Japanese American internment

The Japanese American internment refers to the exclusion and subsequent removal of approximately 112,000 to 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans, officially described as "persons of Japanese ancestry," 62 percent of whom were United States citizens, from the west coast of the United States during World War II to hastily constructed housing facilities called War Relocation Camps in remote portions of the nation's interior. The U.S. government officially apologized for this action in the 1980s and paid reparations.

Similar internments occurred across Canada as well (See: Japanese Canadians).

Jerome Relocation Camp
Jerome Relocation Camp

A note about dissenting views

Ever since this subject became a topic of historical inquiry, there have been individuals and organizations who have argued that the suspicions against ethnic Japanese which led to Executive Order 9066 (signed into law on February 19, 1942) were indeed justified and who seek to rebut some Japanese American accounts of hardship during the evacuation and in the camps. Members of the American Legion and some veterans who fought in the Pacific theater are the most vocal proponents of this viewpoint. Another defender of the policy is Filipino-American opinion columnist Michelle Malkin, who authored a 2004 book entitled In Defense of Internment: The Case for Racial Profiling in World War II and the War on Terror, although critics have characterized her book as being one-sided, poorly researched, and logically unsound. [1] (http://www.isthatlegal.org/Muller_and_Robinson_on_Malkin.html)

Among academics, the broad historical consensus is that the camps were indeed a product of wartime hysteria and racism rather than arising from legitimate fears of sabotage. Moreover, many Japanese Americans consider the efforts to justify the wartime actions to be highly offensive, on a par with Holocaust denial among Jews.

Terminology: Internment, relocation, or concentration camps?

Most historical references describe the camps as internment camps, although others favor the name relocation camps. Others, more critical of this action, refer to them as detention camps or concentration camps.

Those who believe relocation is a more appropriate term argue that (1) the official designation at the time was relocation center; (2) the camps were not, strictly speaking, prisons; and (3) an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 camp residents did eventually settle outside the exclusion area.

However, many others argue that the phrase relocation camp is a euphemism that does not adequately describe the true nature of the camps. And some assert that because the camps meet some dictionary definitions of concentration camp, this term is appropriate; however, the use of this loaded term should not be construed to mean they were on the same severity as Nazi Germany's Konzentrationslagers or Britain's South African camps during the Boer War.

In its 1983 report "Personal Justice Denied," the bipartisan, Congressionally appointed Commission on Wartime Internment and Relocation of Civilians explained its decision to use the term "relocation camp" thusly: "The Commission has largely left the words and phrases as they were, however, in an effort to mirror accurately the history of the time and to avoid the confusion and controversy a new terminology might provoke. We leave it to the reader to decide for himself how far the language of the period confirms an observation of George Orwell: 'In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible ... Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.'"

Most historians use the now-standard term internment camp because it is perceived as relatively neutral.

Whatever name is used, the perimeters of the camps were fenced, armed guards were posted, and all of the camps were in remote, desolate areas far from any population centers. There are documented instances of internees being shot for walking outside the fences. However, some camp administrations eventually allowed relatively free movement outside the marked boundaries of the camps. Nearly a quarter of the internees left the camps to live and work elsewhere in the United States, outside the exclusion zone. Eventually, some were authorized to return to their hometowns in the exclusion zone under supervision of a sponsoring white family or agency.

One of the camps, Tule Lake, was in fact later turned into a prison camp, with watchtowers, fences, and guards. Tule Lake was reserved for those of Japanese descent who were specifically suspected of espionage, treason, or other such disloyalty, and their families, as well as individuals who were community leaders, such as teachers, priests, etc. Other families were held at Tule Lake because they requested to be "repatriated" to Japan. A number of pro-Japan demonstrations were held there throughout the war.

Also, many other things besides both internment and relocation are involved, among them: individual and group exclusion from "military" zones, deportation, illegal detainment, de-naturalization, alien enemy registration requirements, curfews, travel restrictions, and property confiscation (including seizures, freezing, bond seizure, and restrictions) for those of foreign birth and/or of "enemy" ancestry.

The individual exclusion zones were particularly onerous, as they were personally targeted, and very swift - allowing very little time to relocate. Government agents continued to follow the excludees they couldn't convict of crimes and warn potential new employers, police, and people of their new towns on how "dangerous" they were.

For example in Korematsu's case the Japanese population had 5 days from May 3, 1942 until 12 noon, May 8 (or 9th) to leave their hometown according to General DeWitt's Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34.


Missing image

During the period of 1939-1941, the FBI compiled the Custodial Detention index ("CDI") on citizens, enemy aliens and foreign nationals which might be dangerous.

On June 28, 1940 the Alien Registration Act of 1940 (or Smith Act) is passed, Section 31 required the registration and fingerprinting of aliens above the age of 14, Section 35 required reports of change of address within 5 days. Registered aliens are to get back their Green Cards, after form processing. Within 4 months 4,741,971 registered at post offices around the country. Of the 1.1 million aliens above the age of 14 who would be classed as enemy aliens, 683,259 were males of which 56,332 were Japanese.

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 led many to suspect the Japanese were preparing a full-scale attack on the West Coast. Further attacks, such as the submarine shelling of a California oil refinery in 1942 redoubled these suspicions. Also, Japan's rapid military conquest of much of Asia made their military machine seem to Americans frighteningly unstoppable. Civilian and military officials had concerns about the loyalty of the ethnic Japanese on the West Coast and considered them to be a security risk.

Critics of the exclusion argue that the military justification was unfounded, citing the absence of any convictions of Japanese Americans for espionage, as well as the fact that the Army resorted to falsifying evidence in order to bolster its case before the Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States. Present-day proponents of the exclusion and internment program point to the writings of David Lowman, who asserted in the 1980s and 1990s that the decryption of the MAGIC codes suggested to the military and political leaders at the time that there was a substantial spy network of Japanese Americans feeding information to the Japanese military, because the Japanese consulate repeatedly stated that it was attempting to recruit Japanese-American spies. Lowman's claims have been controversial; others point out that much of the information that the Japanese officials obtained may have come from public sources such as newspapers, and that just because Japanese consular officials said they were attempting to recruit Japanese-Americans did not necessarily mean that those attempts were successful.

Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Ringle, a naval intelligence officer tasked with evaluating the loyalty of the Japanese American population, estimated in a 1941 report to his superiors that "better than 90% of the Nisei [second generation] and 75% of the original immigrants were completely loyal to the United States." A 1941 report prepared on President Roosevelt's orders by Curtis B. Munson, special representative of the State Department, concluded that most Japanese nationals and "90 to 98 percent" of Japanese American citizens were loyal. He wrote: "There is no Japanese `problem' on the Coast ... There is far more danger from Communists and people of the Bridges type on the Coast than there is from Japanese."

Present-day supporters of the internment argue that Japanese-Americans were disloyal because approximately 20,000 Japanese-Americans in Japan at the start of the war joined the Japanese war effort, and hundreds joined the Japanese Army. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that they had any choice other than to be conscripted into the Japanese army, given that the United States had already classified all people of Japanese ancestry as "enemy aliens."

Present-day supporters of the internment also argue that Japanese-Americans residing in the United States were disloyal because Tomoya Kawakita, an American citizen who worked as an interpreter and a POW guard for the Japanese army, actively participated in the torture (and at least one death) of American soldiers, including survivors of the Bataan Death March. But it could easily be argued that attributing the crimes of one man to 120,000 unrelated men, women, and children is at best unfair and probably racist.

In January 25, 1942 the Secretary of War Darshan reported that "on the Pacific coast not a single ship had sailed from our Pacific ports without being subsequently attacked". Due to this, military authorities suspected possible espionage, although they found no links to Japanese-American civilians.

In addition to espionage, there was also concern that in the event of an invasion there could be sabotage of both military and civilian facilities inside the United States. Military officials expressed concerns that California's water systems were highly vulnerable, and there were concerns about the possibility of arson, brush fires in particular, and feared that Japanese-Americans might sabotage this infrastructure. However, their fears never came to pass.

Administration and military leaders also doubted the loyalty of ethnic Japanese because many, including some born in America, had been educated in Japan, where school curricula emphasized reverence for the Emperor.

Not surprisingly, some Japanese Americans became less loyal to the United States after the government removed them and their families from their homes and held them in internment camps. Several pro-Japan groups formed inside the camps, and riots occurred for various reasons in many camps, which caused the WRA to move the "troublemaker" internees to Tule Lake (see below). When the government asked whether internees wished to renounce their U.S. citizenship, 5,589 of them did so. Of those who renounced their citizenship, 1,327 were expatriated to Japan. However, the American Civil Liberties Union successfully challenged most of these renunciations as invalid because of the conditions under which the government obtained them.

When the government circulated a questionnaire seeking army volunteers from the camp population, 94% of military-aged men said they would not serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. However, a sizable number did volunteer to serve from the camps, including in the famed and highly decorated 442nd regiment which operated in Europe (not Japan, as some believe).

On December 7, 1941 Presidential Proclamations 2525 (German), 2526 (Italian) and 2527 (Japanese) were signed. Many homes were raided using the CDI and other information, and hundreds of aliens were in custody by the end of the day, including Germans and Italians (although war was not declared on Germany or Italy until Dec 11). As of 11:00 AM, Dec 9th, 1,801 aliens were in custody, of which 1,221 were Japanese (376 of them in Hawaii) - the author of that memorandum "did not believe there would be very many more arrests of Japanese."

Only 6,056 of the 16,811 foreigners arrested in security measures by the FBI between December 7, 1941 and June 30, 1945 were of non-European descent.

Presidential Proclamation 2537 issued on Jan.14, 1942, 1 million enemy aliens register. Any change of address, employment or name had to be reported to the FBI/DOJ. Enemy aliens were not allowed to enter restricted areas. Violators of regulations were subject to "arrest, detention and internment for the duration of the war."

San Francisco Examiner, Feb. 1942, newspaper headlines.
San Francisco Examiner, Feb. 1942, newspaper headlines.

Executive Order 9066, signed by Franklin D Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, allowed military commanders to designate areas "which any or all persons may be excluded, and with such respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave...". These exclusion zones, unlike the "alien enemy" roundups, were applicable to both citizens and non-citizens. Eventually such areas would include both the East and West Coasts, and about 1/3 of the country, and were applied to all of those of Enemy Alien Ancestry (of which the Japanese were a minority).

On March 2, 1942 General DeWitt issued Public Proclamation No. 1, informing all those of Japanese ancestry that they would, at some later point, be subject to exclusion orders from "Military Area No. 1" (essentially, the entire Pacific coast), and requiring anyone who had "enemy" ancestry to file Change of Residence Notice if they planned to move.

On March 11, 1942 Executive Order 9095 created the Office of the Alien Property Custodian giving it discretionary, plenary authority over all alien property interests. Many assets were frozen, creating immediate financial difficulty for the affected aliens.

On March 24, 1942, General DeWitt began to issue exclusion orders for specific areas within "Military Area No. 1."

On March 27, 1942, General DeWitt's Proclamation No. 4 prohibited all those of Japanese ancestry from leaving "Military Area No. 1" for "any purpose until and to the extent that a future proclamation or order of this headquarters shall so permit or direct."

On May 3, 1942, General DeWitt issued Civilian Exclusion Order No. 346, ordering all citizens and non-citizens of Japanese ancestry to report to Assembly Centers, where they would live until being moved to permanent "Relocation Centers."

Over 112,000 residents of Japanese ancestry were subject to this mass exclusion program. Of those, approximately two-thirds were U.S. citizens by birth. The remaining one-third were non-citizens who were legally subject to internment under the Alien Enemies Act. (It is worth noting, however, that the laws of the time prohibited naturalization of immigrants from Asian countries, so legal residents not born in the U.S. cound not obtain citizenship.)

Internees of Japanese descent were first sent to one of 17 temporary "Civilian Assembly Centers," where most awaited shipment to more permanent relocation centers being constructed by the newly-formed War Relocation Authority (WRA). Some of those who did report to the civilian assembly centers were not sent to relocation centers, but were released upon condition that they remain outside the prohibited zone until the military orders were modified or lifted. Almost 120,000 Japanese Americans and resident Japanese aliens would eventually be removed from their homes in California, western Oregon and Washington, and southern Arizona as part of the single largest forced relocation in U.S. history.

Most of these camps/residences, gardens, and stock areas were placed on Native American reservations, for which the Native Americans were not compensated, nor consulted about. The Native Americans consoled themselves that they might at least get the improvements made to the land, but at the end of the duration such buildings, and gardens were bulldozed or sold by the government instead.

Under the National Student Council Relocation Program (supported primarily by the American Friends Service Committee), students of college age were permitted to leave the camps in order to attend institutions which were willing to accept students of Japanese ancestry. Although the program initially granted leave permits to only a very small number of students, this eventually grew to 2,263 students in December 31, 1943 .

Missing image
Japanese leaving town

Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not subject to the strict internment policy, despite the fact that they were closer to essential military facilities than most of the Japanese Americans in the western states. Given that about a third of the population of Hawaii was Japanese American, it is likely that wholesale detention of Japanese Americans in Hawaii would have crippled the local economy. There are some accounts of Japanese Americans from Hawaii being sent to internment camps on the mainland. While the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in Hawaii was nowhere near as severe as the treatment of the prisoners on the mainland were, they did exist. The conditions however were much more favorable as the interned were given more time and warning in order to be sure to give or sell their property properly. Most of those interned were allowed to give their property to family members for safekeeping, unlike most of the other Japanese Americans. Not all Japanese Americans in Hawaii were spared, but there were not treated nearly as badly as those on the West Coast.

A key supporter of the internment was California Attorney General Earl Warren. In later years, Warren viewed his early stance on the internment as one of his greatest mistakes. He wrote in his autobiography:

I have since deeply regretted the removal order and my own testimony advocating it, because it was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens. Whenever I thought of the innocent little children who were torn from home, school friends and congenial surroundings, I was conscience-stricken.

In early 1944, the government began clearing individuals to return to the West Coast; on January 2, 1945, the exclusion order was rescinded entirely. The internees then began to leave the camps to rebuild their lives at home, although the relocation camps remained open for residents who weren't ready to make the move back. The fact that this occurred long before the Japanese surrender (see V-J day), while the war was arguably at its most vicious, weighs heavily against the claim that the relocation was an essential security measure.

The last internment camp was not closed until August 1948, although all Japanese were cleared sometime in 1945.

One of the WRA camps, Manzanar, was designated a National Historic Site in 1992 to "provide for the protection and interpretation of historic, cultural, and natural resources associated with the relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II" (Public Law 102-248).


Most internees suffered significant property losses. Upon evacuation, the Japanese American internees were told that they could bring only as many articles of clothing, toiletries, and other personal effects as they could carry. The US government promised to find a place to store larger items (such as iceboxes and furniture) if boxed and labeled, but did not make any promises about the security of those items.

In some cases, Japanese American farmers were able to find white families who were willing to tend their farms for the duration of their internment. In other cases, however, the Japanese American farmers had to sell their property in a matter of days, for pennies on the dollar. In these cases, the land speculators who bought the land made huge profits. In addition, California's Alien Land Act, which prohibited non-citizens from owning property in that state, contributed to Japanese American property losses. Because they were barred from owning land, many older Japanese American farmers were tenant farmers and therefore lost their rights to those farm lands. To compensate these losses, the US Congress, on July 2, 1948 passed the "American Japanese Claims Act", stated that all claims for war losses not presented within 18 months "shall be forever barred". Approximately $147 million in claims were submitted, 26,568 settlements to family groups totaling more than $38 million were disbursed.

Beginning around the 1960s, a younger generation of Japanese Americans who felt energized by the Civil Rights movement began what is known as the "Redress Movement" -- an effort to obtain an official apology and reparations from the federal government for interning their parents and grandparents during the war.

The movement's first success was in 1976, when President Gerald Ford proclaimed that the evacuation was "wrong".

In 1980, under Jimmy Carter, a commission was established by Congress to study the matter. Some white opponents of the redress movement argued that the commission was ideologically biased because 40% of the commission staff was of Japanese descent. On February 24, 1983, the commission issued a report entitled Personal Justice Denied condemning the internment as unjust and motivated by racism rather than real military necessity.

These conclusions largely having become accepted, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which had been pushed through Congress by Representative Norman Mineta and Senator Alan K. Simpson (the two met while Mineta was interned at a camp in Wyoming), which provided redress of $20,000 for each surviving detainee, totaling $1.2 billion dollars. The question of to whom reparations should be given, how much, and even whether monetary reparations were appropriate were subjects of sometimes contentious debate.

People who believed the internment program was justified (as described above, primarily members of the American Legion and veterans of the Pacific theater) argued not only that monetary reparations were inappropriate, but that no apology was necessary.

On September 27, 1992: PL 102-371 (H.R. 4551) the Amendment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, and an additional $400 million in benefits was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, who also issued another formal apology from the U.S. government.

Conditions in the camps

According to a 1943 War Relocation Authority report, internees were housed in "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Most camps were built quickly by civilian contractors during the summer of 1942 based on designs for military barracks and were thus poorly equipped for cramped family living.

For example, the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in northwestern Wyoming was a barbed-wire-surrounded enclave with unpartioned toilets, cots for beds, and a budget of 45 cents daily per capita for food rations. Because most internees were evacuated from their West Coast homes on short notice and not told of their destination, many failed to pack appropriate clothing for Wyoming winters which often reached temperatures below zero Fahrenheit.

The phrase "shikata ga nai" (loosely translated as "it cannot be helped") was commonly used to summarize the interned families' resignation to their helplessness throughout these conditions.


The internment is widely condemned today, often attacked as racist. People frequently cite it as a precedent for large-scale violations of civil liberties, and a warning sign of what might happen again. However, others defend it as a harsh necessity in a bitter and desperate war.

Former Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark, who represented the US Department of Justice in the "relocation," writes in the Epilogue to the book Executive Order 9066: The Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans (written by Maisie & Richard Conrat):

The truth is—as this deplorable experience proves—that constitutions and laws are not sufficient of themselves...Despite the unequivocal language of the Constitution of the United States that the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, and despite the Fifth Amendment's command that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, both of these constitutional safeguards were denied by military action under Executive Order 9066....

Some estimate that by the time the last relocation camps (except Tule Lake) closed on December 1, 1945, the Japanese Americans had lost homes and businesses estimated to be worth, in 1999 values, 4 to 5 billion dollars, and that deleterious effects on Japanese American individuals, their families, and their communities, went beyond monetary damages.

Other camps

Crystal City, Texas was an internment camp where together with Japanese, Germans, Japanese-Latin Americans, and other people were interned as well. During the war tens of thousands of Germans and Italians were also detained, most of whom were foreign nationals or otherwise seen as subversive.

Japanese Canadians were interned by their government during World War II. Japanese people from various parts of Latin America were also interned in conjunction with the United States. See Japanese Canadian internment.

Legal legacy

A number of significant legal decisions arose out of Japanese American internment, relating to the powers of the government to detain citizens in wartime. Among the cases which reached the Supreme Court were Yasui v. United States (1943), Hirabayashi v. United States (1943), ex parte Endo (1944), and Korematsu v. United States (1944). In Yashui and Hirabayashi the court upheld the constitutionality of curfews based on Japanese ancestry; in Korematsu the court upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion order. In Endo, the court accepted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus and ruled that the WRA had no authority to subject a citizen whose loyalty was acknowledged to its procedures.

Korematsu's conviction (as well as the Hirabayashi and Yasui convictions) were overturned in a series of coram nobis cases in the early 1980s. In the coram nobis cases, federal district and appellate courts ruled that newly uncovered evidence revealed the existence of a manifest injustice which—had it been known at the time—would likely have changed the Supreme Court's decisions in the Yasui, Hirabayashi, and Korematsu cases. These new court decisions rested on a series of documents recovered from the National Archives showing that the government had withheld important and relevant information from the Supreme Court regarding the Army's alteration of evidence (namely, the report by General DeWitt justifying the internment program), including destroying documents in an effort to hide the fact that alterations had been made. The coram nobis cases overturned the convictions in all three original cases, and are regarded as one of the impetuses for the 1988 Civil Liberties Act.

It is important to note, however, that the coram nobis cases only nullified the factual underpinnings of the 1944 Korematsu case and its brethren. The legal conclusions in Korematsu -- i.e. its expansive interpretation of government powers in wartime -- were not overturned. In light of this fact, a number of legal scholars have expressed the opinion that the original Korematsu and Hirabayashi decisions have taken on an added relevance in the context of the War on terror.


In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, polls have found a third or more of the US public willing to intern Arab Americans in the way in which Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. The United States has instituted Special Registration, requiring annual photographing, fingerprinting, and interviewing of all male aliens (except permanent residents of the US) from any of a group of twenty-five countries, most of them predominantly Muslim, as well as monitoring of their movements within the US and restrictions of their right to travel. Many people are concerned that Arabs or Muslims in the US could be subjected to internment in the future, given the significant public support for such a practice and the enactment of legislation similar to the Alien Registration Act of 1940.

List of internment camps

Further reading

  • Audrey Girdner and Anne Loftis, 'The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of the Japanese Americans During World War II' (NY MacMillan, 1969).
  • Peter Irons, Justice At War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases. (University of California Press, 1983). ISBN 0520083121
  • Michelle Malkin, In Defense Of Internment: The Case for 'Racial Profiling' in World War II and the War on Terror (Regnery Publishing, 2004), ISBN 0895260514
  • Eric L. Muller, 'Free to Die for their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II' (University of Chicago Press, 2003).
  • Greg Robinson, 'By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans' (Harvard University Press, 2003).
  • United States Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992), ISBN 029597558X

External links

Documents of Interest

  • Civilian Restrictive Order No. 1, 8 Fed. Reg. 982, provided for detention of those of Japanese ancestry in assembly or relocation centers.
  • House Report No. 2124 (77th Cong., 2d Sess.) 247-52
  • Hearings before the Subcommittee on the National War Agencies Appropriation Bill for 1945, Part II, 608-726
  • Final Report, Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942 (pg 309-327), by Lt. Gen. J. L. DeWitt. This report is dated June 5, 1943, but was not made public until January, 1944.
  • Further evidence of the Commanding General's attitude toward individuals of Japanese ancestry is revealed in his voluntary testimony on April 13, 1943, in San Francisco before the House Naval Affairs Subcommittee to Investigate Congested Areas, Part 3, pp. 739-40 (78th Cong., 1st Sess.)
  • Hearings before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, House of Representatives, 78th Cong., 2d Sess., on H. R. 2701 and other bills to expatriate certain nationals of the United States, pp. 37-42, 49-58.
  • 56 Stat. 173.
  • 7 Fed. Reg. 2601
  • House Report No. 1809, 84th Congress, 2d session, 9 (1956).es:Campos de concentraci髇 en EEUU

he:כליאת היפנים בארצות הברית ja:日系人の強制収容


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