Japanese Internment

Japanese Americans had experienced discrimination and prejudice for decades, but nothing could have prepared them for the scale and intensity of the anti-Japanese feelings that swept the Pacific states following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The first substantial immigration to the United States from an Asian country was from China, starting soon after the California Gold Rush. The government of Japan, however, even after Admiral Perry opened Japan to foreign trade, maintained severe restrictions on the ability of its citizens to emigrate until 1868. By that time, anti-Chinese sentiment had developed and after Japanese were initially welcomed as an alternative. Japanese immigration increased after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

As the numbers of Japanese grew, anti-Chinese sentiment was gradually replaced by anti-Japanese. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the San Francisco school board took the opportunity created by the destruction of many schools to require Japanese students to attend segregated classes. This created much hostile comment in the Japanese press. President Roosevelt wanted the policy reversed, but the school board refused and pressure for a federal ban on Japanese immigration, comparable to the Chinese Exclusion Act, grew on the West Coast.

The Japanese government did not want either the continued humiliation of seeing its people segregated in education or to have its nation publicly banned from immigrating. A compromise was reached in the Gentlemen`s Agreement of 1907, through which the Japanese government made action by the American government unnecessary by denying passports to workers who might want to move to the United States. At the same time, school segregation in San Francisco was ended.

This situation remained until the Immigration Act of 1924. The first naturalization act in 1790 had excluded Japanese from naturalization by inference, since it was then limited to free whites. The act of 1870 made the exclusion explicit, creating the situation where, in combination with the Fourteenth Amendment, American law permanently denied citizenship to Japanese immigrants on account of their place of birth, but extended it automatically to their children for the same reason.

The 1924 act went further, and banned immigration by persons who were ineligible for citizenship. This included anyone from Japan and was a unilateral abrogation of the Gentlemen`s Agreement, which worsened America`s relations with that country.

The importance of this in 1941 was that legal immigration from Japan had been ended substantially in 1907 and entirely in 1924, so that there were virtually no Japanese aliens on the West Coast who had not spent three decades in the country. Had they come from Germany or Italy, countries with which the United States was also at war, they would have long since had the opportunity to become citizens, but since 1870, this pathway had been closed.

It is normal, after a declaration of war, for a country to adopt preventive policies towards enemy aliens who might have been within its borders at that time. What was not normal in 1941 was the number of Japanese on the West Coast who were artificially kept in this category. This did not stop the government from immediately including them in its policies of surveillance and registration. At the same time, anti-Japanese sentiments began pushing for action against all those of Japanese ancestry.

Initially opposed to extending the scope beyond actual aliens, General De, who commanded the Presidio of San Francisco and had overall military authority within the West Coast area, requested in February 1942 expanded authority. Roosevelt authorized this with Executive Order 9906 on February 19. Under its terms, DeWitt quickly imposed first curfews and then additional restrictions, culminating in an order on May 2, 1942, that everyone with Japanese ancestry living with 100 miles of the Pacific Coast should report for transportation to detention centers. Forced to leave most of their possessions behind, the evacuees were obliged to sell their homes, farms, and businesses, often at depressed prices.

Japanese read evacuation orders

The argument was military necessity, due to the danger that this population posed in terms of potential espionage and sabotage. Hardly any examples had surfaced at the time. Remarkably, this very absence of hostile activity was presented as proof that they were plotting something for later. The evidence, repeated by General DeWitt in his final report on the successful operation, are extremely weak. It included:

  • Emperor worship among the Japanese, although the analogous relationship between Italian-American Catholics and a Pope having warm relations with Mussolini was never used against them,
  • The location of many Japanese homes and farms near places of military importance, although this pattern had been established long before hostilities were even on the horizon,
  • The attack on Brookings, Oregon, attributed to knowledge gained from traitorous radio transmissions from the mainland, despite the fact that the act took place months after the evacuation was complete.

    Child laborer

    The 10 camps (relocation centers) were located at:

    The last 274 internees were removed from San Francisco, California, on May 20th, 1942. Only six seriously ill people remained in local hospitals.

    Executive Order 9066 was not formally rescinded until the administration of Gerald Ford in 1976, enforcement was abandoned in 1944 and the last of the camps was closed in March 1946.

    Evacuees wait for luggage

    The constitutionality of the internment of Japanese Americans was challenged twice in the courts in cases that reached the Supreme Court. In both cases, the court affirmed the constitutionality of federal actions. The first case was Hirabayashi v. United States, which concerned Gordon Hirabayashi, a student at the University of Washington who refused to be confined as ordered. The Supreme Court ruled on June 21, 1943, that Hirabayashi was guilty of a misdemeanor and that the federal government had behaved in a constitutional manner.

    Japanese-American farm workers

    The second case was Korematsu v. United States. Fred Korematsu was an American citizen of Japanese descent who declined to leave his home, despite it being in an exclusion area. The Supreme Court ruled on December 1944 on essentially the same terms as the previous years. They accepted military necessity as defined by military authorities in wartime. Justice Hugo Black, writing the majority opinion, observed that:

    The military authorities, charged with the primary responsibility of defending our shores, concluded that curfew provided inadequate protection and order exclusion. They did so, as pointed out in our Hirabayashi opinion, in accordance with congressional authority to the military to say who should and who should not remain in the threatened areas.

    Justice Felix Frankfurter concurred, noting that the Constitution created the legitimate power to conduct war, and consequently:

    Therefore, the validity of action under the war power must be judged wholly in the context of war. That action is not to be stigmatized as lawless because like action in times of peace would be lawless. To talk about a military order that expresses an allowable judgment of war needs by those entrusted with the duty of conducting war as "an unconstitutional order" is to suffuse a part of the Constitution with an atmosphere of unconstitutionality.

    Justice Black denied that the process was constitutional or acceptable at the time:

    I dissent, therefore, from this legalization of racism. Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States. All residents of this nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land. Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States. They must accordingly be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment and as entitled to all the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.

    Justice Jackson took a more nuanced approach. Conceding that military expediency in wartime had in this case, as it would in future cases, encroach on constitutional freedoms, he opposed any decision by the court which would positively affirm its constitutionality:

    A judicial construction of the due process clause that will sustain this order is a far more subtle blow to liberty than the promulgation of the order itself. A military order, however unconstitutional, is not apt to last longer than the military emergency. Even during that period a succeeding commander may revoke it all. But once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalizes the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens.

    In the aftermath of the war, opinion turned against the internment process. Earl Warren, who had testified to Congress that, "The only reason that there has been no sabotage or espionage on the part of Japanese-Americans is that they are waiting for the right moment to strike," later stated that, "Whenever I thought of the innocent little children who were torn from home, school friends, and congenial surroundings, I was conscience-stricken."

    Professor Eugene Rostow, later dean of the Yale law school, wrote in Harper`s Magazine in September 1945 that internment of Japanese-Americans had been "our worst wartime mistake." He wrote:

    The idea of punishment only for individual criminal behavior is basic to all systems of civilized laws. A great principle was never lost so casually. Mr. Justice Black`s comment was weak to the point of impotence: "Hardships are a part of war, and war is an aggregation of hardships." It was an answer in the spirit of the cliche: `Don`t you know there`s a war going on?" It ignores the rights of citizenship, and the safeguards of trial practice which have been the historical attributes of liberty.

    On November 10, 1983, Fred Korematsu`s conviction was overturned on the grounds that the federal government had withheld material evidence from the Supreme Court. In 2011, the justice department formally admitted that it had presented the case in error, eliminating its standing as a precedent.

    Forty-six years after the harsh conditions, dislocated lives, and pain, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was signed by President Ronald Reagan. With it, the U.S. government formally acknowledged its mistake, apologized, and provided token financial restitution of $20,000 to each of the affected families.

    ---- Selected Quotes ----

    Quotes regarding Japanese Internment.

    By Earl Warren
    The only reason that there has been no sabotage or espionage on the part of Japanese-Americans is that they are waiting for the right moment to strike.
    Testimony before Congress

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