The Shameful History of WWII Japanese American Internment

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • The Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, California was temporarily converted into the ‘reception center’ for evacuated Japanese Americans, pictured above. “I’ll never forget that day, nor the tears streaming down my mother’s face as we were forcibly removed, herded off like animals, to a nearby race track,” recalls Star Trek actor George Takei, whose family spent time at this camp.

    “There, for weeks, we would live in a filthy horse stable while our ‘permanent’ relocation camp was being constructed thousands of miles away in Arkansas, in a place called Rohwer.” Unfortunately, the terrible experiences of the Takei family were not unusual.

  • This train in Pasadena was waiting to take Japanese Americans to their internment camp in the Mohave Desert. Military authorities supervised the relocation, making sure everything went smoothly and everyone complied with the evacuation order.

    “Since yesterday we Pasadena Japanese have ceased to be human beings – we are now simply numbers or things,” Hatsuye Egami wrote in her diary. “We are no longer ‘Egamis’ but the number 23324. A tag with that number is on every suitcase and bag. Even on our breasts are tied large tags with this same number – 23324! Again, a sad and tragic feeling grips my heart!”

  • Here, a lady can be seen waving from a train to her friends who were behind barbed wire at the Santa Anita Assembly Center. These centers, often located at racetracks, were created to house Japanese American evacuees while more permanent housing was still being constructed in isolated inland areas. The lady on the train and her fellow passengers were on their way to one of these permanent camps.

  • In this photograph, families huddle together with their few belongings to wait for buses to the Manzanar internment camp.

    “We had one week to get ready,” Morgan Yamanaka remembers. “And what we could carry would include: bedding, eating utensils, and clothing. Questions arose: Where are we going? We don’t know, we’re not gonna tell you. How long are we going? We don’t know, we’ won’t tell you.”

  • Japanese Americans can be seen here alighting at the Santa Anita Assembly Center to await transportation to the more permanent camps. Although they were escorted and organized by the military, almost all went along compliantly. Before the evacuation began, Japanese American religious and political leaders had already been rounded up and sent to interments without being allowed to inform their families of where they were going.

  • This photograph shows the interior of one of the barracks-style accommodations at the Salinas Assembly Center in California. Built over a fairground, the center held around 3,600 evacuees at any one time. Forcibly removed from their homes, whole families were housed together in the kind of crude conditions visible in this picture.

  • Internment camps, like this one at Minidoka in Idaho, were constructed in remote areas. Surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by border guards, the camps were designed to be self-sufficient, with hospitals and schools on their premises, so that none of the internees need ever leave. Here in Minidoka, however, some inhabitants were allowed out for ‘agricultural leave’ to work on the surrounding sugar beet fields. Conditions within the camp itself were shocking, and internees suffered outbreaks of both dysentery and typhoid.

  • Although they had, in a sense, been betrayed by their own country, Boy Scout and League of America internees can be seen here celebrating Memorial Day. Japanese Americans have a long history of participating in the US military, up to and including WWII. Sadao Munemori, a Japanese American, received a posthumous Medal of Honor in 1945 for service “above and beyond the call of duty.” It is the highest honor that can be conferred on a soldier. Ironically, the news of Munemori’s death had to be delivered to his mother at the Manzanar camp, where she was being held.

  • “I am an American,” reads the signboard on this store, placed there by its Japanese American owner the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The declaration, sadly, did him little good. After the evacuation order was given, the store was closed and the owner – along with thousands of others – was rounded up and sent to an internment camp. Many of the people sent to the camps were forced to make hurried sales of their homes and businesses, incurring great economic losses.

  • In 1943, internment camp residents over the age of 17 were required to make oaths of loyalty to the United States. “It had asked whether they would serve in the US army and go wherever ordered,” says George Takei; “and whether they would swear allegiance to the US government and ‘forswear’ loyalty to the Japanese emperor – as if any had ever sworn such loyalty in the first instance.”

    “I still remember the irony of holding my hand to my heart and pledging allegiance to the US flag in the tar-paper barrack schoolroom, even as armed guards watched over us and barbed wire kept us locked inside that prison, without charge, trial or due process,” Takei recalls.

  • Newspapers in California announced the evacuation of all people of Japanese ancestry in California. It was a popular move for some, as anti-Japanese sentiment over Pearl Harbor and the ongoing war in the Pacific was high at the time.

    A piece in the Los Angeles Times endorsed this view: “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched… So, a Japanese American born of Japanese parents, nurtured upon Japanese traditions, living in a transplanted Japanese atmosphere… notwithstanding his nominal brand of accidental citizenship almost inevitably and with the rarest exceptions grows up to be a Japanese, and not an American…. Thus, while it might cause injustice to a few to treat them all as potential enemies, I cannot escape the conclusion… that such treatment… should be accorded to each and all of them while we are at war with their race.”

  • Internment camps and assembly centers, such as Santa Anita, vaccinated new arrivals against smallpox and typhoid fever. But many internees still suffered health problems as a result of their incarceration. Some even died from a lack of medical care.

    “At Gila, there were 7,700 people crowded into space designed for 5,000,” reads one report. “They were housed in mess halls, recreation halls, and even latrines. As many as 25 persons lived in a space intended for four.” Add that to the freezing winters and sweltering summers of the desert regions where some of these camps were located, and it’s no wonder the health of the detainees deteriorated.

  • Over half of the internees in the relocation camps, such as this one at Heart Mountain, were children. “I remember the soldiers marching us to the Army tank and I looked at their rifles and I was just terrified because I could see this long knife at the end,” one child internee remembers. “I thought I was imagining it as an adult much later… I thought it couldn’t have been bayonets because we were just little kids.”

  • Even before Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment was apparent in farming regions – and many white farmers were pleased to see their competitors removed to the internment camps. Once the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred, anti-Japanese feelings swelled.

    “I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior,” wrote Columnist Henry McLemore. “I don’t mean a nice part of the interior either. Herd ‘em up, pack ‘em off and give ‘em the inside room in the badlands… Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.”

  • In this picture, an elderly farm worker sits waiting to register for evacuation. His name was Toshi Mizoguchi, and by this point he had lived in America for 50 years. On his jacket he wears a small American flag button.

    Because of the incarceration, many Japanese Americans either lost their farms or (as in the case of many older, non-land owning immigrants) their rights to farm the land of others. No exceptions were made for the age of evacuees – whether young or old.

  • This photograph was taken during the rainy season at the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas. Bad weather was only one of the conditions internees had to put up with, whether it was the heat and dust of the desert or the freezing cold of mountain winters. Jerome itself was built in the middle of a swampland and, not surprisingly, the wet, muddy conditions allowed diseases like malaria to spread.

    Jerome also has the dubious distinction of being the only site where internees were attacked by local civilians. In one incident, a farmer shot two internees working in the woods. He claimed that he thought they were trying to escape. In another, a Japanese American soldier was shot while visiting relatives in Jerome. A contractor’s guard also shot and injured three interned boys who had thrown rocks at him.

  • Here we can see the construction of an internment camp on land belonging to the Colorado River Indian Reservation. The Tribal Council itself was against the camp, not wanting any part of a plan that would recreate indignities that had been endured by their tribe. However, they were overruled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

    For the most part, the barracks were hastily constructed and based on basic military designs, giving little thought to the privacy or comfort of families who lived there. According to the War Relocation Authority, these were “tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind.”

  • This is one of a series of photographs taken by Dorothea Lange at the Raphael Weill School in San Francisco. Soon afterward, these Japanese American children were taken away for internment.

    “These photographs document an innocent warmth, friendship, and patriotism,” says San Francisco’s Museum of the City curator Gladys Hansen; “set against great world events sweeping around these children, and the exile of the Japanese from San Francisco that would be complete one month after Lange visited the school.” Hansen adds: “The neutrality of the lens allows her to clearly show contempt for placing children in internment camps as enemies of the American people.”

  • Evacuees and their few possessions are seen here boarding a train for the Manzanar Internment Camp. “Crowded into cars like cattle, these hapless people were hurried away to hastily constructed and thoroughly inadequate concentration camps,” observed Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior. “We gave the fancy name of ‘relocation centers’ to these dust bowls, but they were concentration camps nonetheless.”

  • Looking down the wide avenue between these rows of barracks, we see the land formation this camp was named after in the background: Heart Mountain. From photographs like this, we can get an idea of just how isolated and remote these internment camps must have been. We can only imagine how unnerving it was for former city inhabitants to live behind guarded fences so far from the environments to which they had grown accustomed. The sentries were not just there as deterrents either – there were incidents where internees trying to leave the camp were shot and killed by their guards.

  • Children, infants, the elderly, veterans of WWI, the mentally disabled, and orphans – none were spared the evacuations of 1942. Even Japanese children who had been adopted by white American families were seized and relocated to the camps. Once there, internees often had to live in conditions with only the thinnest concessions to privacy – in this case hanging sheets. The strain on families must have been enormous.

    The effects of this forced evacuation and incarceration did not end when the last camp was closed in 1946. According to researcher Gwendolyn M. Jensen, “Long-term health consequences included psychological anguish as well as increased cardiovascular disease… Traumatic stress was buffered by culturally constructed coping mechanisms that were less inculcated in the youngest detainees. They reported more post-traumatic stress symptoms of unexpected and disturbing flashback experiences than those who were older at the time of incarceration.”

  • In 1988 the US government, then led by Ronald Reagan, made a legislated apology for the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Reparations were made to former internees and their heirs of $1.6 billion dollars ($20,000 per internee), for an action the government admitted was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16

Yohani Kamarudin
Yohani Kamarudin
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History
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