At least 122,000 Japanese Americans were internment camps after Pearl Harbor. More than 80 years later, his legacy lives on.

  • After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, more than 122,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly sent to internment camps.
  • The move came amid fears about national security, but also about economic competition and racism.
  • The internment of Japanese Americans is a historic reminder of how immigrants are treated in the midst of political conflict, experts say.

In an address to Congress, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, “a date that will live in infamy.” The bombing thrust the United States squarely into World War II, but it also stoked existing xenophobia and racialized fear about national security.

The reaction to Pearl Harbor was immediate. The same day, a few hours after the attack, the FBI rounded nearly 1,300 Japanese American religious and community leaders, arresting them without evidence and freezing their assets. More than 850 Germans and 150 Italians were also arrested.

Two months later, on February 19, 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized military commanders to designate military areas along the West Coast and remove civilians from these areas “at their discretion.” A few weeks later, Congress passed a law that gave force to the order, making violations punishable by imprisonment and a $5,000 fine.

Although Executive Order 9066 did not specify any ethnic groups, military commanders such as Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt issued a proclamation specifically requiring Japanese Americans to evacuate their homes.

“A Japanese is a Japanese, it doesn’t matter if he’s a US citizen or not,” DeWitt supposedly said.

Throughout the war, at least 122,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly confined to isolated, fenced, and guarded “assembly centers” and “relocation centers,” also known as “internment camps.” More than half of the evacuees were legal US citizens, and oscillated between a 92-year-old woman and a baby born a few months before the last camp closed three years later in 1945.

Japanese heads of households and people living alone line up outside the Civilian Control Station located at the League of Japanese American Citizens Auditorium at 2031 Bush Street, to appear before "processing" in response to Civil Exclusion Order Number 20.

Japanese Americans line up in front of a civilian checkpoint station for “processing” in response to the Civilian Exclusion Order, April 25, 1942.

Dorothea Lange/War Relocation Authority Records

A history of discrimination

Many non-military Americans supported the forced relocation and internment of Japanese Americans because of economic competition, mistrust of the “other,” and long-standing anti-Asian racism, according to the scholars.

“Discrimination against Asian Americans had been common in the US since the 19th century. Americans blamed Asians for taking their jobs and were generally xenophobic against the perceived negative cultural and economic influences of the ‘ yellow peril,'” Nancy Qian, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, told Insider.

Following the end of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was later expanded to prohibit immigration from most Asian countries, thousands of Japanese immigrants settled in the United States. They found success in farming and other small businesses in Hawaii and other West Coast states, success that some white farmers and business owners saw as threats.

In 1913, the California State Assembly passed a law restricting land ownership to only those eligible to be citizens. And, in 1922, the Supreme Court upheld the government’s right to deny US citizenship to Japanese immigrants.

“They accuse us of wanting to get rid of the Japanese for selfish reasons. We do. It’s about whether the white man lives on the Pacific coast or the brown men,” Austin E. Anson, general secretary of a farm association. , saying the Saturday Evening Post in 1942. “If all the Japs were wiped out tomorrow, we’d never miss them in two weeks because white farmers can take over and produce everything the Japs grow. And we don’t want them back when the war is over.” , either.”

Bad life conditions

The Japanese Americans were temporarily housed in assembly centers before being transported to internment camps. The gathering places used to be old fairgrounds or racetracks with livestock buildings, hastily converted into homes for families of up to six people. according to boarding school oral histories.

The internment camps were no better. Four or five families shared tarred-paper, military-style barracks, surrounded by soup kitchens, schools, and work facilities. The camps were surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers. The prisoners were Shooting for walking too close to the fence.

some japanese americans rowdy against the poor living conditions they were subjected to, including insufficient rations, poor sanitation and overcrowding. But the nascent attempts at an uprising were quickly put down by US Army guards.

High school students in a Japanese internment camp

High school students at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Wyoming, June 1943.

War Relocation Authority Records

Decades until repairs

The internment camps ended in 1945 after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the military “had no authority to subdue citizens who are known to be loyal” to the United States.

However, the Supreme Court had held in a separate case that same year the mandatory exclusion of citizens in times of war was justified to reduce the risk of espionage. The scholars have condemned the ruling widely criticized as “a hateful and discredited artifact of popular fanaticism”, and how “a stain on American jurisprudence”.

In 1988, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988which offered $20,000 checks to camp survivors and issued a formal apology for the “grave injustice” that “was done to both citizens and foreign permanent residents of Japanese descent by the evacuation, relocation and internment of civilians during the Second World War”.

The law also recognized that the actions “were carried out without adequate security reasons and without any act of espionage or sabotage, and were largely motivated by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and lack of political leadership.”

A lingering legacy

The last camp closed in May 1945, but the implications of the forced evacuation and incarceration of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor linger in the political theater today.

“The internment of Japanese Americans is a stain on the collective memory of all Asian Americans. It calls into question how they will be treated by the United States in the event of an international conflict between the country of their ancestors and the United States Qian said. , citing the backlash Chinese Americans faced amid the Trump-China trade war and the Covid-19 pandemic.

“One interpretation is that the perceived backlash is actually a combination of isolated incidents and political rhetoric, and that the majority of Asian Americans are safe and will be treated fairly,” Qian continued. “But this optimistic view is undermined by memories of the Japanese American experience during World War II.”

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