Relocation camps: the internment of Japanese Americans – English version

                                                                                                                                                        Di Giorgia Lapertosa

The Japanese migration to the United States began towards the end of the nineteenth century, coinciding with the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), during which Japan became a modern country open to foreign trade. The first migration was mainly made up of laborers who moved to Hawaii where the large-scale plantation system required cheap labor, especially after the end of the slave trade.[1] After having worked for some years, some laborers, attracted by higher wages, decided to move to the United States. Other migrants came directly from Japan: they were mainly student laborers, young people who moved to America to study, but at the same time they worked to support themselves, especially as servants, or also, in smaller numbers, political refugees and people shying away from compulsory military service. The only female component of this first migration was made up of prostitutes, girls from very poor areas, sometimes sold by their own families, who worked in bars or brothels. The majority of migrants landed in San Francisco where the main Japanese American community was formed; others settled in other areas in California or in the West Coast, while nearly no one moved towards the East Coast. The main feature of the first Japanese migration was the certainty that the immigrants would only stay in America for a while to study or work and earn money, and then go back to Japan. This way of thinking started to change when many people settled in agriculture, switching from contract laborers to farmers by leasing or seldom buying land. Japanese associations also played a very important role in the process of settlement in the United States. These associations aimed at safeguarding the image of Japan and making the Japanese community acceptable and respectable, also fighting against prostitution and gambling. In order to do this, they encouraged immigrants to summon their wives who were still in Japan, or to get married. As women began to arrive, families were formed and an actual Japanese American community was born: this people tried with great difficulty to adapt to American society and to Western culture. Nevertheless, American citizenship was never granted to Japanese Americans, and therefore they were aliens ineligible to citizenship throughout their stay in the United States.

The story of relocation camps, where Japanese Americans were interned from 1942 to 1945, is very often put on the back burner when talking about the World War II, or is in general a little known issue. In order to understand how a country like the United States of America, which has always been supporting the principles of democracy and freedom, decided to intern a whole ethnic group, it is necessary to think about the historical background of the early 1900s, and in particular about California. The anti-Japanese movement was in many ways a natural follow-up to the racism against the Chinese, which, starting during the first half of the nineteenth century and developing in California, led to end the Chinese migration to the United States through the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1892. Therefore, the anti-Japanese movement started in this climate of intolerance against Asian immigrants (in spite of the efforts by the Japanese Americans in order to differentiate themselves from the Chinese, who were less integrated and more accustomed to gambling and prostitution, Americans couldn’t distinguish between the two ethnic groups). In particular, racism originated in trade unions and workers associations that accused the Japanese of taking jobs away from Americans, as well as being unable to integrate into society. Even though initially this way of thinking was limited to California, during the first years of the Twentieth century it spread across the country, also supported by the concurrent spread of theories about the existence of a superior race, by the concept of Americanism spreading after the First World War and understood as a denial of the varying, and especially by the fear of the rise of Japan as a world power and the country’s expansionist ambitions in the Pacific Ocean. To define this fear, the term “yellow peril” was created, indicating the danger of a possible invasion of the West Coast by Japan. Neither the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 that reduced Japanese migration, nor the Immigration Act of 1924 that ended Japanese migration to the United States appeased exclusionists, who continued their anti-Japanese campaigns.

It was the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7th December 1941 that led President Roosevelt to sign, in February 1942, the Executive Order 9066, which authorized the expulsion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast for security reasons, and their confinement into relocation camps. In particular, the order authorized the Secretary of War to take the measures that he considered appropriate to deal with the Japanese problem. This duty was assigned to General John L. DeWitt and his assistant Karl Bendetsen. The two decided to create the so-called Military Area No. 1 that covered California, Oregon and Washington: the Japanese Americans, both aliens and American citizens, had to be removed from these areas. Towards the end of March 1942, the first notices began to appear in California’s major cities, informing the Japanese that they would be moved to assembly centers by bus or train, where they would stay only momentarily before being moved to the relocation camps. The notices also told them what they could bring with them, typically two suitcases. Ten relocation camps were built, some of them on the West Coast, others in inner areas and two on the East Coast. The locations selected were state-owned lands, mainly desert or inhabited areas like abandoned American Indian Reservations or drained valleys. Altogether, these ten camps hosted about 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry. When they first arrived, prisoners were impressed by the barbed wire and the presence of armed guards. Camps were built hastily: the only facilities were rows of barracks that would become homes for prisoners, toilets (similar to latrines) and other barracks used as dining halls and laundry rooms, organized in blocks. The barracks were very small and had no furniture, except for military style cots. This led the internees, after an initial moment of despair, to work hard in order to change the environment in which they were confined. They used the lumber left by the workers who built the camps to make furniture (tables, chairs, shelves and privacy screens and booths to use in the toilets). As soon as the WRA (War Relocation Authority created to manage the camps) give them permission, they started to work in the camps, sometimes also getting a small pay. The majority of the internees were farmers and therefore they engaged in agriculture to supplement the poor meals provided by the WRA. Other internees planted trees that could give relief during the hot summer days, while others raised chickens and pigs. Besides improving the environment, these and other activities (like gardening) enabled the internees to break up the boredom and kill time. Infirmaries, schools, leisure activities and religious institutions were organized thereafter. As regards infirmaries, no special treatment was provided for old or sick people and, even though doctors and nurses were eventually hired, the number of staff and facilities was inadequate. The majority of the staff was recruited among the internees (very often among university students); there was a similar issue concerning schools: there were no blackboards, desks or writing tools. It was similarly difficult to find qualified teachers willing to reach the camps every day, and again, it was the internees that volunteered for the job. Many activities like music lessons, sports, or more traditional activities like judo, kendo, Japanese dance or kimono wearing lessons were organized after school. Religious groups had a fundamental role in relocation camps because they helped the internees to keep up their spirits, besides founding churches were religious services and funerals and wedding were celebrated. The main religious faiths were Buddhism, Catholicism and Protestantism, among which Buddhism was the most widespread. The Japanese Americans tried their best to create some semblance of normality inside the camps: they were not passive prisoners, and they worked hard in order to accept and improve the situation. However, there were also negative consequences: life behind barbed wire had a great impact on the structure of families and on children’s education. The lack of privacy and adequate spaces caused clashes between the first and the second generation; having a fixed time to do anything caused the concept of family and, in some cases even the role of parents to weaken. Obviously, the forced cohabitation of different types of persons in a confined space was also difficult. Even though anyone was of Japanese ancestry, the internees came from very different contexts: town or countryside, only Japanese or bilingualism, different religious faiths were all differences that caused trouble inside the camps. In short, the most widespread reaction was a positive one, tolerance and efforts in order to live peacefully together, but there were also negative responses and protests.

Starting from 1943, the WRA started to realize that the internment of Japanese Americans had been not only very expensive but also unnecessary because there was no evidence that the Japanese actually represented a threat to the US. Moreover, the WRA started to be concerned about the possible creation of a generation of frustrated Japanese Americans that could dislike the country or even fight back. This belief was also consolidated by the military success of the US and by the realization that Japan could not win the war. The WRA started then to think about how to reintegrate the internees. In order to do so, they distributed the so-called Statement of United States Citizen of Japanese Ancestry in the camps; it was a questionnaire consisting of an oath of allegiance to the US that the Japanese (only citizens and therefore the second generation) could use to enroll in the Army. Some Japanese were in fact working with the Army, especially as translators and interpreters, even though after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were forbidden to enlist in the army, and those already enrolled were discharged. Despite everything, the Japanese who wanted to fight for the US were numerous: about 1,200 Japanese Americans decided to leave the relocation camps in order to volunteer for the Army, while as for the Hawaiian Japanese, about 10,000 people volunteered, of which about 3,000 were chosen. The greater participation of the Hawaiian Japanese can be explained by the fact that they were never interned, also because they constituted a huge percentage of the overall population of Hawaii. The so-called 442nd Combat Team was then formed, which was a combat team formed entirely by Japanese that fought several battles also in Europe, and obtained great successes.

Questionnaires were later modified in order to be submitted to other prisoners and give them the possibility to leave the camps to study or work outside the military area. WRA wanted to distinguish between loyal and disloyal in order to speed the discharge process. There were two questions that were particularly problematic, number 27 and number 28: in brief, the internees were asked if they were willing to fight and swear allegiance to the United States, giving up on any form of cooperation with Japan. The majority answered yes to both questions, but there were also some people who, disappointed with the way America treated them, answered no to one or both questions; these people were called No-No Boys and considered disloyal. General DeWitt proposed to move all the traitors to one camp in order to deprive them of the American citizenship and repatriate them after the end of the war. The camp chosen to do this was Tule Lake in California, where the relocation began towards to end of 1943. In the meanwhile, in other camps too groups of rebels were formed: they aimed at “japanizing” other residents, even by force. Many Japanese Americans of second generation started to renounce their citizenship (many of them interned at Tule Lake), while some of the leaders of pro-Japan groups were caught and locked up by WRA’s guards. All these issues led the Department of War to think about shutting down the camps by the end of 1944, but President Roosevelt preferred to postpone the matter until the end of the election in order not to compromise his campaign.

When the war ended, in August 1945 the camps’ population had fallen to 90,000 people, while about 25,000 people had already left to work, continue their studies or fight in the Army. When the internees understood that the camps would be soon shut down, confusion and concern spread once again: many were worried about racisms that was still widespread in the West Coast, but the main problem was that all the internees had lost everything when they had been deported (their home, job and properties). Many Japanese, especially the elderlies, were profoundly affected by the experience and unable to start again, and therefore they tried to stay in the camps as long as possible. All the camps were eventually closed by the end of 1945, except from Tule Lake that was closed in 1946. That is how the internment of Japanese Americans ended: the families were not supported by the government, and so they had to deal with economic hardship, housing shortage and racism; only some religious groups accepted to help them.

Not only at first had no one talked about what happened to the Japanese Americans from 1942 to 1945, but also come evidence that suggested that the incarceration was mainly based on race and not on a real threat was concealed by the Department of War. President Roosevelt, who had always been neutral with regards to the issue, encouraged Japanese families to scatter around the country in order to facilitate the process of reintegration. Overtime, both the people involved and the public opinion started to gain consciousness about what happened: war veterans returning home helped the process, as well as the third Japanese generation asking parents and grandparents about what happened to them. Only in the 1980s, it was agreed, through a report called Personal Justice Denied, that Executive Order 9066 was not based on any military necessity and, in the same years, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which included a formal apology and a compensation of 20,000 dollars for the survivors of the camps. Finally, it is interesting to note that neither the Italians nor the Germans (except for some isolated cases of people declaring themselves pro-Hitler) were never deported or incarcerated. This strengthens the argument that the internment of Japanese Americans was entirely based on racism and on the belief that Japanese or, in general, Asian people were too different and therefore unable to integrate into American society, as opposed to European immigrants. Some of the Japanese Americans that were interned in relocation camps played a decisive role in fighting for civil rights, for example taking part in demonstrations against mass arrests of Muslim Americans after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

[1] 1833 in the United Kingdom, even though in some colonies (such as the United States) slavery continued to exist until the end of the century.

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