Remembering Japanese American internment camps, 75 years later
By John Muyskens and Aaron Steckelberg
Richard Murakami was born in 1932 on a grape farm in Florin, Calif., outside of Sacramento. The farm was his grandfather’s, an immigrant from Japan. Richard was born on the farm, his mother, Yomiko, told him, because Sacramento hospitals refused to admit Japanese patients.
Richard’s grandfather was barred from citizenship by U.S. law, which at the time only permitted naturalization to immigrants who were white or of “African descent.” He was also barred from owning land he farmed by California’s Alien Land Law of 1913 which prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning agricultural land.
Murakami’s father, Kazuo — also known as Harvey — was born in in the United States but educated in Japan from first through sixth grade. Like his father, he, too, was a farmer.
In the fourth grade in Lakewood, Calif., Richard was the only Japanese American and one of only three minority students in his school.
When Richard was 9 years old, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into war. Two months later on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that would force the Murakami family from their home and place them in several internment camps over the next three years.
Although Executive Order 9066 did not specify an ethnic group, it came out of a time and place of high anti-Japanese sentiment, and it was the Japanese who disproportionately lost their liberty.
A century of racism and xenophobia
Japanese immigrants began arriving in significant numbers in the United States in the 1880s. The immigrants faced discrimination and were barred from citizenship, but they came nonetheless in pursuit of labor opportunities.
They also faced organized political opposition from a combination of labor and white supremacist interests. One such group, the Asiatic Exclusion League, aimed to stop Japanese immigration and create discriminatory laws. “There is no way by which California could be surely Orientalized as by a general influx of Japanese into the ownership or leasing of farms. Also, there is no one who would suffer so immediately under that Orientalization as the white farmer,” read the proceedings of the league’s meeting on Jan. 19, 1913.
Immigration from Japan was curbed in 1907 and fully stopped in 1924.
“I think the Immigration Act of 1924 was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to international relations. It was a sign to the Japanese people that the American people really, western society really did not accept the Japanese as equals or as respectable people,” said Frank Miyamoto, a Japanese American sociologist who did fieldwork during the forced removal and incarceration, in a 1998 interview.
A blaze of paranoia, sparked by Pearl Harbor
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Navy Secretary Frank Knox stated that “the most effective fifth-column work of the entire war was done in Hawaii with the exception of Norway.” “Fifth column” was a common phrase referring to internal sabotage. Columnist Walter Lippmann echoed these claims in the press. A political cartoon drawn by Dr. Seuss depicted Japanese as eager spies and saboteurs. There was no evidence for these claims.
Immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt declared Japanese, German and Italian citizens “alien enemies.” The FBI arrested than 5,000 Japanese immigrants, many of whom were held in internment camps run by the Department of Justice and the Army. Further numbers of “alien enemies” from Latin America, including more than 2,000 Japanese people, were deported to the United States and held in internment camps run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The Office of War Information released a poll in 1942 based on interviews between Feb. 7 and 13 indicating widespread distrust of foreigners — particularly the Japanese — on the West Coast. In Southern California, 72 percent of those interviewed said that “few if any Japanese can be trusted,” 75 percent agreed that “half or more of the Japanese would harm the U.S. if they could” and 73 percent recommended putting Japanese foreigners in internment camps. Support for putting Japanese Americans in internment camps was less popular, but in each region, 50 percent or more of respondents recommended some degree of control for them.
An executive order, drafted without evidence
The federal government was split on the question of excluding Japanese immigrants and citizens from the West Coast. By the end of January 1942, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt — leader of the Western Defense Command — said he thought such a removal was necessary. But J. Edgar Hoover dissented, stating, “The necessity for mass evacuation is based primarily on public and political pressure rather than on factual data.”
Forced-removal proponents relied on faulty intelligence and racist stereotypes about Japanese loyalty. In his Feb. 14 recommendation for exclusion from the West Coast of “alien enemies” and Japanese Americans, DeWitt said, “The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted.”
DeWitt attempted to justify the military necessity of exclusion with a piece of circular logic: “The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.” Despite having no credible evidence of a legitimate threat, mass exclusion proponents got their way. Roosevelt signed the order on Feb. 19.
“Whereas the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage,” read the order, using military necessity to justify giving the military the authority to create areas of control from which people could be excluded. “Although no ethnic group was singled out in the executive order,” stated a 1984 report of the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), “the vast majority of civilians affected were those of Japanese ancestry.”
“No Japanese American was ever convicted. There was never any evidence found of any espionage that was coming out of the community,” said Jennifer Jones, curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History exhibit “Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II.”
DeWitt quickly put his new authorization to use, declaring areas of military control along the Pacific Coast on March 2. Later in March, the Western Defense Command implemented a curfew for all Japanese people in Military Area No. 1 and forbade possession by Japanese people of certain items such as firearms, shortwave radios and cameras in the entire jurisdiction of the WDC.
From suburbs to stables
By late March, the Western Defense Command began ordering the Japanese to leave their homes. On March 24, the WDC issued the first of 108 Civilian Exclusion Orders, notifying the Japanese residents of Bainbridge Island in Washington that they had six days to leave Military Area No. 1.
The WDC rolled out the exclusion orders over the spring of 1942. The orders provided little detail about what was in store. Families were instructed to bring bedding, linens, extra clothing, eating utensils and “essential personal effects,” but were cautioned that they would be limited to what they could carry. The orders didn’t say where they would be headed or when they would be able to return to their homes.
90,000 people were put in temporary detention centers known as assembly centers. The centers were hastily constructed at fairgrounds, racetracks and migrant labor camps. Conditions were poor; at the Tanforan and Santa Anita racetracks, the horse stalls were converted into housing.
Into the wilderness
“Eye-burning dust, and the temperature seemed to stand at 120 degrees for three solid months.” This was how sculptor Isamu Noguchi described his time at Poston, situated in the Sonoran Desert. The War Relocation Authority, established March 18, 1942, set up 10 internment camps, “relocation centers” in the official language, between May and October of 1942.
Life in the barracks
Barracks were the typical military design of the era and hastily built to house the influx of people. Materials and construction were not high quality, Richard Murakami recalled. Buildings were hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Green lumber used in the construction shrank, forming gaps that let wind and dust blow in. Murakami’s mother sometimes had to sweep the floor of their room as many as three or four times a day while they were at Tule Lake in California, he said.
The rooms came sparsely furnished, and they built tables and chairs from scrap lumber. When they entered the camps, the six Murakamis shared a room that was about the size of a two-car garage. When they moved to Jerome in 1943 and Richard’s brother Daniel was born, the family got two rooms.
Many people in the camps, particularly those from Southern California, did not bring clothes appropriate for the weather. “We made Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward rich,” said Murakami, noting that they had to mail-order warmer clothes when they were moved to Heart Mountain in Wyoming.
‘Loyalty’ and segregation
In an attempt to assess detainee loyalty, the War Relocation Authority distributed a 28-question survey to those who were at least 17 years old in spring of 1943. The 28th question asked the detainee to “swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America” as well as renounce foreign loyalties, particularly to the emperor of Japan. Male detainees were further asked whether they would “faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces.” A revised version of the question asked noncitizens to “swear to abide by the laws of the United States” and not to interfere in the war effort.
“Disloyal” individuals — those who answered no to question 28, among others — were moved to Tule Lake, which was labeled a “segregation center.”
The Murakamis answered yes to question 28 and were moved from Tule Lake to Jerome in Arkansas. When Jerome was closed to become a German prisoner of war camp, the Murakamis were moved again — this time to Heart Mountain in Wyoming.
The Supreme Court challenges
Mitsuye Endo, who had been fired from her secretary job at the California Department of Motor Vehicles and incarcerated, became a test case for lawyers with the Japanese American Citizens League who were looking to challenge the exclusion and incarceration on legal grounds.
Another legal challenge came from Fred Korematsu, who resisted a civilian exclusion order. When he was arrested, American Civil Liberties Union Northern California Director Ernest Besig came to his aid. Both cases made their way to the Supreme Court, and the decisions were announced on Dec. 18, 1944.
Korematsu’s appeal was denied 6-3, with the Supreme Court ruling that the mass exclusion of Japanese from the West Coast was justified because of military necessity. “There was evidence of disloyalty on the part of some, the military authorities considered that the need for action was great, and time was short,” Justice Hugo Black wrote in the majority opinion.
But Justice Robert Jackson challenged the credibility of that evidence, which came from DeWitt’s “Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast 1942,” calling it an “unsworn, self-serving statement, untested by any cross-examination.” Jackson wrote that “the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens. The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.”
Judge Marilyn Patel reversed Korematsu’s conviction in 1983, stating in her opinion that the United States had withheld evidence contradictory to that in DeWitt’s report. The United States did not appeal the decision, meaning that the Supreme Court’s original ruling still stands.
Endo won her case unanimously, with the court ruling that the government could not hold “concededly loyal” U.S. citizens without charges. This decision, curator Jennifer Jones said, was the “pivotal moment” that led to the end of incarceration.
Closing the camps
After the U.S. Navy’s decisive victory in the Battle of Midway in June of 1942, the Japanese Navy was significantly diminished, Jones said. “There was no longer that threat [to the West Coast] and no longer that military necessity argument,” Jones said.
But anti-Japanese attitudes meant that opposing incarceration was politically fraught. Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr (R), who had opposed incarceration and welcomed the Japanese to his state, lost a U.S. Senate race in 1942, ending his career as a politician.
The decision to begin undoing the order was made on Nov. 10, 1944, at the first meeting of Roosevelt’s Cabinet after his reelection. Having received advance word of the Supreme Court decisions, the Roosevelt administration announced the end of mass exclusion on Dec. 17, 1944. The camps, except for Tule Lake, would close by the end of 1945.
Leaving the camps
The WRA had been relocating people from the camps since July 1942. Communities of Japanese Americans grew in Colorado, Chicago and New Jersey. Departures grew significantly after exclusion was lifted Jan. 3, 1945, peaking in September after the end of the war.
The Murakamis, like many other formerly incarcerated Japanese American families, did not talk about their time in the camps. “My father never said one word about what happened to us,” Murakami said. “He really believed in the United States, and I think he became a disillusioned man because of what the government did to us.” This did not mean their pain was absent. Murakami recalled the time his mother broke down in tears during a trip when she returned to Tule Lake.
Truth, reconciliation and reparations
Given just days to get their affairs in order before forced removal, many Japanese people lost significant property. According to Jones, some families lost the land they owned because they were unable to pay taxes with limited camp income and frozen bank accounts. The 1948 Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act provided the opportunity for Japanese Americans to claim losses. It took the Justice Department until 1965 to review all of the 23,689 claims filed, paying out only $38 million of the $131 million total losses claimed, according to the Truman Library.
Richard Murakami recalled that his father lost about $100,000 but only received $5,000 from the government. Burdened by financial losses, his father chose not to return to farming and became a gardener, eventually opening a small grocery store before his retirement.
Four decades after the camps closed, President Jimmy Carter created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to investigate the “facts and circumstances” of Executive Order 9066, the relocation process itself and to “recommend appropriate remedies.” The CWRIC’s work resulted in an official apology from President Ronald Reagan and reparations payments. From 1990 to 1993, 82,219 surviving detainees were paid $20,000 each, a total of $1.6 billion.
‘A loaded weapon’
The CWRIC’s 1984 report, titled “Personal Justice Denied,” concluded that causes of the forced removal and incarceration were “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
Greg Marutani, education chair of the JACL, said, referring to the CWRIC’s conclusion, “I don’t think we’ll ever get away from race prejudice, and we are currently in a war on terror, so [political leadership] is critical now more than ever.”
“Watching the leadership and the politics that go on now it’s a little disconcerting to think that it’s potentially going to happen again,” Marutani added, “Disregard the Constitution, it’s just a piece of paper.”