The Internment of Japanese Americans During WWII

The Internment of Japanese Americans During WWII

By Fanny Wong, Chinese American author, New York.

The United States is a nation of immigrants. Japanese immigrants started to arrive on the Hawaiian Islands in the 1860s to work in the sugarcane fields. Later, many moved to the West Coast of the U.S. mainland to work as farmers and fishermen. By 1911, over 400,000 Japanese men and women had immigrated to the U.S. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Japanese were portrayed as the enemy of the American worker, just as Chinese immigrants were decades before. The Japanese farmers were the envy of white farmers who did not use as many labor-intensive methods and were less productive.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. Navy ships were destroyed and many American servicemen died. On the West Coast, the government immediately began rounding up Japanese newspaper editors, community leaders and labor organizers. Their families were not told the reason or where the men were taken.  

The entire Japanese American population within 100 miles of the West Coast and Hawaii was considered dangerous, possibly spying for Japan. An 8 p.m. curfew and a five-mile travel limit were imposed on all persons of Japanese origin. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, sending the Japanese and Japanese Americans to ten hastily built internment camps in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.   

The Japanese were shocked beyond belief. Two-thirds of the 120,000 internees were American citizens, born in the U.S. They were forced to sell or abandon most of their possessions, houses, cars, boats and land. Their possessions, including precious farmland, were sold at a bargain to white farmers. They had only a few days to pack and could bring only what they could carry. 

The camps were located where the weather was very hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The barracks were shoddily built, covered with tarpaper on the outside. Only canvas cots, a light bulb and a potbelly stove for winter warmth were supplied. Each family had to build its own plain furniture such as a table, chairs and shelves. There was no insulation. Dust and wind blew in through the cracks of wood that had not aged properly and shrank. Four families in small rooms shared one barrack. Within each room, blankets and sheets could be hung to provide some privacy. 

There was no way to escape these prisons. Barbed wires surrounded the camps. Armed guards surveyed from watchtowers. Life was regimented.There were lines for meals, the shower, the toilets and the laundry in communal buildings.  

In the beginning years, the food was American, such as hot dogs, stew, potatoes, liver and cow tongue, which the Japanese were not used to. Later, they grew their vegetables and even made tofu, soy sauce and noodles. Rice was added to the menu. The government spent only thirty cents a day per person on food.  

The internees were put to work with very low wages, from $8 to $19 a month. The camps needed cooks, office and field workers, food servers and construction workers. But many were bored. To relieve boredom, the internees organized outdoor sports for adults and youngsters. Baseball was a favorite pastime for spectators as well. Primitive baseball fields were leveled, rocks and stones removed. There were a variety of other activities, including movies, talent shows and holiday celebrations. 

Grandma Okita’s Embroidery Class, Minidoka Concentration Camp. Photo: Courtesy of Japanese American Museum of Oregon, Portland, Oregon. Permission from JAMO required for further reproduction.

The internees were stoic about the experience, often repeating “Shikata ga nai” meaning you can’t change it. They tried to make their lives as pleasant as possible. They ordered fabric from catalogs to make curtains and tablecloths. Paper flowers decorated the rooms. They created tiny gardens in front of the barracks and even small ponds to make their bleak surroundings acceptable. They created handicrafts from dead trees, wood and material found around the camps. Painters, both professional and amateur, recorded the daily activities of the camp in their artwork. Art lifted the spirits of the internees. Their acts of beautifying their surroundings were something the government and the prison guards could not take away from them.  

Some 17,000 children under the age of ten were among the internees and more were born in the camps. Schools were organized for the children from kindergarten to high school. Used textbooks were sent from nearby schools. Most of the teachers were Japanese, although there were some white teachers who had better living quarters. 

In some households, family closeness was a casualty. Children witnessed their parents’ loss of control in their lives. The parents lamented that the children would rather eat with their friends at the mess halls. Teenagers became more rebellious as many of their peers did in the outside world. But in their abnormal lives, the strain was more severe.

Still, the internees were patriotic. They made camouflage nets, bandages for the war, donated money for the Red Cross, and collected metal for recycling.

Nisei Veterans of the 442nd RCT, Minidoka Concentration Camp. Photo: Courtesy of Japanese American Museum of Oregon, Portland, Oregon. Permission from JAMO required for further reproduction.

Beginning in February 1943, citizens of Japanese descent were permitted to enlist in the Army and Navy. Many young men joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) that was comprised of all Japanese American soldiers and fought valiantly in Europe. This regiment was the most decorated unit in the army. They operated in some of the most dangerous battles, and therefore, had the highest casualty rates (9,000 dead or wounded). They put their life in danger for the country even though their parents and relatives were in the internment camps. When the soldiers were wounded, when they were released after treatment, they would be sent right back to the internment camps. 

Towards the end of war, the government began releasing large numbers of the internees. The internment camps were empty by the end of 1945, and the last one closed in March 1946. Most Japanese Americans did not return to their hometowns because there was nothing to return to. Those that did return had a difficult time finding work and accommodations. A small number chose to go back to Japan. Each released person was given just $25 and a bus ticket to start their new life.

At the end of the war, no American Japanese were found to be spying for Japan. Later research proved that some American officials were guilty of falsifying reports that were used as the basis for the government’s internment decision.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a legislation apologizing for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government. In 1990, the first letters of apology signed by President George Bush were mailed. Surviving interned Americans and their heirs received $20,000 compensation for each individual. For many, the apology and the check came too late—they had lived a very difficult life, and many of them had already died. 

After the 9-11 attack by Muslim terrorists, fear mongering and Islamophobia depicted Muslim as dangerous to Americans just as the Japanese were demonized after the Pearl Harbor attack. The anti-Muslim sentiments being expressed in the country led the Japanese American community to publicly state that the horrible injustice done to them in WWII must not be repeated. It continues to raise its voice whenever an ethnic group is unjustifiably targeted. 

By Fanny Wong, Chinese American author, New York.

Editor’s Note: May is celebrated as the Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the country. 

Never Give Up is an award-winning documentary that teaches about the discrimination faced by the Japanese American community and the issues described in the above article. You can get details from the website:

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