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Japanese American Prison Camps
During World War II

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Why I Call Them "Prison" Camps

The reason I don't call them internment camps, relocation camps, or evacuation camps is because the sole purpose of these camps was to incarcerate, isolate, and punish a group of people accused of crimes and who just had their rights as U.S. citizens revoked. Each camp had towers in which armed guards pointed weapons inside at the inhabitants. That sounds like a prison camp to me. All of these other terms are ultimately just sugar-coated euphemisms.

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Construction and Destruction

The Chinese led the way into America, but other Asian groups soon followed. Like the Asian American population as whole today, the experiences of these other early Asians had some similarities and differences with that of the Chinese.

Gates Opening and Closing

The next Asian group to come to the U.S. in large numbers were the Japanese. They initially came to Hawai'i as cheaper replacements for Chinese workers beginning around 1890. In Japan's case, they also experienced economic and military domination by the west, which began when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853 with his infamous "black ships," threatening war if Japan did not open itself up for trade with the west. As a result, Japan's economy became dependent on the west and ordinary citizens struggled to survive economically.

But unlike workers from China, Japanese workers were actively recruited to work in Hawai'i and the U.S. and were initially closely supervised by the Japanese government to insure that they were doing well. Also unlike the Chinese, Japanese workers were mainly concentrated in agricultural jobs. However, once again, the Japanese eventually received the same type of discriminatory treatment the Chinese had received earlier, which culminated in 1907 Gentlemen's Agreement. Japan agreed to stop issuing passports for Japanese workers to go to the U.S., even though this did not seriously reduce the amount of Japanese immigrants coming into the U.S.

Japanese Americans in the process of being imprisoned © Corbis

Nonetheless, the Japanese were subjected to the same discriminatory laws and prejudices that the Chinese endured earlier, including restrictions on their rights to own land and become citizens. Also like the Chinese, the Japanese did not sit idly by while they were being discriminated against. In fact, history shows that, in addition to filing federal court cases, they organized many demonstrations and strikes, led many boycotts, published many books and essays, and enlisted the support of many sympathetic whites.

These actions taken by the Chinese and Japanese to fight for their rights demonstrates an incredible determination to not only become citizens of the U.S., but to try to assimilate into U.S. society as best as possible. In other words, they wanted to be as American as everybody else. They were consistently denied that opportunity, but they fought as hard as possible for their rights to be treated fairly and equally.

Eventually, other Asian groups followed the Chinese and Japanese into the U.S., such as the Koreans and Filipinos. Only about 7,000 Koreans came to the U.S. before 1951, and they also mainly worked in the sugarcane plantations of Hawai'i. Also, approximately 130,000 Filipinos came to the U.S. before 1935. They were helped by the legal status as U.S. territory residents and yes, they too worked mainly in agriculture.

During this period before 1940, these Asian groups tried as best as they could, given the restrictions placed upon them, to make a living for themselves and to become as integrated into American life as possible. However, everything changed when World War 2 started.

Through the Darkness, There is Light

The U.S.'s treatment towards Asians became more extreme, for better and for worse, once the war began. For the Japanese of course, it became a nightmare. After the Japanese navy attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, it set off an overwhelming wave of racism, prejudice, and ignorance. Immediately after the attacks, government and military officials suspected that Japanese Americans would sympathize with and even actively support Japan against the U.S.

This suspicion was fueled by a series of intercepted encrypted communications among Japanese officials that led some to conclude that Japanese Americans were being recruited as spies. As many historians points out, the validity of this interpretation is still debateable. Further, historians point out that even if there were efforts to recruit Japanese Americans as spies, and even if a few eventually became spies, to then penalize an entire ethnic group based on the actions of just a few is completely unjustifiable.

Ironically, there were also many government and military officials (including J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the F.B.I.) who concluded that Japanese Americans did not constitute a security threat. But they were ultimately overruled by various administration officials at the Department of War (later renamed the Department of Defense), led by General John DeWitt. Combined with further falsified reports of espionage, negative evidence that was withheld, and lobbying by White farmers in California (for whom Japanese American farmers were competitors), this racist paranoia culminated in President Roosevelt issuing Executive Order 9066.

George Tamura watercolor painting of Tule Lake prison camp © George Tamura

This effectively revoked the rights of Japanese Americans (two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens) and eventually led to about 112,000 Japanese Americans being rounded up and thrown into prison camps in nine states. The lives of Japanese Americans were devastated -- not only were their economic lives destroyed, their emotional security was shattered, but their cultural traditions were severely damaged as well. That is, their tradition of self-reliance was replaced by being forced to rely on the government for their most basic needs. In addition, the authority of Japanese parents gradually declined as their children increasingly spent more time with their friends in the camps.

As one side note, most of these prison camps were placed on Native American reservations, for which the Native Americans were never compensated, nor consulted. The Native Americans consoled themselves that they might at least get to keep any improvements that were made to their land, but at the end of the war, all the buildings and gardens that were constructed were bulldozed or sold by the government instead.

Every Japanese American who was imprisoned was eventually forced to prove their loyalty by answering two questions -- (1) whether or not they would be willing to be drafted to fight in the war or volunteer as a nurse and (2) whether they would swear to obey all the laws of the U.S. and not interfere with the war effort.

Even though they had just had their rights as American citizens revoked, forcibly imprisoned just because of their ethnic ancestry, and still in a state of collective shock, the overwhelming majority of Japanese Americans answered yes to both questions. This episode serves as an example of how Japanese Americans were eager to prove their patriotism and loyalty to the U.S., contrary to the stereotype and belief at the time that they were less than 100% 'American.'

As another example of the unquestionable valor and loyalty of Japanese Americans to the U.S. despite this racist treatment, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a group of Japanese American males drafted from the prison camps, became the most decorated combat unit of its size in the entire U.S. military for their heroic deeds -- seven Presidential Distinguished Unit Citations, a Congressional Medal of Honor, 47 Distinguished Service Crosses, 350 Silver Stars, 810 Bronze Stars, and more than 3,600 Purple Hearts.

On January 2, 1945, the Executive Order was finally rescinded and all Japanese American prisoners were allowed to leave. However, historians point out that this was still long before the Japanese surrender and during a time of the war when, arguably, the fighting was at its most vicious. Therefore, the fact that these alleged spies were released at the height of the war was further evidence against the argument that their imprisonment was an essential security measure.

In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Executive Order in the famous Korematsu case. However, although in early 1980s, the Supreme Court officially overturned this decision after documents were discovered which showed that the government withheld important information from the Supreme Court that the Army altered and destroyed key evidence that contradicted the argument that Japanese Americans constitued a security threat.

The Times, They Are A Changing

On the other hand, after the war began, Chinese Americans and to a lesser extent, those of Korean, Filipino, and South Asian descent, were beginning to be portrayed in a much more positive light. For example, a 1942 Gallup poll characterized the Chinese as "hardworking, honest, brave, religious, intelligent, and practical." The U.S. was feeling so charitable that in 1943, it revoked the provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act passed 61 years earlier.

This finally gave Chinese residents the right to be naturalized citizens. Before 1942, Chinese Americans were generally seen as strange and even evil. Less than a year later, they were now hardworking, honest, and brave. Why? Because the U.S. government decided to portray them that way since China was now the U.S.'s wartime ally.

Yes, we are American © Dorthea Lange

However, after the war finally ended in 1945, the U.S.'s attitudes towards the Japanese and Chinese once again flip-flopped. After the communists took control, China became the evil enemy while Japan, rebuilding under the direction of the U.S. military, was seen as hardworking, friendly, and intelligent. Reflecting this change of opinion, Japanese Americans officially received the right to become naturalized U.S. citizens in 1952.

For several decades after the war ended, most of the Japanese American community just wanted to get on with the task of rebuilding their lives and to forget their imprisonment experience. However, in 1978, the Japanese American Citizens League officially asked Congress to investigate whether the imprisonment during World War II was unjustified and wrong.

A bipartisan commission conducted extensive research and, in a report titled "Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians," finally concluded that the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II was a "grave injustice" and resulted from "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."

In 1987, the House of Representatives passed a "redress" bill that included an official apology to Japanese Americans and compensated $20,000 to each person who was imprisoned who was still alive. The Senate later passed the bill in 1988. However, it was not until 1993 that the first payments were made. Nonetheless, this redress movement became a very important and proud achievement for the Japanese American and larger Asian American communities. It showed that the Asian American community could be mobilized to fight for fair and equal treatment and in this case, justice.

For the 20 or so years after the war, the entire Asian American population tried to rebuild their lives, develop their communities, and tried to assimilate as best as possible. It helped that the U.S. was experiencing a huge economic boom, which not only provided these Asian American groups with new opportunities, but also gave the native White population enough opportunities as well so that they didn't see Asian Americans as threats. However, a new and important piece of legislation was passed in 1965 that again fundamentally changed the landscape of Asian America.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Construction and Destruction: Japanese American Internment" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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