Historical Overview of the Japanese American Internment

Between 1942 and 1945, the U.S. government forced more than 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes, farms, schools, jobs and businesses, in violation of their constitutional civil rights and liberties. After the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States to entered World War II. Years of anti-Japanese prejudice erupted into hate and suspicion. All people of Japanese descent were looked upon as capable of sabotage, and the success of the attack was assumed to be the result of espionage by Japanese Americans living in Hawaii and on the West Coast.

On the West Coast, a hysteria of fear against Japanese Americans as "the Fifth Column" and "the enemy within" was created by inflammatory journalism, pressure groups, politicians, and the U.S. Army. A profound suspicion of Japanese Americans quickly led to cries for their expulsion. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which called for the exclusion and internment of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast--where the majority of Japanese Americans lived, outside of Hawaii.

The exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans began in March 1942. The War Relocation Authority, or WRA, was established to administer the camps. During the first phase, internees were transported on trains and busses under military guard to the hastily prepared temporary detention centers.

Twelve temporary detention centers were in California and one was in Oregon. They were set up on race tracks, fairgrounds, or livestock pavilions. Detainees were housed in livestock stalls or windowless shacks that were crowded and lacked sufficient ventilation, electricity, and sanitation facilities. Food was often spoiled. There was a shortage of food and medicine.

The second phase began midsummer and involved moving approximately 500 deportees daily from the temporary detention centers to permanent concentration camps. These camps were located in remote, uninhabitable areas. In the desert camps, daytime temperatures often reached 100 degrees or more. Sub-zero winters were common in the northern camps.

Japanese Americans filed lawsuits to stop the mass incarceration, but the wartime courts supported the hysteria. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hirabayashi v U.S., Yasui v U.S. , and Korematsu v U.S. that the denial of civil liberties based on race and national origin were legal. In a later, contradictory ruling in Endo v

U.S., the Supreme Court decided that a loyal citizen could not be detained, but this did not stop the internment.

The internment camps were surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. Armed guards patrolled the perimeter and were instructed to shoot anyone attempting to leave. The barracks consisted of tar paper over two-by-sixes and no insulation. Many families were assigned to one barracks and lived together with no privacy. Meals were taken communally in mess halls and required a long wait in line. A demonstration in Manzanar over the theft of food by personnel led to violence in which two died and many were injured. The attempt at screening for loyalty and registering inmates for military induction with the Army's questionnaire "Application for Leave Clearance," was conducted in a manner fraught with such confusion and distrust that violence broke out at both California camps.

Through the relocation program the Japanese Americans suffered greatly. They first endured the shock of realizing they were not being sent to resettlement communities, as many had been led to believe, but to prison. They lost their homes and businesses. Their educations and careers were interrupted and their possessions lost. Many lost sons who fought for the country that imprisoned their parents. They suffered the loss of faith in the government and the humiliation of being confined as traitors in their own country.

Many young Japanese American men fought for the United States while their families were imprisoned. The highly decorated, all-Japanese American 100th Battalion /442nd Regimental Combat Team that fought in Italy is one example of this irony. Other Japanese Americans served as translators as well as ordinary soldiers in the Pacific theater.

Throughout the course of World War II, not a single incident of espionage or treason was found to be committed by Japanese Americans. The difficulty of committing treason while incarcerated cannot alone explain this absence of wrongdoing; Japanese Americans living in Hawaii were spared relocation because of the logistical difficulty of transporting a third of the state's population to the mainland. With their numbers exceeding the entire Japanese population on the mainland, Japanese Americans in Hawaii proved an essential part of the state's labor force and defense.

On December 17, 1944, President Roosevelt announced the end of the exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, thus allowing the return home of the internees. Relocation after incarceration was difficult, especially since prejudice still ran high in the West Coast. Many Issei (first generation Japanese Americans) never regained their losses, living out their lives in poverty and poor health.

On July 31, 1980 to establish the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) to investigate the incarceration of Japanese Americans and legal resident aliens during World War II. The Commission concluded: "the promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it-detention, ending detention, and ending exclusion-were not driven by analysis of military conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."

In October 1983, in response to a petition for a writ of error coram nobis by Fred Korematsu, the Federal District Court of San Francisco reversed his 1942 conviction and rules that the internment was not justified.

On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law The Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provides for an apology and redress to the internees still living. Nearly half of those who had been imprisoned died before the bill was signed. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 also established The Civil Liberties Public Education Fund whose purpose is "to sponsor research and public educational activities and to publish and distribute the hearings, findings, and recommendations of the CWRIC so that the events surrounding the exclusion, forced removal and internment of civilians and permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry will be remembered, and so that the causes and circumstances of this and similar events may be illuminated and understood."