Japanese American Internment and its Lasting Legacy Karrah Petruska, 2005



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Japanese American Internment and its Lasting Legacy

Karrah Petruska, 2005
“We supported our families; we honored our culture; we believed in our country. We never thought to display any civil disobedience. The U.S.A. was our home too.”1 These remarks from an eighty-year-old internee represent the situation of thousands of Japanese and Japanese Americans throughout the nation during the time of World War II. Nonetheless, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which lead to the internment of thousands of Japanese and one of the greatest failures in American history. America prides itself on being a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” with “liberty and justice for all.” However, when a nation built on these ideals forces up to 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans, 62 percent of whom were citizens2, to relocate, it has failed to realize these goals to their fullest. The move toward internment was a culmination of many factors coming to a climax with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. For decades, those of Asian ancestry faced prejudice throughout America due to the prominent ideas of white supremacy, anti-immigration, and American nativism. During the 1930s and 40s this racism was based mainly in economic jealously of white farmers toward prosperous Japanese as well as toward Japan’s growing military strength. Nonetheless, the racism directed to the Japanese in America did not arise out of the war, however, it had previously existed since the mid-1800s and was merely fueled by the wartime hysteria. The internment of the Japanese during World War II was one of the most shameful acts committed by the United States; it was the result of existing prejudices transformed by wartime hysteria and fueled by economic motives and lacking leadership, which not only violated thousands of citizens’ rights but also created a social and political legacy in the following generations of those interned.

In retrospect, it is clear that the decision to intern was not a “military necessity” as suggested in Executive Order 9066, but rather a response of government officials to the hysteria throughout the nation, which they had fostered in the first place. It is normally considered that the press represents the voice of the people, but the question must be asked whether the press represents the people’s voice or influences it. In the case of internment this is specifically relevant, as it is in any time of war. Clear racial prejudices existed toward the Japanese in America, and as the war progressed these prejudices transformed into outright hostility and unfounded accusations. Although the people responded in this way, upon closer examination it can be seen that the cause of this was from the influence of the press upon the people. For the most part, the press was not deliberately misleading the public, rather it was reporting government actions, which yielded to the hysteria instead of quelling it. Along with the “yellow peril” journalism, the press also widely covered aggressive government actions toward the Japanese including FBI raids and arrests.3

Three actions are specifically linked with the transition of the nation’s biased opinion into an unfounded suspicion and public outcry for internment, due to the actions of the government. The first was a raid which occurred on February 12, 1941 when the FBI interrogated 15 Japanese American leaders and the press covered the public reports from officials saying that they had already completed “plans for the internment of dangerous aliens of any enemy country4,” specifically the Japanese. Similarly, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox publically reported “subversive activity on the part of the Japanese”5 in Hawaii, which received widespread attention from the press and put that nation on alert. Most notably contributing to the shifting public opinion was the release of the Roberts report on January 25, 1942, which not only implied civil liberties could not be upheld after the attack on Pearl Harbor but they were actually impinging the ongoing investigation. This also strongly implanted suspicion of the Japanese in the nation’s mind. In combination with these clearly biased actions, other less prominent acts such as General John L. DeWitt’s comment; “A Jap’s a Jap,” demonstrated not only the public racism but also the high governmental roots that the idea of internment was based in. The government’s blatant statements and actions toward Japanese Americans at this time heavily influenced the public’s already critical view and transformed their preexisting prejudices into a demand for internment.6

Although the most prominent factor which led to internment was the outright hostile actions of the government which influenced the people, the people were also driven by economic motives. For decades Japanese experienced mild economic prosperity in areas such as California, causing many white farmers to envy their situation and promote relocation for their personal economic gain. One white farmer, Austin E. Anson, put it most bluntly when he stated, “We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons and we might as well be honest. We Do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown man.”7 The move to accept internment in order to protect ones economic interest is further supported by the situation in Hawaii, where there were clear racial prejudices yet the Japanese were not massively removed. In Hawaii, one-third of the population was of Japanese ancestry and comprised a majority of the labor force. Thus, despite the tensions, it was more economically beneficial not to intern the Japanese residing there. Clearly the racial tensions and wartime hysteria, when in combination with economic greed, prove to be a contributing factor for the majority of the public to support internment as well.8

Due to the manic state of the nation, the act of internment was readily accepted and put into action. It represented a true top to bottom decision where the government acted quickly out of fear of internal attacks and espionage without regard for the civil liberties of those they were interning. Thousands were forced to leave behind all but what they could carry, selling many of their valuable heirlooms and possessions for near-nothing to prowling businessmen, and abandoning businesses and homes with little hope to regain them. In total, numbers as high as 6.2 billion dollars have been reported to have been lost to Japanese Americans through property and income loss during the time period.9 It is estimated that anywhere from 112,000 to 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans on the West Coast went through this traumatic experience of relocation to internment camps. These camps were nothing more than prisons, surrounded by barbed-wire fences, barracks to provide an inconceivable standard of living for the internees, and encompassed by armed guards. One account recalls that in the internment camps there were “families living in substandard housing, had inadequate nutrition and health care, and had their livelihoods destroyed.”10 The government provided no money for repair on the barracks and the internees could only make minor improvements upon their situation. It continues on to state that “many continued to suffer psychologically long after their release,” showing the impact went beyond the physical conditions they encountered. Many felt a void from a “lack of meaningful work” and unrest at staying indoors due to harsh weather. All of these factors caused discontent and hopelessness to spread throughout the camps as well as persisting deeper issues.

Specifically, there were immense mental effects which were caused by the isolation that the internees faced both socially and psychological.11

The government was searching for disloyal Japanese and despite the evidence showing that internment was not even a “military necessity” and an internal attack was unlikely, they were intent on finding them. Disregarding these facts, the government wanted absolute allegiance, which considering the complex situation, was difficult for many Japanese to pledge. In February of 1943, a loyalty questionnaire was administered to all interned Japanese over the age of 17. In this questionnaire, questions 27 and 28 caused much controversy for obvious reasons. First note that only an absolute affirmative answer would have been sufficient, then consider question 27 which asked: “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces for the United States on combat duty, whenever ordered?”. Not only was this an irrational question to those men beyond the age of fifty, but also to boys, who like their peers throughout the nation not under question, denied the idea of a draft. Next was question 28 which asked: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic sources, and foreswear any allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power or organization?” The U.S. Government was asking thousands to declare themselves stateless by renouncing their allegiance to Japan who granted them citizenship, however, in return would not allow them to seek naturalization.12 Thus, the questions of loyalty posed at the internees were biased and negligent of the circumstances. They also fostered isolationist feelings, leaving the Japanese under baseless suspicion and no means to prove their loyalty. For even when they did volunteer and fight in the war, many returned to the internment camps which they had departed from or into the same prejudice society that they had risked their lives to protect. The constant question of loyalty combined with the overall isolation set up the internees for a lifetime of social difficulties, and resulting problems for the generations to follow.

The immediate effects of the internment on the Japanese and Japanese Americans cannot be easily categorized, as there was a myriad of responses by the internees. As expected, some showed a loss in loyalty to the United States. Their character had been questioned based not on facts but race, and as a result of these groundless accusations many lost their livelihood. More common, however, was the issei’s, or alien Japanese’s, increased attempts to assimilate into society, which resulted in the dismissal of Japanese culture slightly. It was another step to prove their loyalty to America, just as their acquiescence to internment and service in the war was. The repression of their own heritage in order to gain acceptance and prove their loyalty to America became the new way of life for the majority of issei and nisei, U.S. citizens of Japanese descent, and an ideal that they would pass onto the next generation.13 One Japanese’s personal experience perfectly exemplifies this ideal when he stated that “I was one of those real American patriots then . . . Growing up, my mother would say we’re Japanese. But I’d say ‘No, I’m American.’ I think a lot of Japanese grew up that way.”14 Many felt the need to completely subdue their own heritage or ethnic background in order to prove their absolute loyalty, and in doing so lost some of their own personal identity.

Through the repression of their heritage to prove their “American-ness,” many also repressed the memory of internment, using the phrase “shikata ga nai” meaning “it cannot be helped”15 to describe their experience. Internment was far more than an insult to their integrity; there was also a deep shame associated by many with being held in detention camps. Amy Uno Ishii described it in this way: “Women, if they’ve been raped, don’t go around talking about it . . . This is exactly the kind of feeling that we as evacuees, victims of circumstances, had at the time of evacuation.” This deep shame comparable to a woman’s rape represents a majority of internees who remained silent for decades. There were rare cases of resistance and rejection of internment, however, such as Fred Korematsu who took his challenge all the way up to the Supreme Court where it upheld its right to intern citizens. The fact that he did challenge internment though, justifies analyzing it as a shameful and wrong act because the opposing opinion was put forth, showing it was not merely a nation in chaotic fear and there was an opportunity for resistance. Later generations did voice their opposition to internment. However it took years for advocates to make any progress on this issue until on August 10, 1988 when reparations were made and an apology was administered to provide lost honor as the government admitted its wrongdoing. Despite the recent progress, the shame originally felt by those interned helps to explain even further the reason so many remained silent for a lifetime. Many sansei, or third generation Japanese Americans, however, are breaking the neutral or nonexistent depiction of internment their descendants had portrayed to them. They rejected the idea of denouncing their ethnicity in order to “Americanize” completely, and instead developed a new sense of ethnic pride earlier generations had lost. Not only did they have a revival of their heritage, but that also fostered the movement to “redress” internment as they “directed their anger at the governmental injustice and societal racism.” The initial cultural consequence of internment caused many to suppress their heritage, however, later generations could see that the shame should not lie with the victims, rather at those who collaborated in the injustice, and thus the “national identity of Japanese Americans” was strengthened as a whole.16

From 1942 to 1945 the U.S. government suspended the civil liberties of an entire people under the pretext of “military necessity,” when in actuality it was the result of wartime hysteria, economic greed, and failed leadership all fueled by existing prejudices, which caused the internment of thousands of Japanese ancestry and resulting in a lasting legacy to this day. The baseless accusations questioned loyal citizens and residents, creating more hostile prejudices and one of the greatest violations of civil liberties in American history. Similar to the age of McCarthy and the Red Scare, hysteria dominated the nation and thousands suffered the consequences. In the end, after the entire course of the war, “ten people in total were convicted of spying for Japan, all of whom were Caucasian.”17 Thousands suffered politically, economically, and most importantly socially. However, the greatest injustice would be to forget the act of internment of a race, and its legacy that stands today. One internee named Henry Ueno expresses this idea most clearly when he addressed the idea of reparation to the Japanese by stating: “That’s ridiculous . . . They don’t know what is right or wrong. They should teach the people what the Constitution means.”18 If nothing else, Japanese internment clearly demonstrated to America the limits of its utopian ideals of “liberty and justice for all” as well as the glaring shortcomings in the face of its exceptionalism.





1Nancy P. Gallavan, A. Teresea “Enduring Lessons of Justice from the World War II.” Japanese American Interment. National Council for the Social Studies 2005.

2“Japanese American Internment.” Wikipedia. 28 February 2006 .

3 Gary Y. Okihiro, Julie Sly. Phylon. Vol. 44, No 1. 1st Quarter 1983, 66-83. .

4Los Angeles Times, November 19, 1941

5 Weglyn Michi, Years of Infamy New York, 1976, p. 52

6 Gary Y. Okihiro, Julie Sly. Phylon. Vol. 44, No 1. 1st Quarter 1983, 66-83. . The majority of the ideas of the causes of internment originated in this work.

7Saturday Evening Post 1942

8Bernhard L. Hormann.. Postwar Problems of Issei in Hawaii. Far Eastern Survey, Vol. 15, No. 18 (Sep. 11, 1946), 277-280.

9“The Internment of Japanese Americans (1940s).” American Decades. Online Edition. Gale, 2003. Student Resource Center. Thomas Gale. 17 April 2006 .

10Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Citizens.

11John J Culley. The Western Quarterly. Vol. 13, No 1. Jan. 1982, 43-61 <

12 “Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.” DIScovering Multicultural America. Online Edition. Gale, 2003. Student Resource Center. Thomas Gale. 23 April 2006 .

13Arthur A Hansen. The Journal of American History. Vol. 82 No. 2. Sep. 1995, 625-639 <

14Yuri Kochiyama. “Then Came the War.” Student Resource Center. Thomson Gale. 16 May 2006 .

15 “Japanese American Internment.” Wikipedia. 28 February 2006 .

16Arthur A Hansen

17 Debra LaFountaine., Pei P. Wang. Historical Background. 1995

18John Tateishi. And Justice For All. Random-House. New York: 1984.



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