The Shameful History of WWII Japanese American Internment

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Image: Toyo Miyatake

It’s a powerful image: three young boys standing behind a barbed wire fence. Behind them the terrain looks harsh and barren. Out of context, one might assume it’s from some war-torn region where human rights may not be a high priority. In fact, these boys are Americans. More precisely, they’re Americans of Japanese heritage who were incarcerated during WWII for the crime of having ancestors from a country that was at war with the USA.


Image: US War Relocation Authority

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, it wasn’t just the thousands injured or killed in the attack that suffered. Americans of Japanese descent living in the United States at the time were also affected as a consequence of the attack.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which effectively allowed the removal of all people of Japanese ancestry (many of them born in America) living along the so-called “military areas” of the Pacific Coast – including California, parts of Arizona, Oregon and Washington – for perceived security reasons.

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Image: US War Relocation Authority

What this meant, in practice, is that between 110,000 and 120,000 Japanese Americans were removed from their homes and placed first into ‘assembly centers’, and then ‘relocation centers’ (or internment camps as they are now more commonly called) where they would spend the duration of WWII.

These images show some of those internees and the conditions they were forced to endure. Although some of the photographed detainees are seen smiling, we can’t assume that this is due to any level of comfort with their situation – which, as we shall see, was fraught with discomfort and difficulties.

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