|Japanese Internment Camps
On December 7, 1941, everything changed for all Americans, but especially those of Japanese descent. On that date, the Japanese army bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The following day, on December 8, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt declared war on Japan. There were about 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast at the time. Fear and mistrust began to take on a life of its own.
U.S. Government Agents came to the doors of Japanese-American homes. They were searching for any signs of loyalty to Japan. Children sometimes watched as innocent fathers were taken away, even though they had committed no crimes. Children watched their parents bury Japanese books and swords. Families began destroying Japanese artifacts as word spread about internment camps.
White children were quickly separated from Japanese children at school. Japanese children were frequently called names. Signs were posted on storefronts that said, "No Japs Allowed." In February of 1942, President Roosevelt signed an executive order to gather up all Americans of Japanese ancestry.
All 120,000 Japanese-Americans that lived on the West Coast were to be sent to "internment camps." These camps were spread out amongst seven states. The states were California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas. Once a family received orders to relocate, they had about seven days to pack their belongings. Each person was allowed to bring only two suitcases. Many children were told to wear as much clothing as they could. Families sold their businesses, homes, and furniture for whatever they could; often times for much less than the property was worth. Others simply lost their homes and possessions. Pets were not allowed. Families could only watch as strangers took away their family pets.
Life in an internment camp was difficult. Many of the very first camps were constructed on racetracks or fairgrounds. A barbed wire fence surrounded each camp. Soldiers with guns watched from towers. These "relocated" Japanese-Americans and their children were all prisoners. They could not leave. Horse stalls were temporarily offered to the families as their new homes. They were small, dusty, and smelly.
The Japanese families did their best to make these stalls into living quarters. There was no running water and no privacy. Many of these "rooms" had only one light bulb. There were no kitchens. People stood in line in large buildings called “mess halls” for meals. Their food was not prepared in traditional Japanese ways.
When the permanent internment camps were finished, families had to pack up and move again. Two of them were built in swamps in the state of Arkansas. Two were built in the dry, dusty land of Arizona. Most were built in the middle of nowhere. At first, many rooms had no heat. The barracks were poorly built. Still, the families did their best to make their tiny apartments feel like home. Schools were started in empty buildings at these camps. Most had no supplies, chairs, or heat. Students brought their own books and most had to share. Each day, the children said the Pledge of Allegiance. They sang patriotic songs. They celebrated the holidays as best they could. Many families planted gardens. There they grew their own food.
Children helped with the gardens. If livestock were permitted, the children also helped with these chores, too. The children found many ways to pass the time. They played baseball, joined the Boy Scouts, watched movies, and made kites. Everyone tried to keep the hope of freedom alive.
Finally, on December 18, 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the camps were unlawful. The government began allowing Japanese-Americans to leave. Many children were excited, but some were scared. Where would they live? Would their friends still call them names? How would they be treated upon their return?
Many families had to find new places to live. Most lost their homes and businesses and had to find new jobs. Some even moved back to Japan. The children and their families had to start over.
In the 1960's, the Civil Rights Movement inspired some young Japanese-Americans to begin the "Redress Movement." They wanted the U.S. government to apologize and repay the families $25,000 for each detainee who was kept in the camps. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act providing $20,000 for each detainee and a formal apology. President George H. W. Bush issued a second formal apology in 1992 when a second Civil Liberties Act was passed. The U. S. government has preserved the internment camp sites as historical landmarks. They are to serve as reminders of our country's failure to protect its citizens against prejudice.
What are internment camps? Describe the conditions of an internment camp.
Why were Japanese-Americans sent to internment camp?
How did the U.S. attempt to make up for putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps?
Even though the Japanese-American children were being held prisoner for having done nothing wrong, they still recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day. Why do you think they did this? What message do you think they were trying to deliver by doing this?