Japanese American life under U.S. policies before and during World War II

From OpenCongress Wiki

Jump to: navigation, search

This article series was part of the spring 2007 Student Editor Program - Asian Pacific Americans and American Public Policy. For more information about how to use this site in the classroom, see the main informational page or contact Congresspedia Managing Editor Conor Kenny at File:Conoremail.png.

This article needs an introductory summary. Most articles should have a short introductory section that summarizes the information in the body text (no new information is allowed and thus no additional sourcing is needed). You can help out by writing the summary. See the article guidelines for help or contact one of the managing editors.

This article is part of Congresspedia’s coverage of Japanese Americans and Japanese Latin Americans and U.S. Policy During World War II

The series was part of the Student Editor Program - Asian Pacific Americans and American Public Policy.


Life in America for Japanese Nationals Before World War II

File:Japanese Immigrants.jpg
Japanese immigrants arriving in the U.S.

Like most of the American population, Japanese immigrants came to the U.S. in search of a better life. Some planned to stay and build families here in the states, while others wanted to save money from working stateside to better themselves in the country from which they had come. Before the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese residents experienced a moderate level of racism that was fairly typical for any minority group at the time. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, discrimination against Japanese residents increased both socially and legally.[1]

A personal testimony

One Japanese American remembered the subtle forms of discrimination he experienced before the war, noting that they were, for the most part, minor inconveniences. He explained that many Japanese immigrants came to America with plans to return to Japan after making some money. Others, however, planned to begin new lives in America. He also described being torn when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and explained that the reactions of Japanese Americans varied in regards to the bombing.[2]

A brief history of life before World War II

  • 1913: California passed the Alien Land Law, which prohibited "aliens ineligible to citizenship" (ie. all Asian immigrants- including Japanese) from owning land or property, though it permitted three year leases[3]
  • 1920’s: By the end of the decade, the top 1% of wealthiest Americans account for 40% of the nation’s total wealth[4]
  • 1920-1925: Several states extended the Alien Land Law to prohibiting leasing land to "aliens ineligible to citizenship.”[5]
  • End of the 1930’s: Preemptive wartime precautions boost economies worldwide, including in the U.S.[6]
  • June, 1935: Congress passed an act making aliens ineligible to citizenship eligible if they had served in the U.S. armed forces between April 6, 1917 and November 11, 1918, had been honorably discharged and were permanent residents of the U.S. A only a handful of Japanese residents gained American citizenship under the act before the deadline on January 1, 1937.[7]
  • 1939: The U.S. declares neutrality in the war. A Neutrality Act is signed which allows the US to send arms and other aid to Britain and France.[8]
  • 1940: The Alien Registration Act (the Smith Act) was passed by the U.S. Congress, which required all aliens to register with the federal government and be fingerprinted. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Two Ocean Navy Expansion Act. This act was the first step in preparing America for war against Germany, Japan or both.
    • The first military draft during peacetime in American history takes place.
    • Roosevelt is elected as President of USA for a third term with 54 percent of the popular vote.[9]
  • September 18th, 1941: Michigan representative John Dingell suggests in a letter to President Roosevelt that 10,000 Hawaiian Japanese Americans should be held as hostages to ensure "good behavior" on the part of Japan.

Japanese American life under U.S. policies during World War II

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941

At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there were approximately 112,000 Japanese Americans living along the West Coast. One-third were resident alien immigrants and 2/3 were U.S. citizens. Like the Chinese, when the Japanese first immigrated they were accepted by the citizens because they were considered to be cheap labor, but when they showed signs of desire to better their economic conditions and because of how "Orientals" were portrayed by the media (as villains engaged in vengeful activities) the public began to distrust the Japanese as well.[10]

For most Japanese Americans, life before World War II was the same as it was for Americans of any ethnic background until they were labeled "enemy aliens." (In law, an "enemy alien" is a citizen of a country which is in a state of conflict with the land in which he or she is located. Usually, but not always, the countries are in a state of declared war.) This title subjected them to legal restrictions in addition to the internment camps.[11] Some of these legal restrictions included a rigid curfew that prohibited affected individual from traveling more than five miles from their homes except to settle their affairs at wartime civilian control offices.[12] Japanese Americans were also specifically banned from possessing firearms, war materials, short-wave radio receiving and transmitting sets and other materials that had already been forbidden to "enemy aliens."[13]

Concern over Japanese American loyalty to U.S.

The Yellow Peril: Cartoon by Theodor Geisel A.K.A Dr.Seuss. Geisel was "among the cartoonists who portrayed Japanese and Japanese Americans alike as ugly, bucktoothed savages," according to a columnist at Yellowworld.org.[14]

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the public began to fear the idea of Japanese Americans aiding a Japanese invasion. At one point, about a month before the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. State Department hired a special investigator to report on Japanese American communities to make sure the Japanese were not a threat to national security. The investigator's conclusion was that there was no evidence supporting a fear of sabotage by the Japanese Americans. This report was kept confidential, however, so the public was never aware of it. Thus, many of the negative images of Japanese Americans the public acquired were initiated by the media. There were also rumors of Japanese American spies, but no conclusive evidence was ever produced to support them. The public was also unaware of the fact that over 65% of the Japanese Americans were U.S.-born citizens.[15]

Executive Order 9066

Under pressure from various officials in the federal government, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942,[16] which authorized the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans:[17]

"NOW, THEREFORE, by the virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commanders may impose in his discretion..."
Franklin D. Roosevelt
The White House
February 19, 1942[18]

The Executive Order was vague enough that it gave the government a large amount of leeway in how it chose to treat the Japanese Americans. It gave the Secretary of War (now known as the Secretary of Defense) and military commanders the authority to exclude any person from a designated area. So, although its authority was used only against Japanese Americans, it could have affected any American because there were no geographical locations specified, ethnic groups mentioned or distinctions made between citizens and aliens, which is why the government was able to force even Japanese Americans who were U.S. citizens into the internment camps. The Executive Order essentially gave the military full control and discretion.[19]

Evacuation and relocation

Once the Executive Order was implemented in full swing, the Japanese Americans along the West coast were first asked by the military to relocate. The military said that the threat of a Japanese invasion was very likely and said the Japanese Americans would be more likely to aid a Japanese invasion than the rest of the population. Thus, to stop any possible sabotage (even though there was no proof of any sabotage plans), they told the Japanese Americans to relocate.[20]

At first, some Japanese residents voluntarily entered these camps to avoid being separated from loved ones. Other residents were forced into other government accommodations.[21] However, during the evacuation, several inland states began to refuse entry to the Japanese Americans, forcing them into several internment camps.[22] Eventually, 120,312 Japanese Americans were forced into one of 10, (11 including Crystal City, Texas), internment camps in the United States after the executive order was signed in 1942.[23]

The internment camps

Once in the internment camps, the Japanese Americans lost all their civil and persona rights as citizens. They had no ownership rights over their personal belongings and it was reported that they were not allowed to speak Japanese, which strained their familial and cultural relationships.[24]

All 10 war relocation centers were located in inland in the United States, and many were in desert areas. The camps were fenced with barbed wire to avoid runaways. The camps themselves were self-sustaining communities; there were many kinds of factories, farms, hospitals, schools, churches, theaters, and shops within them. The prisoners were able to go anywhere they wanted within the camps, but the only time they were permitted to leave the camps was if they were ill beyond the camp hospital’s ability to help. The food from farms and fields in the camp fed the entire camp including the detainees and the camp workers. Internment camp housing were barrack style houses in which there were no barriers for the bathrooms. Many prisoners fell ill due to the unsanitary conditions of the housing situations. Japanese detainees did not enjoy many of their civil rights, including freedom of speech. These restraints led to numerous strikes, riots, and attempts at running away.[25]

The Japanese Americans were released in 1945. Because of all their personal losses, Japanese Americans suffered socially and economically. Even with their freedom, they struggled to readapt back into society.[26]

Location of Camps

Photo: Manzanar - California, 06/01/1942-11/21/1945
  • Poston War Relocation Center - Arizona, 05/08/1942 - 11/08/1945[27]
  • Tule Lake War Relocation Center - California, 05/27/1942 - 03/20/1946[28]
  • Manzanar - California, 06/01/1942 - 11/21/1945[29]
  • Gila River War Relocation Center - Arizona, 07/20/1942 - 09/28/1945[30]
  • Minidoka Internment Monument - Idaho, 08/10/1942 - 10/28/1945[31]
  • Heart Mountain War Relocation Center - Wyoming, 08/12/1942 - 11/10/1945[32]
  • Granada War Relocation Center - Colorado, 08/27/1942 - 10/31/1945[33]
  • Topaz Relocation Center- Utah, 09/11/1942 - 10/31/1945[34]
  • Rohwer War Relocation Center - Arkansas, 09/18/1942 - 11/30/1945[35]
  • Jerome War Relocation Center - Arkansas, 10/06/1942 - 06/30/1944[36]
  • Crystal City, Texas, November, 1942 - December, 1947

A Brief History of Life During World War II

  • July 26th,1941: America freezes all Japanese assets in the US.
  • December 7th, 1941: Peal Harbor was bombed in a surprise attack by the Empire of Japan's 1st Air Fleet.[37] Local U.S. authorities and the Federal Bureau of Investigation began find and hold the leaders of Japanese American communities. It took two days to put 1,291 Issei under custody. Although they were not formally charged, they were denied visitation from their families. Many of these prisoners spent the war years in enemy alien internment camps.
  • December 8th, 1941: President Roosevelt addresses the U.S. Congress, saying that December 7th is "a date that will live in infamy." Roosevelt signs the declaration of war.
  • February 19th, 1942: Executive Order 9066 is signed by Roosevelt which authorized the transfer of more than 100,000 German, Italian and Japanese-Americans living in coastal Pacific areas to internment camps in various inland states. Those interned lose an estimated $400 million in property when their homes and possessions are confiscated.[38]
  • February 23rd, 1942: A Japanese submarine bombs the Californian coast.
  • 1945: With the beginning of World War II, the U.S. emerges as the only economic superpower in the world.[39]

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch/Congresspedia resources


  1. Norman Mineta "Before the War," Scholastic.
  2. Norman Mineta "Before the War," Scholastic.
  3. "Enemy Alien Curfew Friday," San Fransisco News, March 24, 1942.
  4. Steve Kangas, "Timelines of the Great Depression," Hyper History.
  5. "Life Before Internment Camps," ThinkQuest.
  6. Steve Kangas, "Timelines of the Great Depression," Hyper History.
  7. "Life Before Internment Camps," ThinkQuest.
  8. "World War 2 Timeline 1939-1945," Worldwar-2.net.
  9. "WWII Internment Timeline," Children of the Camps.
  10. "Pre-War Discrimination," Center for Asian American Media, 2002.
  11. "Enemy Alien Curfew Friday," San Fransisco News, March 24, 1942.
  12. Vernellia R. Randall, "Internment of Japanese Americans in Concentration Camps," University of Dayton, April 14, 2006.
  13. "Enemy Alien Curfew Friday," San Fransisco News, March 24, 1942.
  14. "What's So Funny About Racism For Sale?," Yellow World.
  15. C.N. Le, "Construction and Destruction: Japanese American Internment," Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America, September 11, 2007.
  16. Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Executive Order 9066," Found at History Matters, February 19, 1942.
  17. C.N. Le, "Construction and Destruction: Japanese American Internment," Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America, September 11, 2007.
  18. Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Executive Order 9066," Found at History Matters, February 19, 1942.
  19. C.N. Le, "Construction and Destruction: Japanese American Internment," Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America, September 11, 2007.
  20. "Postwar & Impact Today," Center for Asian American Media, 2002.
  21. "???????????????," The Japanese American National Museum.
  22. "Postwar & Impact Today," Center for Asian American Media, 2002.
  23. "???????????????," The Japanese American National Museum.
  24. Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Executive Order 9066," Found at History Matters, February 19, 1942.
  25. "????????," Wikipedia.
  26. J. Burton, M. Farrell, F. Lord, and R. Lord, "Sites of Shame: An Introduction," National Park Service.
  27. "Poston War Relocation Center," Wikipedia, May 3, 2007.
  28. "Tule Lake War Relocation Center," Wikipedia, May 3, 2007.
  29. Manzanar, Wikipedia, September 6, 2007
  30. "Gila River War Relocation Center," Wikipedia, July 13, 2007.
  31. "Minidoka Internment National Monument," Wikipedia, July 22, 2007.
  32. "Heart Mountain War Relocation Center," Wikipedia, September 1, 2007.
  33. "Granada War Relocation Center," Wikipedia, September 1, 2007.
  34. "Topaz Relocation Center," Wikipedia, September 1, 2007.
  35. "Rohwer War Relocation Center," Wikipedia, September 1, 2007.
  36. "Jerome War Relocation Center," Wikipedia, September 5, 2007.
  37. "WWII Internment Timeline," Children of the Camps.
  38. "WWII Internment Timeline," Children of the Camps.
  39. Steve Kangas, "Timelines of the Great Depression," Hyper History.

External resources