This Day, 75 Years Ago: When America Forced 120,000 Japanese-Americans Into Concentration Camps
“One of the most hauntingly pressing issues facing Japanese-Americans today is their concentration camp experience during World War II. Yet, the major group of survivors generally do not confront the implications of it within themselves or with their own children. In many respects [they] have been permanently altered in their attitudes, both positively and negatively, in regard to their identification with the values of their bicultural heritage; or they remain confused or even injured by the traumatic experience.”
– “Identity Crisis of the Sansei and the Concentration Camp”, Nobu Miyoshi.
In the Second World War, the United States was at war with Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy. During the course of the War, the United States interned Japanese-Americans, German-Americans, and Italian-Americans.
The treatment of Americans of German and Italian descent included vetting by government officials and detention of a few suspects.
With Americans of Japanese descent, however, the treatment was entirely different. Around 120,000 Japanese-Americans were held in 10 American concentration camps between 1942 and 1946. This was over fears that Japanese-Americans were enemy sympathisers, and fear that such sympathisers would turn spies and traitors in favour of Imperial Japan.
These camps were harsh and inhuman; following the end of the war, the Japanese-American families returned to find their properties seized and were forced to start anew.
While the American concentration camps were nowhere nearly as brutal as Nazi concentration camps (which included death camps), the internment of Japanese-Americans by the American government remains one of the darkest pages in American history.
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The Second World War
The Second World War was the bloodiest conflict in world history.
It involved several theatres around the world. The two main ones were the Western European and the Asia-Pacific theatres.
In Western Europe, the Second World War was precipitated by the expansionist ventures of Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler. Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 led to the outbreak of war between Nazi Germany and the Allies – who, at the time, were led by France and the UK.
In the Asia-Pacific, similar expansionist overtures by Japan led to war in 1937 itself. The Japanese had already established a foothold in Manchuria (in northeastern China) and were marching swiftly – and bloodily – across China and the island-states of the Pacific.
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The attack on Pearl Harbour
There were many turning points in the War – the Battle of Stalingrad, the Normandy Invasion, Operation Barbarossa, the Battle of Midway to name a few.
The turning point important to the subject of this article was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.
On 7 December 1941, the Japanese Navy Air Service launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, which lies in Hawaii, a part of the United States. The attack led to the entry of the United States into the Second World War.
Three months later, the internment camps opened.
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Roundups of Japanese-Americans begin
“We saw all these people behind the fence, looking out, hanging onto the wire, and looking out because they were anxious to know who was coming in. But I will never forget the shocking feeling that human beings were behind this fence like animals [crying]. And we were going to also lose our freedom and walk inside of that gate and find ourselves…cooped up there…when the gates were shut, we knew that we had lost something that was very precious; that we were no longer free.” – Mary Tsukamoto.
Within two days of the attack on Pearl Harbour, roundups of Japanese-Americans began. The announced purpose was to protect the West Coast.
In January 1942, a naval intelligence officer in Los Angeles reported that Japanese-Americans were being perceived as a threat almost entirely “because of the physical characteristics of the people … less than 3% of them might be inclined toward sabotage or spying … and the Navy and the FBI already knows who most of those individuals [are].”
The government’s response, however, was along the lines of the comment by John DeWitt, the Army general in command of the coast: “A Jap’s a Jap. They are a dangerous element, whether loyal or not.”
US President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 gave way to the internment of Japanese-Americans. What followed was the full-scale, systematic relocation of all Americans of Japanese ancestry to concentration camps built in the United States.
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It made no difference that many had never even been to Japan
“… the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material … therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War and the Military Commanders … to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.” – US Presidential Executive Order 9066 order clearing the way for the internment of Japanese Americans, German Americans, and Italian-Americans to internment camps in the United States.
Evacuation orders and instructions on how to follow the same were posted in areas with many Japanese-Americans. “Many families sold their homes, their stores, and most of their assets. They could not be certain their homes and livelihoods would still be there upon their return. Because of the mad rush to sell, properties and inventories were often sold at a fraction of their true value.”
Almost two-thirds of those interned were Japanese-Americans born in the United States. Even Japanese-American veterans of the First World War were forced to leave their homes.
It made absolutely no difference that many had never even been to Japan.
Life in the concentration camps
“Survey information found former internees had a 2.1 greater risk of cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular mortality, and premature death than did a non-interned counterpart. California Nisei-age individuals, the proxy for internment, died 1.6 years earlier than Hawaiians who represented non-interned status. I concluded traumatic stress has life-long consequences even in the presence of efficacious coping strategies.” – “The Experience of Injustice: Health Consequences of the Japanese American Internment”, Gwendolyn Jensen.
At first, the Japanese Americans went to temporary relocation centers which were racetracks, fairgrounds, and open areas surrounded by barbed wire.
- Ten camps were finally completed in remote areas of seven states.
- They were located in isolated areas that no one else wanted to live in such as deserts or swamps.
- One mess hall or food court held about 200 to 300 Japanese-Americans.
- Food shortages were common
- Families slept in barracks that were six one-room apartments.
- Each family only got one apartment.
- The mattresses were made of hay.
- There were no closets, cupboards, or really any furniture.
- The roof was usually made of tar.
- Some barracks had cracks so dust could get in and suffocate someone.
- They didn’t have plumbing in the barracks. They had to walk to a separate building to shower, go to the restroom, and wash their clothes.
- Search lights swept the grounds; they were guarded by eight towers with machine guns.
- If you would try to escape you would be killed if caught.
- Twice a day all the internees were counted and sometimes searches were done to make sure they didn’t have things like cameras and radios.
- Adults had the option of working for a salary of $5 per day.
- The food was mass produced army-style grub.
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Legal interpretation and aftermath
In Korematsu vs. the United States, the Supreme Court of the US justified the executive order, deeming it as constitutional and a wartime necessity.
After the tides of the War turned in favour of the Allies and when the order was repealed, many of the formerly interned Japanese-Americans had to start life all over again as their property had been seized. Furthermore, hostility against Japanese-Americans remained high for many years after the war.
In 1988, the US Congress awarded each surviving intern $20,000.
President Jimmy Carter opened an investigation into the internment and whether it was justified or not. The investigation’s report was released in 1983. It was titled “Personal Justice Denied”. It concluded that the internment had been the product of racism and xenophobia rather than factual military necessity. The report also recommended monetary reparations for the survivors.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act; this marked the official apology from the US government for the camps and authorised the payment of $20,000 to each individual camp survivor. The US government admitted that its actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
Eventually, the government disbursed more than $1.6 billion in reparations to 82,219 interned Japanese-Americans and their heirs.
“Recognizing the great injustice that took place, they carry with them the legacy of their parents’ internment. Time has not severed the psychological ties to events that preceded them, nor has the fact that their parents will not openly discuss the internment. On the contrary, the vast majority of Sansei (third generation) feel that the incarceration has affected their lives in significant ways.” – “Legacy of Injustice: Exploring the Cross-Generational Impact of the Japanese American Internment“, Donna K. Nagata.
Every nation has ghosts in its past. The Germans have the Nazis, the Japanese have their massacres in mainland China, the British have their colonial exploits around the world, the Turks have the Armenian Genocide, the Belgians have their crimes in Rwanda and the Congo.
In the face of such atrocities, a country can do one of two things. It can either face them and acknowledge their happening with sorrow and make amends, like Germany has attempted for decades. Or it can ignore them outright, like Turkey has done with the Armenian Genocide.
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The curious case of the United States of America.
One country whose response to the ghosts of its past has been ambiguous is the United States of America. The American nation expanded in the 18th and 19th century by the wholesale massacre of Native Americans; it was a slave state until 1865, and subdued the civil rights of its racial minorities for at least a century after that; its military interventions around the world in the past few decades have been criticised as brutal, bloody, unsuccessful, and possibly illegal under international law.
There is no dearth of crime in America’s past. Its response to this, however, has been ambiguous to say the least.
America has not outright denied its involvement in, say, the massacre of Native Americans or slavery. Indeed, it has tried to make amends – monetary and moral. The case is similar when it comes to its military interventions – like Vietnam, Korea, Western Europe, Latin America. America has provided many of these countries with financial aid that has been crucial to its post-conflict rebuilding.
However, American reparations have been deemed as insufficient in many cases.
A part of the problem lies in the fact that it is understandably impossible to measure human suffering in terms of money or political apologies. Another part of the problem lies in the fact that America continues to make the same mistakes it vocally says it has learnt from.
Yes, the US government made reparations to Japanese-Americans. Yes, US financial aid helped Western Europe rebuild itself after the Second World War. Yes, US influence is crucial to help Japan and South Korea against an expansionist China in the South China Sea.
However, at the same time, it is important to recognise that the US continues to commit similar mistakes. It did not learn from its disastrous intervention in Iraq and continued the same tactics in Libya and Yemen. It did not learn from the Iran-Contra Affair and the consequences of funding violent non-state actors like it did with the Taliban in Afghanistan – it did the same with the Free Syrian Army.
At the same time is the glaring hypocrisy in US foreign policy. The United States has repeatedly declared that it is committed to democracy and civil liberties. And, if one reads the US constitution and many of the arguments by US judges, this statement is very much vindicated.
However, to see examples of its violations, one only needs to study US foreign policy – especially in the years after the Korean War. The United States has rigged elections and installed puppet governments or dictators in many countries around the world – from Italy, Indonesia, South Vietnam, and Afghanistan to Guatemala, Indonesia and Chile. The loopholes of US foreign policy have been repeatedly exposed and shunned by intellectuals and the public for decades – and yet the US refuses to make amends. And in cases where it has, it has been overtly insufficient.
The United States has a history of committing the same mistakes over and over again. And the biggest victims of this travesty are not Americans: they are everybody else.