Early in the morning of December 7, 1941, bombs fell on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu. The next day, the United States entered World War II. However, the attack, launched by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service, had additional far-reaching repercussions other than prodding the formerly neutral United States into the fray—repercussions that were felt keenly by many Japanese American citizens.
In the days and weeks that followed, thousands of Japanese Americans were removed from their homes and incarcerated in concentration camps far from where they had previously lived, despite no reason to suspect them of treasonous activities and no evidence of wrongdoing. It has been considered one of the most egregious civil rights violations in modern American history, and one that is still widely misunderstood—and misrepresented—nearly a century later.
To better understand the events surrounding the forced incarceration of so many Japanese Americans, how it happened, and what the repercussions were, here are a few facts about the situation that you may not know…
It started with an executive order.
A little over two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized Executive Order 9066, which allowed for the designation of “military areas” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” The order didn’t specifically say anything about individuals of Japanese descent, but it was immediately put to use in expelling those with Japanese ancestry from their homes in places like Alaska, California, Oregon, and elsewhere.
Most of those incarcerated were U.S. citizens.
At the time, there were some 127,000 people of Japanese descent living in the continental United States, with an even greater number living in Hawaii, which was under martial law following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of those, more than 125,000 were forcibly relocated and incarcerated following the adoption of Executive Order 9066. The lion’s share of that 125,000 (around 80,000 individuals) was comprised of U.S. citizens—second- and third-generation immigrants who had been born in the United States.
It brought back the “one drop rule.”
Prominent in the American South during the early part of the 20th century, the so-called “one drop” rule was introduced to declare that anyone with any Black ancestry at all, no matter how distant, was considered Black in both legal and social settings. Similar rules were applied to Japanese Americans during World War II, with one of the architects of the program literally stating that anyone with “one drop of Japanese blood” qualified for forced relocation and incarceration. Anyone who was at least 1/16th Japanese was removed from their homes, including some 17,000 children under the age of 10.
The Census Bureau helped.
When looking at a situation like this, one question that arises is: how did the government track down all the people they were looking for? The answer, in this case, is partly through census data. The United States Census Bureau provided census data on Japanese Americans to aid in the incarceration efforts, a role that it denied for decades, and that was not fully acknowledged until the early 21st century.
Incarceration of Japanese Americans was widely popular among the public at the time.
In a poll conduct in March of 1942, up to 93% of the surveyed population supported the relocation and incarceration of non-U.S. citizens of Japanese descent, and 59% supported forced relocation even of U.S. citizens who were born in this country. The Roberts Commission Report, prepared at the request of the president himself, attempted to link Japanese Americans to espionage (despite little to no evidence to support such a connection), while individual interest groups supported relocation and incarceration for their own purposes, including white American farmers who wanted the removal of Japanese farmers in order to eliminate competition.
Public approval was fueled by deeply racist newspaper editorials and cartoons from the likes of Dr. Seuss.
“A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched,” opined one Los Angeles Times editorial, which argued that “a Japanese American […] grows up to be a Japanese, and not an American.” This was indicative of widespread racist attitudes and fearmongering in newspaper columns across the country, not to mention editorial cartoons, including some infamous ones by Theodore Seuss Geisel, better known as children’s book author and illustrator Dr. Seuss.
Victims were held in a variety of different concentration camps.
While the process of incarcerating Japanese Americans during World War II was a massive undertaking, it was executed via a patchwork of different approaches. Many of the displaced people were evicted from their homes and moved from the Pacific coast to regions nearer the interior of the continental United States. Today we think of all the locations they were sent to as a type of concentration camp, but at the time they were classified under a variety of different euphemistic names, which usually came down to whether the camp was being operated by military authorities, the Department of Justice, or the private sector.
People were driven to the camps with very little, and given even less.
When being relocated, individuals and families were given no more than six days to dispose of any and all belongings except what they could carry. The FBI raided many homes after the inhabitants had left, looking for signs of espionage or any other contraband. The camps themselves were located in remote areas and often consisted of converted structures originally meant to handle livestock. At the Santa Anita Assembly Center northeast of Los Angeles, for example, some 8,500 incarcerated individuals lived in converted stables, while at a camp near Lordsburg, New Mexico, prisoners were forced to march two miles to reach the camp itself. Food shortages were common.
Each camp was structured like a town, albeit one surrounded by barbed wire.
Japanese Americans were incarcerated in at least 75 different identified sites, with some slight variations among them. However, many of them were roughly self-sufficient “towns,” containing makeshift schools, barracks, a post office, and farmland—all surrounded by fences and barbed wire. Some of the incarcerated individuals were allowed to work, on the condition that they not receive greater pay than an army private, regardless of what kind of activity they performed. More than 1,000 incarcerated people were sent to other states to perform seasonal labor on farms, while others worked in on-site factories making camouflage nets and other items used in the war effort.
Reparations took years, and the repercussions are still felt today.
The last Japanese American incarceration camp closed in 1946, but Executive Order 9066 was not officially repealed until 1976. In 1988, Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which formally apologized for the incarceration of so many thousands of Japanese Americans and agreed to pay $20,000 to every surviving detainee who was still alive at the time, a sum totaling around $1.2 billion. Despite this, the repercussions of the incarceration of so many Americans are still being felt today, especially among the Japanese American community.