Japanese American Relocation and Internment Camps

Japanese American Relocation and Internment Camps

History Page Type: 
Japanese Relocation Notice

In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, many Americans felt fearful and suspicious of Japanese Americans, accusing them of espionage and even blaming them for Pearl Harbor. Especially on the West Coast, people displayed open hostility and vandalized property of Japanese Americans. The prejudice came to a head with Executive Order 9066, in which President Roosevelt ordered the "evacuation" of Japanese Americans to relocation and internment camps two months after Pearl Harbor.  

The process stripped many Japanese Americans of their homes and properties, sometimes even breaking up families as the men were taken away and classified as “potential enemy aliens.” It took nearly four decades and multiple petitions before the U.S. government formally apologized in 1988.


Executive Order 9066

According to the 1940 census, Americans of Japanese ancestry totaled about 127,000. In 1941, President Roosevelt charged newspaper columnist and friend John Franklin Carter with investigating Japanese American communities. Carter sent Chicago businessman Curtis Munson to the West Coast to meet with intelligence officers, FBI agents, and Japanese Americans, and sent an agent Warren to the Southeast and Mexico borderlands. In November 1941, Munson sent Carter a report that concluded, “There will be no wholehearted response from the Japanese in the United States” to support the Japanese war effort and emphasized instead the loyalty of Japanese Americans to America. Carter then forwarded the Munson Report to the President with a one-page memorandum that included the following quotation from the Report: “For the most part the local Japanese are loyal to the United States or, at worst, hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concentration camps or irresponsible mobs.” The full Munson Report can be found here.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the increasing anti-Japanese sentiment in America, the President’s Cabinet discussed a removal policy regarding the Japanese American population. Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Secretary of Navy Frank Knox favored a policy of removal out of military necessity, while Attorney General Francis Biddle argued against it, citing individuals’ constitutional rights.

President Roosevelt ultimately sided with Secretary Stimson and Secretary Knox and issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The order resulted in the creation of "relocation" and internment camps for 120,000 Japanese Americans.  

The Order was entitled “Authorizing the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas” and began with the words, “Whereas the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage.” Military Area 1 included the Western half of California, Oregon, Washington, and the southern half of Arizona. At this time, eighty percent of Japanese Americans lived in California.

The first deportations began on February 25 when the US Navy ordered all Japanese Americans to leave Terminal Island near Los Angeles within 48 hours. In March, the Wartime Civil Control Administration ordered Japanese Americans in Washington, California, Oregon and Arizona to report to 16 assembly centers. They were told to only bring what they could carry in their hands, which was usually one suitcase. The largest of these temporary detention centers held 18,000 residents and was located at the Santa Anita Race Track in Los Angeles, California, where internees were moved into horse stalls.

Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Ansel Adams Collection

At these assembly centers, Japanese Americans were processed by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), which had been established for this express purpose. In May 1942, the WRA completed building ten relocation camps in California, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas and began transfer of Japanese Americans from the assembly centers.

Even though the U.S. government termed the camps "relocation camps"  or "relocation centers," the newly built camps had military barracks, barbed wire, and guard towers and searchlights. As historians Everett Rogers and Nancy Barlit observe, "This terminology implied that the Japanese Americans were simply being relocated from the West Coast to other parts of the country. This euphemistic label, however, would not call for barbed wire, armed guards, and searchlights. The guns pointed inside" (Rogers and Bartlit 155).

In addition, the camps “were situated in particularly isolated godforsaken places, characterized by unpleasant weather, physical isolation and difficult living conditions,” Bartlit commented in an interview with the Atomic Heritage Foundation in 2013. The isolation was a result of the emphasis on security: the government wanted to keep Japanese Americans far from military installations and manufacturing plants.

Distinct from the relocation camps, seven thousand Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps, run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, instead of the WRA. These Japanese Americans were interned as “enemy aliens” and had been deemed potentially dangerous by the FBI and naval intelligence. “Most of them were teachers, newspaper editors, or leaders of a Japanese religious or cultural organization,” said Bartlit.

At four main internment camps, these individuals awaited hearings. If they were deemed dangerous, they were sent to an Army POW camp; if not, they were reunited with their family at a WRA relocation camp.

The Japanese Americans in the internment camps had more legal rights than those in the relocation camps. In the WRA relocation camps, they were only subject to Executive Order 9066. In the internment camp, the Geneva Convention guaranteed the rights of “enemy Japanese aliens” as POWs.

In the relocation camps, Japanese Americans adhered to strict rules and curfews. The relocation camps did offer education programs and some employment opportunities, and Japanese Americans also organized to create Japanese language classes and other programming to maintain their culture. Famously, in Tule Lake Camp, a strong self-identification with the Japanese culture led to a creation of a pro-Japan group that later rioted and had its leaders sent to Santa Fe internment camps. Ironically, this contradicted the spirit of keeping Japanese Americans away from military installments.

“Why they were brought as “dangerous enemy aliens” away from the coast as potential spies and brought to the CCC Camp, to the gateway to the biggest secret of all of World War II is kind of a puzzle,” said Bartlit. “It was in the [Santa Fe] city limits. It was not very far from where Dorothy McKibbin had her office at 109 E. Palace Avenue.” More information on the Santa Fe Camp can be found here

The War Relocation Authority also commissioned photographers to document life at camps. In 1942, WRA photographer Dorothea Lange took photos of Manzanar of the barracks being constructed and the uncertain early days of internment. In 1943, photographer Ansel Adams undertook his own project to document life at Manzanar, taking mostly portrait photos of internees. A third photographer of Manzanar was internee and photographer Toyo Miyatake. He began taking secret photos with a makeshift camera, and when he was caught, the camp director allowed him to take photographs openly. 

More on Manzanar camp photography can be read here. Oral histories on Japanese Americans' experiences in the camps can be read here and here and here.


After the War

Following the end of the war, the Japanese Americans were released and many returned home to find their goods stolen and properties sold. At this time, forty-three thousand Japanese Americans left the West Coast to pursue lives elsewhere in America.

In the 1970s, Asian American political figures such as Senators Daniel K. Inouye and Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii and Congressmen Norman Y. Mineta of San Jose and Robert T. Matsui of Sacramento led a process of seeking restitution for these camps. Senator Inouye had served in the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team and had been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest US military honor, for his service. Congressmen Mineta and Matsui both had grown up in relocation camps of Heart Mountain and Tule Lake, respectively.

Personal Justice DeniedIn 1981, a federal commission was appointed to investigate Executive Order 9066 and the military’s involvement in relocation and detention of Americans and recommend appropriate remedies. Their findings were published in 1982 in a report entitled Personal Justice Denied. The report stated, “Broad historical causes which shaped decisions were race, prejudice, war hysteria, and failure of political leadership. Widespread ignorance of Japanese Americans contributed to a policy conceived in haste and executed in an atmosphere of fear and anger at Japan.”

More importantly, they wrote, “Not a single documented act of espionage, sabotage, or 5th column activity was committed by an American citizen of Japanese ancestry or by a resident Japanese alien on the West Coast.”

In 1988, the U.S. Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act. The surviving 82,219 Japanese Americans who had been interned were each sent a formal apology letter from the President and awarded $20,000 each. The first payments were made in October 1990 to the oldest Japanese Americans, and payments were paid out until 1999.

On June 29, 2001, a memorial to Japanese American Patriotism in World War II was constructed in Washington DC after efforts from Congressman Mineta and Congressmen Matsui. The memorial depicts two cranes, one whose wings are tied with barbed wire.

Out of the ten relocation camps, Manzanar, Minidoka, and Tule Lake are National Historic Sites. Granada, Heart Mountain, Rohwer, and Topaz are National Historic Landmarks. Gila River and Poston have been returned the control of the local Native American communities. Jerome is mostly private farmlands. Memorials, monuments, and museums have been constructed at various camps and efforts continue for preservation and education. 

Many Japanese Americans shared stories about their experiences in the camps after the war through publishing books, songs, and documentaries. In 2012, Japanese American actor George Takei, who was interned during the war at Tule Lake, starred in a Broadway musical about life in the internment camps.


Critical Responses

Controversy remains today regarding the internment of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066.

“$20,000 did not even cover what they had lost in terms of careers. Their property was often lost, stolen, not protected,” said Bartlit. “Twenty thousand—and it was only given to the people who were still alive who had been in the camp, not their heirs.”

Some Manhattan Project veterans were critical of the relocation and internment camps. “We have a blot on our history in this country as a democracy that we will never outlive,” commented Jacob Beser, the only person to be aboard both strike planes on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

 “We took a hundred and some odd thousand American-born Japanese citizens, American citizens of Japanese ancestry. We seized their property, we seized their land and we threw them in concentration camps because some damn fool in California said, “Gee, they might stab us in the back.””

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