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 Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941.
History of Japanese Immigration to U.S.
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.
Pathway to Japanese Internment
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 DeWitt, 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.
The argument was that internment was a military necessity, due to the danger that this population posed in terms of potential espionage and sabotage. But 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, was extremely weak. It included:
The 10 camps (relocation centers) were located at:
Although Executive Order 9066 was not formally rescinded until the administration of Gerald R. Ford in 1976, enforcement was abandoned in 1944 and the last of the camps was closed in March 1946.
Supreme Court Rulings & Legal Legacy
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.
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. In a 6-3 decision, they accepted military necessity as defined by military authorities in wartime. Today, the case is often cited as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions of all time, and also is known for its powerful and compelling dissenting opinions.
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.The dissents in Korematsu v. U.S. are frequently brought into discussions of contemporary issues and have become representative of what are termed, "fiery dissents," those that are well-reasoned, pack an emotional punch, and clarify or provide inspiration to future laws.
Justice Frank Murphy 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 Owen Roberts recognized that the defendant was being punished based solely upon his ancestry:
...it is the case of convicting a citizen as a punishment for not submitting to imprisonment in a concentration camp, based on his ancestry, and solely because of his ancestry, without evidence or inquiry concerning his loyalty and good disposition towards the United States. If this be a correct statement of the facts disclosed by this record, and facts of which we take judicial notice, I need hardly labor the conclusion that Constitutional rights have been violated.Justice Robert Jackson contended that the power of military expediency in wartime did not warrant or excuse stripping Korematsu and the other internees of their constitutionally protected civil rights:
Korematsu was born on our soil, of parents born in Japan. The Constitution makes him a citizen of the United States by nativity and a citizen of California by residence. No claim is made that he is not loyal to this country. There is no suggestion that apart from the matter involved here he is not law abiding and well disposed. Korematsu, however, has been convicted of an act not commonly a crime. It consists merely of being present in the state whereof he is a citizen, near the place where he was born, and where all his life he has lived. ...His crime would result, not from anything he did, said, or thought, different than they, but only in that he was born of different racial stock. Now, if any fundamental assumption underlies our system, it is that guilt is personal and not inheritable. Even if all of one's antecedents had been convicted of treason, the Constitution forbids its penalties to be visited upon him. But here is an attempt to make an otherwise innocent act a crime merely because this prisoner is the son of parents as to whom he had no choice, and belongs to a race from which there is no way to resign."