Since World War II it has become increasingly obvious that the treatment of the people of Japanese ancestry during World War II was a tragic mistake. The motivation and impact of the internment denied every value present within democracy. When over 120,000 people were locked behind barbed wire in the name of national security, their civil rights were denied. This is especially true since two-thirds of the Japanese-Americans were United States citizens (Daniels 1993: 3). Their story must not be forgotten.
The wartime abuse suffered by Japanese-Americans was a form of racism which stretched back to the earliest contact between Asians and Americans. "The experience of the Chinese in 19th century America served in many ways as a kind of rehearsal for what would happen to later immigrants from Asia" (Daniels 1993: 4). Although not all Asians are alike, many Americans during the late 19th century and early 20th century saw all Asian immigrants as being alike. Alike to Americans meant that all Asians presented a threat to the American standard of living and to the racial integrity of the nation. For example, the Japanese, despite the discrimination imposed upon them made great progress in agriculture. This was especially true in California where the Japanese practically controlled the market in certain types of fruits and vegetables. Caucasian farmers in California saw the Japanese's success as a threat. "In spite of restrictions on land ownership and leasing, the Issei [first generation Japanese in the United States] farmers were able to remain competitive with their white counterparts because of their skill in growing intensive crops, use of unpaid family labor, willingness to cooperate if they had common economic problems, and ability to endure long hours and austere living conditions" (O'Brien and Fugita 1991: 39). Today it is evident such attitudes were racist but most Americans would have argued that their attitudes were simply "American" (Daniels 1993: 4).
In 1850 many Chinese immigrants began arriving in San Francisco due to the first American Gold Rush. Prejudice and other forms of racism were common place in the United States when the Chinese began arriving. "Early in their history, Americans learned to despise Native Americans and to regard blacks, whether slave or free, as inherently inferior beings" (Daniels 1993: 6). The Chinese were first harshly treated in California and then elsewhere along the West Coast. "California's first legal code in 1850 barred the testimony of blacks and Indians against whites, and the California courts soon barred the Chinese as well" (Daniels 1993: 6). Furthermore the legislation passed a "foreign miner's tax" which was clearly directed towards the Chinese miners.
The Japanese faced similar anti-Asian discrimination when they began arriving in the United States. By the late 1930's the Issei had established a firm niche in small business enterprises. Many Japanese felt education was a way out of the low paying jobs. Unfortunately the Nisei, second generation Japanese who were born in the United States, were unable to find better paying jobs due to the discrimination against them and were forced to follow in the footsteps of their parents.
The employment discrimination was a continuance of anti-Asian feelings which had produced anti-Asian legislation. Two of these legislations included the Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907-08 and the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1927. Both of these restricted the number of Asian immigrants allowed to enter the United States. Other discrimatory legislation included the Alien Land Laws which stated that non-citizens could not own land and Japanese (Issei) could not become naturalized citizens no matter how long they had lived in the United States.
The increase of power of Japan further led to the discrimination against the Japanese living in the United States. In September 1931, Japanese forces began occupying Manchuria. These events set in motion the forces of war. Japan wished to create a Pacific Empire but her plans were counter to the best interests of the United States.
The events in Asia held great significance for the 130,000 Japanese living in the continental United States. "Immigrants without naturalization privileges, the Issei remained proud of their Japanese roots; rejected in a society in which they were determined to succeed, they looked upon Japan's accomplishments as a small but comforting source of ethnic pride" (Kumamoto 1979: 46). The Nisei on the other hand had a greater difficulty in relating to the events occurring in Asia. The Nisei were citizens by birthright and were anxious to assert their American identity.
As tension grew between the United States and Japan, the State Department and the U.S. Navy in early 1932 became increasingly involved in national security. They began examining the significance of having a potentially resident alien "enemy" population. "It was widely presumed that the homogeneity and ethnic loyalty of the Japanese would lead to acts of sabotage against the United States" (Kumamoto 1979: 47). Once considered inferior and insignificant, the Japanese were not considered to be a national threat to security.
As diplomatic relations began deteriorating between the United States and Japan, the allegations against the Japanese community grew increasingly significant. In late 1934 a confidential State Department communique warned that:
The Imperial Japanese Government has agents in every large city in this country and on the West Coast. These people, who pass as civilians and laborers, are being drilled in military maneuvers...when war breaks out, the entire Japanese population on the West Coast will rise and commit sabotage. They will endeavor by every means to neutralize the West Coast and render her defenseless (Kumamoto 1979: 49).
In 1935 the Office of Naval Intelligence (O.N.I.) reported the existence of a Japanese espionage ring in Seattle, WA and Portland, OR. O.N.I. believed that members of the ring were secretly compiling information on strategic areas along the West Coast. "O.N.I. believed that Japanese spies were involved in narcotics trafficking along the entire coast; once having hooked sailors on drugs these agents would withhold 'fixes' until they extracted whatever information they needed" (Kumamoto 1979: 50).
By 1941 over 2,000 Japanese in the United States had been classified into three groups. Group A suspects were known to be dangerous and were considered to be at the front line of sabotage "Those deemed sinister enough to warrant top surveillance included fishermen, produce distributors, Shinto and Buddhist priests, farmers, influential businessmen, and members of the Japanese Consulate" (Kumamoto 1979: 58). Group B suspects had not been fully investigated but were considered to be "potentially dangerous". Suspects in Group C were believed to be on the edge of sabotage but were closely watched due to their pro-Japanese beliefs. "Japanese language teachers, kibeis, martial art instructors, community servants, travel agents, social directors, and newspaper editors were among the suspects with B or C categories" (Kumamoto 1979: 58).
When war seemed imminent with Japan, President Roosevelt in the fall of 1941 assigned Curtis B. Munson, a representative of the State Department, to go to the West Coast and Hawaii to determine the degree of loyalty to be found among the residents of Japanese descent. Munson carried out the investigation in October and the beginning of November. The investigation resulted in a twenty-five page report which had reached Roosevelt's office by early November. The report held great significance for the Japanese residing on the West Coast. The overall result of the report was that "there is no Japanese 'problem' on the Coast. There will be no armed uprising of Japanese. There will undoubtedly be some sabotage financed by Japan and executed largely by imported agents" (Weglyn 1996: 45).
The report further stated "for the most part, the local Japanese are loyal to the U.S. or, at worst, hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concentration camps or irresponsible mobs. We do not believe that they would be at least any more loyal than any other racial group in the United States with whom we went to war" (Kumamoto 1979: 68). The Munson Report should have conclusively put to rest the existence of Japanese sabotage in the United States. The report also should have resolved any fears about the security of the West Coast as well. "Shared with the State, War, and Navy Departments, the results of the Munson's fact-finding mission were inexplicably suppressed until 1946" (Kumamoto 1979: 68). The lack of any evidence showing the Japanese-Americans being involved in espionage rings should have prevented the need for internment camps, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor the United States government chose to impound innocent people behind barbed wire.
At dawn on December 7, 1941, Japan began bombing American ships and planes at Pearl Harbor. Japanese aircraft carriers had left the Kurile Islands headed towards Pearl Harbor on November 26, 1941. Washington had sent a message which indicated the possibility of an attack on Pearl Harbor, the Phillipines, Thailand, or the Malay Peninsula. Regardless of the message Pearl Harbor was unprepared for the Japanese attack. After only a few hours of bombing, Japan had killed or wounded over 3,500 Americans.
By that evening President Roosevelt ordered the immediate detention of subversive aliens. All Japanese who had been classified in A, B, and C categories were taken into custody. They were to be turned over immediately to the nearest representative of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "By 6:30 A.M. the next morning, 736 Japanese were in custody with 48 hours the number had swelled to 1,291" (Kumamoto 1979: 69). After two weeks of local detention, the Japanese were transferred to sixteen imprisonment camps operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
On December 8 President Roosevelt declared war on Japan. On December 15 the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox publicly declared that Japanese sabotage on Hawaii was responsible for the success of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After this statement was made by Knox public rumors began rapidly coming from Hawaii:
that huge arrows cut in sugar cane fields pointed to military targets; that Japanese fishing boats were used to furnish food and fuel to enemy submarines; that Japanese residents had placed obstructions on the roads to Pearl Harbor preventing passage of reinforcements; and most incredibly that one group of residents had turned machine guns on American pilots as they ran to their planes (Kumamoto 1979: 70).
Although none of these reports were ever substantiated the American people along with its government were still concern for national defense and security.
Due to the persistent concern of national security Executive Order 9066 was signed on February 19, 1942 by President Roosevelt. The order gave the Secretary of War and the assigned military commanders "the power to exclude any persons from designated areas in order to secure national defense objectives against sabotage and espionage" (Commission on War Relocation and Internment of Civilians 1997: 48). The order was designed to exclude persons of Japanese ancestry, both American citizens and resident aliens from the West Coast. More than 100,000 people were ordered to leave their businesses and homes. Voluntary resettlement of the people who were designated disloyal by the War Department was impossible. No other area within the United States wanted to accept the ethnic Japanese as other states were concerned with their own security. As a result the Japanese were transported to temporary assembly centers in desolated interior regions of the west. The Japanese were later moved to more permanent internment camps.
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