internment Camps; Source: Wikimedia Commons
camps, given $25 and a bus ticket home.[2]  Some chose to go to Japan while a few stayed on in the camps for a time before deciding where to go.  All of them had lost their homes and possessions so there was not much to “go home to.”  When rounded up, many had little notice and most were not told where they were going; they were allowed few belongings to take with them, some only one bag per person.  Much of their material possessions were damaged, lost or stolen while awaiting freedom from the camps.  Some farmers had been able to secure a family to operate their farms while they were interned, but others had to make quick sales which meant large
Business Sold due to Relocation; Source: Wikimedia Commons
financial loss.

In 1948 U.S. Congress passed the "American Japanese Claims Act" which allowed Japanese-Americans to file a claim to recoup some of their losses.  However, the majority of their tax records were destroyed or lost and thus, they had nothing to support their claims.  Although 26,568 claims totaling $148 million were filed, only about $37 million were approved and paid.[2]

In the 1960s, the young generation of Japanese-Americans began a civil rights movement known as “The Redress Movement,” in which they sought an official apology and reparations for the interment of their parents and grandparents.  It wasn’t until 1976 the federal government finally acknowledged any wrong doing when President Gerald Ford declared the internment of Japanese-Americans “a national mistake.”[2]

In the 1980s Congress established a commission to study the actions and in their final report the commission recommended a $20,000 per victim of internment be paid.  In 1988,  President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which paid this amount to each surviving internee. ( The reparation  totaled $1.2 billion.)  In 1992 an amendment was signed by President George H.W. Bush to set aside another $400 million to ensure all eligible survivors were paid.  In addition, President Bush extended another official apology for the atrocity of the relocation debacle.

The 2001 budget included a decree that the ten sites of the Internment Camps were to be preserved as historical landmarks:

“places like Manzanar, Tule Lake, Heart Mountain, Topaz, Amache, Jerome, and Rohwer will forever stand as reminders that this nation failed in its most sacred duty to protect its citizens against prejudice, greed, and political expediency”.[2]

While no nation is without its faults and frailties, each must take responsibility for how it treats its citizens.  Parallels to the climate of today are glaring.  There is a fine line between keeping the people of a nation secure; and trampling the rights of its citizens.   Yes, we must make some sacrifices; but, we must use logic and common sense.  Some things must be comprised to attain others, but we must always as a nation, as free people, determine the cost of those compromises.  Some may be worth the cost; but surely not all.


The copyright of the article U.S. Black Eye: The Internment of Japanese-Americans During World War II is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

Government's attempt to justify the relocation.

Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience
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George Takei on the Japanese internment camps during WWII

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  1. "Teaching With Documents: Documents and Photographs Related to Japanese Relocation During World War II." National Archives. 29/06/2013 <Web >
  2. "Japanese American internment." Wikipedia. 29/06/2013 <Web >
  3. ushistory.org "Japanese-American Internment (COPYRIGHT 2013) ." U.S. History Online Textbook . 29/06/2013 <Web >
  4. "Japan during World War I." Wikipedia. 29/06/2013 <Web >
  5. "Militarism and WW2 (1912 - 1945) ." Japan-guide.com. 29/06/2013 <Web >
  6. Department of Defense "Overview of The Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941." Naval History and Heritage Command. 29/06/2013 <Web >
  7. "Executive Order 9066." Wikipedia. 29/06/2013 <Web >
  8. "PRESIDENTIAL PROCLAMATION ALIENS No. 2525." The Freedom of Information Times. 29/06/2013 <Web >
  9. Jane Beckwith, Utah History Encyclopedia "Topaz Relocation Center." Utah History to Go. 29/06/2013 <Web >
  10. Barbara Takei "Tule Lake." Densho Encyclopedia. 29/06/2013 <Web >
  11. Cherstin M. Lyon "Loyalty Questionnaire." Densho Encyclopedia. 29/06/2013 <Web >

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