Was the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII a public affair?

Was the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII a public affair?

Was the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII public affair; meaning, was it in any way discussed or reported in the contemporary American media? Did the authorities conduct any explanatory propaganda for the public and the Japanese being interned and relocated? My question is not about the visibility of the relocation. Of course, people could see it and people knew about it. I'm rather interested in finding out if there was any PR and public discussion involved (e.g. aimed at differentiating this from European practices of internment and exile)? If you can point me to some relevant literature on this issue, I'd really appreciate it.

Since this was front page news in local newspapers (cf. San Francisco Examiner, February 1942), this was known and observed by the public:

American public opinion initially stood by the large population of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, with the Los Angeles Times characterizing them as "good Americans, born and educated as such." Many Americans believed that their loyalty to the United States was unquestionable.

But, six weeks after the attack, public opinion along the Pacific began to turn against Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, as the press and other Americans became nervous about the potential for fifth column activity. Though the administration (including the President Franklin D. Roosevelt and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover) dismissed all rumors of Japanese-American espionage on behalf of the Japanese War effort, pressure mounted upon the Administration as the tide of public opinion turned against Japanese Americans. Civilian and military officials had serious concerns about the loyalty of the ethnic Japanese after the Niihau Incident which immediately followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, when a civilian Japanese national and two Hawaiian-born ethnic Japanese on the island of Ni'ihau violently freed a downed and captured Japanese naval airman, attacking their fellow Ni'ihau islanders in the process.

See the references in the cited wikipedia page.

The Internment of Japanese Americans as reported by Seattle Area Weekly Newspapers

The Bainbridge Review

April 9, 1942

April 16, 1942

Northwest Enterprise

Japanese American Courier

Jennifer Speidel helped with image digitalization for this essay.

On December 7, 1941 Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, thrusting the United States into both war and a state of hysteria. By the dawn of Monday December 8th, the FBI had arrested hundreds of Japanese immigrants, many of whom would spend the duration of the war in jail. These arrests would foreshadow the plight of Japanese Americans on the West Coast for the next five years.

Almost over night the country had taken on a new sense of patriotism and a belief in contributing to an all out war effort. Along the West Coast, the supposed threat of Japanese dive bombers appearing in the sky at any minute was palpable. Night-time black outs up and down the coast were being enforced by the military. Soon all “enemy aliens,” any Japanese, German, or Italian immigrants, would be locked out of areas that were deemed necessary to defense along the West Coast. The hysteria would finally culminate in President Roosevelt signing executive order 9102, which established the War Relocation Authority on March 18, 1942. This order authorized the military to designate areas along the coast from which all enemy aliens, both immigrants and native born, were to be moved inland to relocation camps. On March 24, 1942, the first civilian exclusion order was issued for Bainbridge Island, where forty five families were given one week to be evacuated by the military.

Seattle area newspapers closely covered the evacuation. Their editorials fell into three categories: some were for evacuation, some were against evacuation, and some were ambivalent. This essay examines some of the smaller newspapers in the region, weekly newspapers that served specialized communities: the Seattle Argus, West Seattle Herald, Bainbridge Review, Northwest Enterprise, and Japanese American Courier.

The Argus newspaper was a weekly publication edited by H. D. Chadwick. The paper gave a general outline of issues from week to week, highlighting areas such as business, courts, and city hall. The columns were a mixture of reporting and opinion, making the whole paper seem like an editorial. Though the Argus was for the evacuation order the editor took an unconventional approach to justifying his beliefs. In a December 27, 1941 story entitled “Racial Prejudice”, the Argus reported that there were reports of young Japanese Americans being beaten by white “hoodlums” and that these actions were outrageous. The article then made a distinction between Japanese and Japanese Americans: “socially and commercially ostracized, the Japanese nationals in this country face a bleak future, and for them we make no appeal at this time. The American born Japanese, however, are deserving of exactly the same tolerance that is enjoyed by, say, the American born Swedes. They are Americans too, they are not enemy aliens.” The Argus drew a distinction between being an immigrant and being second generation Japanese American by arguing that only the latter was worthy of trust. The editor showed a respect for the American born Japanese, and although the issue of evacuation was not fully relevant at the time of this story, the implication is that only Japanese nationals would have to be evacuated.

By February, the Argus had changed its mind. In a Feb. 14, 1942 article titled “Young Japanese Americans,” the Argus no longer made any distinction between American born and Japanese nationals:

This paper has taken a pretty tolerant view of the young American Japanese in its discussion of enemies in our midst. A news story this week inspires us to repudiate every generous thought we have held toward these people. It is now revealed that there are more Japanese students than white studying German at Broadway high school, and that many of them took up the study of German after the war began. (Argus, February 14, 1942 p.1)

The story went on to condemn the government for allowing “American born Japs” and nationals alike to “remain at large.” Finally, the story concluded that not all Japanese and Japanese Americans may be guilty, but it was better to be safe than sorry: “if the innocent are interned with the guilty, it will not be a very serious matter. If any japs are allowed to remain at large in this country, it might spell the greatest disaster in history.”( Argus, February 14, 1942 p.1)

Almost three months into the war, the hysteria along the west coast was beginning to shift direction. In the days following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the perceived threat was supposed to come from the skies in the form of bombs and dive-bombing planes. As that threat seemed to be less immediate, an idea of a fifth column at work in the country started to take its place. Months earlier in December, Frank Knox, the Secretary of the Navy, told the press that he believed a fifth column of saboteurs was present in Hawaii before Dec. 7th. The fifth column was supposed to include both Japanese immigrants and American born Japanese, lending support to Japan in the form of spying, sending reports of American actions to Japan, or even sabotage. The Argus applied these ideas to local experience in its story, “The Fifth Column at Work,&rdquo which stressed that “japs are employed at Harborview hospital. Japs are living in, and even operating, hotels on the western slopes of Seattle’s hills. A jap stationed at Harborview, another at west Seattle and a third at a point in the white river valley could, by pre-arranged light flashes, establish a perfect triangulation for the guidance of enemy planes to the Boeing plant…and still we allow the japs to roam at will in this vital area.” (Argus, February 28, 1942 p.1) The tone of this story is almost a plea for something to finally be done, and it is right around this time that the idea of evacuation is becoming more imminent. In fact, the February 28th issue is the last time the Argus makes such pointed opinionated stories against the Japanese Americans. There are a few stories in the next couple of weeks, mainly stating facts about what the evacuations will look like, and when they will happen. Once the issue of evacuation became formal federal policy, the staff of the Argus did not devote more time to the subject.

West Seattle Herald

The West Seattle Herald was another weekly publication. Its columns were very general the front page had articles about one to two major national or local stories, then the rest of the paper and articles were specific to the west Seattle neighborhood which was almost completely segregated through informal and formal prohibitions against non-white homeownership or apartment renting. In the days following Pearl Harbor up until mid February, there was no mention of the evacuation of the Japanese Americans, nor any mention as to the way the paper felt about Japanese Americans. Almost out of the blue, on February 26, 1942 along the bottom of the front page read, “Complete evacuation of aliens &ndash a common sense move – why delay?” There was no article on the front page that would tie this statement into it. On page seven of the same issue there was an editorial entitled “GET ‘EM OUT!” The piece opens by sighting an incident in California where an enemy submarine was supposedly guided by lights on a hill near Santa Barbara which triggered the firing of anti-aircraft guns by the U.S. military. From this event, the editorial states complained: “And yet we are still soft pedaling on the issue of wholesale internment of alien enemies. When are we going to get tough?&hellip.so long as we permit alien enemies to remain in our midst we are playing with fire…the government should initiate instant and drastic orders sweeping all aliens, foreign or native born, so far inland that we can forget them for the duration.”(February 26, 1942 p.7) Although this is the only issue in which the paper or editor speaks to the internment issue, it is a clear example of being fiercely in favor of the government acting against the Japanese Americans.

The Bainbridge Review

On Bainbridge Island, there were a considerable number of Japanese American families—most of them connected to various kinds of farming. The _Review_’s reaction to internment suggested that the Island’s Japanese American population was deeply tied into every part of the community. Bainbridge Island was the first place in the United States from which all civilians of Japanese decent were evacuated by the military. This fact makes the _Review_’s response to internment stand out. This was one of the few newspapers in the country to take an editorial position against internment. The publishers of the Review were Walter C. Woodward and Mildred Logg Woodward.

In an editorial entitled “More Plain Talk,” the Review lets its readers know where they stood:

We spoke of an American recoil to Japanese treachery and wrote: and in such recoil of sentiment there is danger of a blind, wild, hysterical hatred of all persons who can trace ancestry to Japan…who can say that the big majority of our Japanese Americans are not loyal…their record bespeaks nothing but loyalty: their sons are in our army…it [the Review] will not dispute the federal government if it, in its considered wisdom, calls for the removal of all Japanese. Such orders&hellip will be based on necessity and not hatred. (February 5, 1942 p.4)

The Bainbridge Review is the only area newspaper that spoke this way. This piece makes the connection between the Japanese Americans and how integrated they are in the society. The article ended by trying to reason that the hysteria that allowed people to consider internment should not lead to the taking away of the rights of so many loyal citizens, rights that are constitutionally guaranteed.

Although no official word of an exact date for evacuation would come until the end of March, the March 5, 1942 issue of the Review made clear the fact that residents on the Island knew that the Japanese Americans would be leaving. In an editorial on the front page entitled, “Many Who Mourn,” the Review put the issue into a very personal tone by reminding everyone of the bigotry involved in the evacuations. The review pointed out that the Japanese Americans would be shipped off to unknown parts where they would not be welcomed. All but one governor from the inland states opposed the relocation of the Japanese Americans to their states. This same editorial brought with it an apology to the Japanese American residents for not being able to do enough to have them stay, and expressed a sense of failure: “The review— and those who think as it does—have lost.”(March 5, 1942 p.1)

Then on March 23 came the order for the evacuation of all Japanese Americans from Bainbridge Island. The orders were now directed at the Review’s own back yard, and from the articles and editorials in the March 26th issue, it seems as though the Review had a new position to fight for. In a front-page editorial entitled “Not Enough Time” in the March 26th issue, the Review shed light on many of the underlying problems with the evacuation orders. First, the _Review_emphasized the Constitutional rights of Japanese Americans by calling them citizens and putting “not aliens” in parentheses. Even if the law of the land discriminated against Japanese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens, their children, the American born Japanese, were supposed to be afforded the same rights as all other Americans under the Constitution. Second, the Review noted that there were three months between Pearl Harbor and the evacuation orders, and in that time there wasn’t any of the devious sabotage that people feared. It asked why, if the FBI had been investigating and arresting all those who were suspicious, everyone else have to suffer evacuation. The FBI, the Review noted, had already been to Bainbridge Island specifically to search homes and make arrests. The _Review_’s blamed the government for giving the order but added that “we say this on our own accord. It is not an echo of anything we have heard a single Japanese say. They are taking this treatment without a single bitter word. At least we have heard none.” This closing statement by the _Review_suggests that by enduring these orders, Japanese Americans once again proved their loyalty, even when the orders themselves were unjust.

The evacuation of the Bainbridge Island Japanese Americans took one short week. However, one of the most heartfelt editorials would come out of that week. In the April 2nd issue, the Review published a story about the soldiers who evacuated the Japanese Americans. The editors begin by explaining that because of the war, it would not be appropriate to give the names and locations of the soldiers. It is promised that when the time is right, the review will publish all of the names of the soldiers and commend them for the humane way in which they conducted themselves in carrying out such difficult orders. The story goes on to quote one of the unnamed soldiers as saying that the island’s Japanese Americans had shown the soldiers such kindness and hospitality that this was the hardest job he and his men had ever done.

The Review did not speak for everyone on Bainbridge Island. Every couple of issues, it published a column entitled “The Open Forum” to give its readers a voice. In the April 2nd issue, J.J McRee criticized the editors as puerile, complained that it was not the place of the Review to question the actions of the government, he then ended by asking to stop his subscription. The following week brought a letter from Orville Robertson, in which he explained that he would find a new subscriber for the Review to make up for the loss of the gentleman the week before. He goes on to say that “by perusing an attitude of sympathetic understanding and fairness toward our citizens of Japanese ancestry, and our friendly aliens who have for many years chosen the American way of life, you are making an important contribution.” (April 9, 1942 p.4) Among the readers of the Review who chose to write in, the majority agreed that the Japanese Americans deserved to be trusted as loyal Americans just as those who were not of Japanese ancestry. Also among the letters to the editor was testimony from evacuees who described their evacuation to and incarceration in California. The April 16, 1942 (p.4) issue published a letter from Nob. Koura, an evacuee, that thanked the Review for the stance that it took and for the help that it gave toward making the evacuation easier.

The evacuations would continue in other parts of the area around Bainbridge Island however the fight had been taken out of the Review. Once the Bainbridge citizens were gone, the Review turned back to the weekly happenings of Island life.

Northwest Enterprise

The Northwest Enterprise was a weekly publication and the region’s most prominent African American newspaper. On Friday, December 12, 1941 the Enterprise published an editorial by E. I. Robinson titled “Let Us Keep Our Record Clear_._” In it, the editor spoke about how there was no need to lose one’s head or commit crimes in the name of patriotism. He described the Japanese Americans as good citizens who tend to their own business. But while this piece was the only one of its kind to appear so close to December 7th and argued against harming Japanese Americans just because of their ancestry, the Northwest Enterprise did nothing to oppose internment, and did not mention the plight of the Japanese Americans again.

Japanese American Courier

The Japanese American Courier was a weekly newspaper published and written by Japanese Americans. James Y. Sakamoto was the paper’s founder, its editor, its publisher, and its main voice. Under a microscope of suspicion after Pearl Harbor, and already marginalized by racism, Sakamoto and others at the Courier sought to assure the nation of Japanese American worthiness of citizenship rights and showed as many outward signs of their loyalty as they could.

On December 12, 1941, in its first issue since war broke out the Courier published a page 2 editorial by Sakamoto that spoke of meeting a common enemy. The common enemy was a way for Sakamoto to tell his readers that those Japanese Americans who chose to stay in the U.S. were now expected to do their part to help win the war against Japan. He pointedly wrote that if there were any ties of support to Japan, those ties were cut when Japan decided on war. This, along with other articles in the December 12th issue, very clearly state that the Japanese American people denounce Japan, and put their full support behind the United States.

For the next several months after Pearl Harbor, the Courier was the one area newspaper that focused on the issue of what fate lay ahead for the Japanese American people in World War II. Editorially, the paper did not deviate from being loyal and patriotic at all costs. On Friday, March 6th, the title of Sakamoto’s editorial spoke for itself: “Let’s Obey Order Loyally_._” In this article, Sakamoto wrote that if Japanese Americans were allowed to stay, then they would be able to help and smash Japan in war, which he adds is what they would like to do. He also explains what must happen, whether they want to or not, “When that order comes from our government it must be obeyed loyally and cheerfully. A basic tenet of loyalty is to obey the orders of the government to which one owes his allegiance.”(March 6, 1942 p.2)

For Sakamoto, whether the evacuation orders were right or wrong was less important than how Japanese American conducted themselves… Sakamoto was also a founding member of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), another group through which Japanese Americans stressed loyalty and obedience to the United States. In his March 13th editorial, Sakamoto publicized and applauded the support the JACL offered the government to help with evacuations. He quotes the JACL as explaining to the government that whatever needs to be done will be done cheerfully and smilingly. Sakamoto goes on to say that the cooperation is splendid and that the young Japanese Americans should accept the evacuation cheerfully and smilingly.

Sakamoto’s writing in his own newspaper contrasted sharply with his public pronouncements about internment. Though his editorials eventually embraced internment, he also publicly protested in a January 21, 1942 community meeting that internment “would destroy all that we have built for more than one-half century”1

Sakamoto must have felt this loss keenly when the evacuation orders also brought an end to the newspaper he had founded to combat xenophobia, embrace what he saw as best in America, and promote the citizenship claims of Japanese Americans. In the final, April 24th issue, Sakamoto gave a farewell address entitled “Until We Meet Again”:

With this present issue the _Japanese American Courier_suspends publication under present conditions, after 14 years of service. The foundation stone of the Courier has from the first been Americanism and the promotion of the welfare of the nation. Our deepest regret is that we shall for the present, not be able to carry on that work…after we have gone we ask our fellow Americans to remember and to realize that we are at war. We think our removal emphasizes this vividly…we contribute now with our cooperation with the government. And so, until we meet again, and may God bless America, our beloved country!

Sakamoto returned to Seattle in 1945, but without the financial resources necessary to restart his newspaper. According to David Takami’s historylink.org essay, Sakamoto and his wife “lived on government assistance until he found a job conducting a telephone solicitation campaign for the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. He died on December 3, 1955, after being struck by an automobile on his way to work.”

© Copyright Luke Colasurdo 2005
HSTAA 353 Spring 2005

1 Richard Berner. Seattle Transformed: World War II to the Cold War. Seattle, WA: Charles Press, 1999. p. 29 Unclear citation for original source.

Nihongo Gakko: Tacoma’s Japanese Language School

Interviews and Project By Brenda Sonnier blog post written by Erika Wigren

“It was through the Japanese Language School that we learned how to respect our parents, our elders, and how to behave in public … but [our principal] always stressed our allegiance is supposed to be American.” Yoshiko Sugiyama, former Japanese Language School student.

A group of students and faculty outside the Tacoma Japanese Language School, May 22, 1927. Photo from University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

In 1911, the Tacoma Japanese Association opened Nihongo Gakko, a Japanese Language School in Tacoma, Washington. Every weekday, after attending public school, Japanese-American students would attend Nihongo Gakko.

From left to right: sisters Yoshiko, Tadaye, and Kimi.

In this oral history project, UWT student Brenda Sonnier interviews former Japanese Language School students Sadako Hirose, Tadaye (Teddy) Kawasaki, and Teddy’s sisters Yoshiko Sugiyama and Kimi Tanbara.

Nihongo Gakko had nearly 300 students in attendance, including Sadako, Teddy’s, Yoshiko, and Kimi.

Students would attend Nihongo Gakko after public school every day to learn about Japanese culture, art, language, and history.

In their interview Sadako, Teddy, and her sisters, reflect on their time at the Japanese Language School and learning Japanese calligraphy, grammar, and gardening.

“In the summer we had a victory garden on the side of the building [and] every classroom had a garden” explained Teddy.

The sisters also discussed their principle Masato Yamasaki and his wife Kuni Yamasaki, who they remembered as being passionate and dedicated to teaching their students.

“They didn’t get much pay, but they enjoyed it!” Sadako said. “They were dedicated people,” Teddy added.

Additionally, Teddy and her sisters explain the changes they witnessed in Tacoma and Nihongo Gakko’s transition into the official registration location for Tacoma’s Japanese community and their relocation to internment camps in 1942.

Kimi explained that “they choose Japanese School mainly, not because of anything other than the fact that it was a good meeting place for the people…If it hadn’t been there it would have been the Church.”

Sadako, Teddy, Yoshiko, and Kimi were all initially sent to Pinedale Assembly Center, California, then later relocated to Heart Mountain Relocation Center in northwestern Wyoming.

From left to right: Yoshiko, Sadako, and Tadaye.

Due to WWII and the internment of the Japanese community, Nihongo Gakko was closed and left abandoned.

In 1951, Teddy’s mother asked her to buy the school, so she did, explaining it was “ for sentimental reasons.” The school was used mostly as storage.

Then, in 1993, Teddy sold the school to the University of Washington, Tacoma and due to excessive damage the building was demolished.

In order to commemorate and honor Nihongo Gakko and the Japanese community of Tacoma, UWT installed a Japanese Language School memorial sculpture and plaque along the Prairie Line Trail in 2014.


Pool edge

"Here we admit a wrong. Here we affirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law."
President Ronald W Reagan Upon Singing the Civil Liberties Act 1988

Left wall

"May this memorial be a tribute to the indomitable spirit of a citizenry in World War II who remained steadfast in their faith in our democratic system."
Norman Y. Mineta, internee at Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

"I am proud that I am an American
of Japanese ancestry.
I believe in this nation's
institutions, ideals and traditions.
I glory in her heritage.
I boast of her history.
I trust in her future."
Mike M. Masaoka, civil rights advocate, staff sergeant at 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

"Our actions in passing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 are essential for giving credibility to our constitutional system and reinforcing our tradition of justice."
Robert T Matsui, internee at Tule Lake.

Right wall

On February 19, 1942, 73 days after the United States entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which resulted in the removal of 120,000 Japanese American men, women and children from their homes in the western states and Hawaii.

Allowed only what they could carry, families were forced to abandon homes, friends, farms and businesses to live in ten remote relocation centers guarded by armed troops and surrounded by barbed wire fences. Some remained in the relocation centers until March 1946.

In addition 4,500 were arrested by the Justice Department and held in internment camps, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico. 2,500 were also held at the family camp in Crystal City, Texas.

Answering the call of duty, young Japanese Americans entered into military service, joining many pre-war draftees. The 100th infantry battalion and 442nd regimental combat team, fighting in Europe, became the most highly decorated army unit for its size and length of service in American Military History. Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service used their bilingual skills to help shorten the war in the Pacific and thus saved countless American lives. The 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion helped fortify the infrastructure essential for victory.

In 1983, almost forty years after the war ended, the federal Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians found that there had been no military necessity for the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans and that a grave injustice had been done.

In 1988 President Ronald W. Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act which made an apology for the injustice, provided minimal compensation and reaffirmed the nation's commitment to equal justice under the law for all Americans.

Rear wall


Rear wall

"Japanese by Blood
Hearts and Minds American
With Honor Unbowed
Bore the String of Injustice
For Future Generations"
Tanka poem, a classical form of Japanese poetry, written by Akemi Dawn Matsumoto Ehrlich

"We believed a threat to this nation's democracy was a threat to the American dream and to al free peoples of the world."
Spark M. Matsunaga US Congressman, US Senator, Captain 100th Infantry Battalion

Rear wall, names

Five panels of names, registry at https://www.njamemorial.org/remember
Here we honor those who died in service during World War II

Rear wall

"You fought not only the enemy but you fought prejudice - and you won. Keep up that fight and we will continue to win to make this great republic stand for what the constitution says it stands for. The welfare of all the people all of the time."
President Harry S. Truman 1946 White House Ceremony for the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team

Recovery and redress

Though the Japanese American community inched toward economic recovery, “this appearance of normalcy was achieved by ‘forgetting’ the evacuation experience,” sociologist Tetsuden Kashima, who was incarcerated at the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah as a child, wrote in 1980. As families struggled to regain footing, they prioritized assimilation over pride and maintained a code of silence about their experiences. A generation gap developed between the older Issei, or Japanese-born immigrants the Nisei, or second generation, who grew up in the United States and the Sansei, a third generation who were interned as small children or born “after camp.”

Only in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s did the tide turn as Japanese Americans began demanding answers about their families’ mass detention. Though the U.S. government had paid out about $38 million to Japanese Americans who claimed losses from the “evacuation” after the war starting in 1948, the payments represented only a fraction of the actual losses from internment. The successes of the Civil Rights Movement energized the Sansei, who began to pressure Congress to pay former internees and apologize for their incarceration.

In 1980, Congress created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, a bipartisan commission that conducted intensive historical research and public hearings across the country with more than 750 witnesses. Three years later, the commission issued a landmark report calling out internment as “a grave injustice” and recommended internees be individually compensated.

After years of public controversy and Congressional foot dragging, the U.S. adopted the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted $20,000 in financial redress and a presidential apology to every surviving U.S. citizen or legal resident who had been incarcerated. By then, though, many of the older generation had already died, making it a bitter victory for Japanese Americans.

The anti-Asian sentiment that enabled internment still lives on: Between March 2020 and February 2021, Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit organization that tracks incidents of discrimination and harassment against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States, received almost 3,800 reports of hate incidents. Nearly 80 years after internment, Japanese Americans still must fend off threats to their civil rights, and even their lives.

Today, there are about 1.5 million people of Japanese ancestry in the United States, and the generations that came after internment watched their elders both survive and rebuild.

“The journey from silence to redress has shown that some forms of resilience evolve over decades,” psychologists Donna K. Nagata and Yuzuru J. Takeshita wrote in 1998. Japanese Americans are still affected by internment and its legacies—but resilience and strength are also part of their heritage.

It turns out that the U.S. government had pressured Latin American governments to turn over legal residents and even citizens of Japanese, German or Italian ancestry, ostensibly to protect the . Read more →

Libia Yamamoto has a feel for fashion — even as a young girl in a World War II detention camp.

On a recent trip back to the place where she was imprisoned for four years as a child, Yamamoto showed me a class photo. She was 10 years old at the time, and in the picture, she's smiling at the camera, dark hair swept back in a ribbon, sporting a plaid tailored dress with a flared skirt.

Yamamoto is now 84. Her hair is white, but still carefully coiffed. On this cold November day, she’s bundled up in a long wool coat as she waits to board a chartered bus. I'm joining her as she travels more than 100 miles from San Antonio to Crystal City, Texas, where she was interned.

Soon we’re rolling down the highway into rural South Texas, in a convoy of buses carrying 170 people who all share some connection to the Crystal City Internment Camp. They are making this pilgrimage to draw attention to a little-known injustice of WWII that seems more relevant than ever: They see a repeat of their own history in the large-scale detention of migrant families in recent years.

Photo by Julie Small / KQED

Japanese Latin American Libia Yamamoto reunited with others who were interned in Crystal City, Texas, during WWII in this 2019 photo.

Yamamoto was born in Peru to parents who had immigrated from Japan in the early 1900s. The family owned several thriving businesses in the coastal city of Chiclayo and lived a comfortable life on a hacienda with servants and chauffeurs.

That life unraveled after the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

A year after that attack, police in Peru arrested Yamamoto's father and took him to the local jail. Yamamoto and her mother arrived there the next morning just in time to see police load him onto a truck with other men and drive away.

Yamamoto said her mother, who had kept her composure until then, burst into tears.

“In between sobs, I would ask my mother, 'Where's he going?'” Yamamoto recalled. “She said she didn't know. I said, 'When is he coming back?' She didn’t know anything.”

It turns out that the U.S. government had pressured Latin American governments to turn over legal residents and even citizens of Japanese, German or Italian ancestry, ostensibly to protect the southern hemisphere from invasion.

Under the pretext of national security, U.S. officials transported supposedly dangerous “enemy aliens” to the United States. Ultimately more than 2,200 people of Japanese ancestry from 13 Latin American countries ended up detained in the United States during WWII. Of those, 1800 were from Peru.

I first learned about this history more than 20 years ago from a family friend in Los Angeles who told me, “The U.S. government kidnapped my family and threw us in a concentration camp.”

This was back before I was a journalist. I helped publicize the redress efforts of some of the surviving Japanese Latin Americans who filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government in 1996.

For a month after her father was taken away, Yamamoto told me her family didn’t know where he was or even if he was alive. Then he managed to send a letter for her sister’s birthday.

“He had enclosed some pressed flowers,” Yamamoto remembered. “He said, ‘I'm sorry, I can't give you any birthday present, so this will have to do.’ ”

He wrote that he’d been put to work in a U.S. Army camp in Panama.

Months later, authorities told the family that if they wanted to see him again, they would have to agree to be shipped to the United States and reunite with him there.

So in July 1943, Yamamoto, her mother and two siblings joined other wives and children at the port of Callao to board a U.S. ship. She remembers walking up the gangplank, bringing all that they could carry.

“I was so afraid,” Yamamoto said. “We saw the soldiers lined up with guns, and we thought, ‘As soon as we go to high seas, they're going to kill us all!’ ”

As it turned out, the U.S. planned to use detainees like the Yamamoto's family for prisoner exchanges with Japan and other enemy nations. During the war, the U.S. exchanged 900 Japanese Latin Americans for U.S. citizens held by the Japanese, and then after the war, deported another 800 of them to Japan, a place many of them had never seen.

U.S. consuls in Latin America were under orders not to issue visas to families like Yamamoto's, and on the ship, U.S. soldiers confiscated the passports of any traveler who had one, according to historian C. Harvey Gardiner, who wrote a book about the prisoner exchange program.

When Yamamoto's family arrived in New Orleans, after a three week journey, she said immigration agents on the dock asked to see their travel documents. When she couldn't present a visa or passport, her mother was told the family had entered the U.S. “illegally,” and they were being sent to detention.

Yamamoto remembered seeing customs agents searching bags and even dumping people’s belongings into the water. But she was allowed to keep her prized possession: a doll her father had given her.

Unlike the 120,000 American citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry in the U.S. who were detained in internment camps run by the War Relocation Authority, the Latin Americans were detained in facilities run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They were largely hidden from the public and the press.

Photo by Julie Small / KQED

Floodlights illuminate the Immigration and Customs Enforcement family detention facility in Dilley, Texas, in this 2019 photo.

An estimated 3,000 Latin Americans of Japanese, German and Italian ancestry passed through the Crystal City internment camp for families. A 1945 propaganda film produced by the U.S. Department of Justice shows hundreds of cabins laid out across dirt roads and enclosed in high fences with watchtowers for armed guards.

Yamamoto was seven when she arrived and would spend the next four years there.

Immigrant Families Detained Today

In January of this year, I traveled to the same part of Texas to report on a new wave of families in detention: thousands of mothers and children seeking refuge from violence in Central America who were taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and placed in a privately-run prison, just 45 miles from Crystal City, in a town called Dilley.

Since the facility opened in 2015, the population has fluctuated from a few hundred people up to 2400.

ICE denied my requests to visit the South Texas Family Residential Center, so I asked an immigrant advocate who had worked inside it to drive me to the highway entrance. From there at a distance you can see a large tented area, where immigrant rights advocate Katy Murdza believes people are processed in.

“You can just see the tops of the light posts,” Murdza observed. “There's floodlighting at night, so people say it's even hard to sleep because it's never truly night.”

Those floodlights are so bright you can see them from a mile away.

The Crystal City camp was also surrounded by barbed wire fences and floodlights.

When our buses arrive, all that’s visible on the now barren field is a water tower and the cement base of a reservoir that the detainees converted into a swimming pool to escape the scorching Texas summers.

Two girls drowned in that pool — one of them was Yamamoto's good friend.

Yamamoto and the other pilgrims gather inside the base of the swimming pool for a ceremony to honor the girls and 15 other people who died at the camp.

Buddhist minister Ron Kobata of San Francisco asks participants to offer incense and white carnations at an altar for their predecessors, “who endured this experience, but not with just pity and resentment, but with determination so that their offspring will not have to endure that same tragedy.”

Yamamoto and other pilgrims participate in the ritual.

Photo by Julie Small / KQED

Japanese Latin American Eloy Moaki returns to the site where his family was interned during WWII in Crystal City, Texas, in this 2019 photo.

Later, they say that a very similar tragedy is unfolding again — for migrant families coming to the U.S. to seek asylum.

The day after their visit to Crystal City, they participate in a rally in San Antonio with local immigrant advocates. Yamamoto is invited to speak.

“Lately when I hear the immigrants getting separated by children and parents, I feel so bad for them!” she tells the crowd of a couple hundred people. She says it brings back the painful memories of her own childhood separation.

“When my father was kidnapped in January of 1943 and we said goodbye to him, not knowing where he was being taken, and when we ever will see him again,” she says. “It was a very traumatic day for me.”

Murdza, the advocate who took me to the family detention center in Dilley earlier this year, also speaks at the rally. She works for an organization that provides legal help to families to get them released from detention to await their hearings in immigration court.

“Detention harms the physical health, mental health and legal rights of the families,” she tells the former internees.

“The government calls this facility the South Texas Family Residential Center,” Murdza says. “But those of us who know its effects on the mothers and children detained there know that it's a jail.”

Starting Over in the United States

After about eight months of separation, Yamamoto was finally reunited with her father in Crystal City.

Then the parents learned that the U.S. wanted to deport them to Japan — a place that Yamamoto and her siblings had never been. But the day they were set to sail, Yamamoto’s father became too ill to travel. His health had deteriorated in detention.

A full two years after the war ended, the family was still being held at Crystal City. Finally, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California arranged for their release to an aunt in Berkeley who agreed to sponsor them. Yamamoto remembers taking the train to the now-defunct Santa Fe station at Acton Street and University Avenue.

“A Japanese minister came to pick us up,” she recalled. “He drove up University and all the neon lights were shining. Wow! We were just amazed at all those beautiful lights.”

Yamamoto’s parents lost all their property in Peru, and Peruvian officials would not allow the family to return. She says her parents worked menial jobs in California for the rest of their lives.

For more than a decade after their release, the government continued to consider them "illegal aliens” subject to deportation. Then in 1954, a change in U.S. immigration law allowed the family to become legal permanent residents.

Finally, in 1998, Japanese Latin Americans won a historic settlement of $5,000 for each surviving detainee or their family, and a letter of apology signed by President Bill Clinton.

While many survivors found the offer meager, they thought it was important that the U.S. government officially acknowledged that it had violated their rights.

“We recognize the wrongs of the past and offer our profound regret to those who endured such grave injustice,” the letter stated. “We understand that our nation’s actions were rooted in racial prejudice and wartime hysteria.”

Yamamoto says she’s praying that President Trump will soon realize that his policies on immigrant families are wrong and that children are paying the price.

KPBS Midday Edition is a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.

How Fear Leads to Fascism: The Japanese-American Internment in WWII

Seventy-four years ago today, on February 19, 1942, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. With five paragraphs, he changed the lives of approximately 120,000 people—men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry living in the United States of America, most of them on the Pacific coast, who were forced to relocate to internment camps for the duration of World War II.

The United States declared war on Japan the day after the Imperial Japanese Army attacked Pearl Harbor. Executive Order 9066 came two months later. The emotions of people in the United States were running high, much as they did after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Roosevelt administration caved in to pressure from “farmers seeking to eliminate Japanese competition, a public fearing sabotage, politicians hoping to gain by standing against an unpopular group, and military authorities.” The internment of Japanese-Americans was driven by fear rather than evidence, and bad advice and popular opinion were cited as reasons for the internment of Japanese-Americans. Hatred and suspicion and profiling of a particular group of people led to the creation of legal methods for violating the civil liberties of those people. As always, euphemisms play a big part in the story.

For example, Executive Order 9066 did not actually say that Japanese-Americans were going to be forcibly evacuated from their homes, which they were it said that the Secretary of War was authorized to “prescribe military areas” and that “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 Commander may impose in his discretion.”

For “military areas,” or “relocation centers,” as they were called, think “internment camps,” or even, yes, “concentration camps.” While usually associated with the Nazis, a concentration camp is defined as “a guarded compound for the detention or imprisonment of aliens, members of ethnic minorities, political opponents, etc.” By that definition, the 10 internment camps set up to confine Japanese-Americans—in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas—were indeed concentration camps. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn declares that, with Executive Order 9066, “the United States came close to direct duplication of Fascism.”

Map of forced internment camp locations — used for the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II. Source: Wikipedia

For “whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose,” think of imprisonment. The internees lived in barracks, surrounded by barbed wire fences, watched from guard towers. The majority of them were Nisei, second generation Japanese born in America—United States citizens! They were forcibly separated from their homes their jobs their neighborhoods their businesses, which they sold at great losses and all aspects of their normal, daily lives. The first generation internees, the Issei, born in Japan and ineligible to become U.S. citizens, lost even more: since the camp rules allowed only Nisei to hold positions of authority, the Issei lost the respect and positions of honor that were their cultural birthright.

Executive Order 9066 claimed itself necessary for “the successful prosecution of the war,” which depended on the United States being able to provide “every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities.” Beneath those euphemisms lies the truth, that the United States government imprisoned innocent residents who happened to belong to a certain segment of the population, just in case they might be planning to spy for the Japanese military or destroy a defense plant. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn calls it “an action to be expected from a nation with a long history of racism and which was fighting a war, not to end racism, but to retain the fundamental elements of the American system.”

To make a long story short, life in the camps, where the internees spent over three years, imprisoned against their will, was difficult. Fred Korematsu was jailed for refusing to go to a camp, and his case went to the Supreme Court, where the “Court’s final decision upheld Korematsu’s conviction by a vote of six to three and downplayed the role of racial discrimination in the exclusion order,” according to Densho Encyclopedia, a free on-line resource about the history of the Japanese American WWII exclusion and incarceration experience.

The Redress Movement, efforts by survivors of the camps to obtain an apology, restitution of their civil rights, and/or monetary compensation, eventually won all three. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided a presidential apology and $20,000 to each of 60,000 living survivors. A 1992 amendment provided financial reparations to over 20,000 people who were previously declared ineligible.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, which are often compared to the Pearl Harbor attack for the fear and hatred they engendered, Japanese American activists stood up and protested racial profiling and unconstitutional incarceration. As Densho Encyclopedia describes it, “Remembering how few Americans protested the decision to remove and incarcerate Japanese Americans in 1942, these individuals and groups wanted to prevent history from repeating itself and victimizing Arab, Muslim, and South Asian Americans because of wartime racism.”

It is interesting to note that, as US History’s article states, “during the course of World War II, 10 Americans were convicted of spying for Japan, but not one of them was of Japanese ancestry.”

World War II -- America at War: Pearl Harbor

In the early hours of Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. After the surprise attack, America declared war and entered World War II.

This section provides resources on:

  • Background information about the attack
  • Oral history interviews from the National WWII Museum
  • National Park Service: Pearl Harbor National Memorial
  • Medals awarded for bravery
  • Original news film footage
  • Japanese perspectives on Pearl Harbor
  • Gallery from Getty Images

A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States: Historical Actions Against Immigrants

The attack on the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii territory by the Japanese on December 7, 1942 instigated the United States' involvement in World War II. On December 8th, the United States declared war on Japan. On December 11th, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. On February 19, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This Executive Order gave the Federal government the power to define geographical areas within the United States as military zones. Public Law 503 was subsequently enacted, which provided the Federal government enforcement power of Executive Order 9066. With the creation of military zones within the United States, the United States military was able to identify, relocate, and intern peoples defined as enemy aliens -- people of Japanese, Italian, or German descent. This internment applied to non-naturalized lawful immigrants, as well as citizens.

Japanese Internment

Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans suffered greatly under Executive Order 9066. Japanese immigrants, or naturalized citizens of Japanese descent were first identified by information provided for the United States Census and then assembled, voluntarily or through forced removal, into Wartime Civil Control Administration Assembly Centers (WCCA) in California, Oregon, and Washington. By March of 1942, War Relocation Authority Relocation Centers (WRA) were given control over the housing of the detainees. On January 2, 1945 the exclusionary zones created under military authority were disbanded throughout 1945 and 1946 the concentration camps were closed. The WRA was officially closed on June 26, 1946 by Executive Order 9742.

Detention wreaked havoc on the lives of Japanese Americans many lost personal property, long-term leases on their farms, or were forced to sell real property. The passage of the Japanese-American Claims Act of 1948 (P.L. 80-886, 80 H.R. 3999) did little to assist Japanese Americans with the recovery of the value of their property and many Japanese-Americans were left without sufficient income and support after internment ended.

Notable Supreme Court Cases:

  • Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81 (1943) - in this case, the court held that a curfew imposed on a group of immigrants (in this case, Japanese Americans) was constitutional because the nation was at war with the country from which the immigrants originated. This case was overturned in the 1980s.
  • Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944) - this case, which has not been overturned, held that it was not unconstitutional to keep Japanese immigrants in internment camps. The reasoning was that the need to protect against espionage weighed against the individual rights of Japanese Americans within the camps. This is notable because of the fact that this case is still "good law" and may be used by the incoming regime as an excuse for something like a Muslim registry.

German Internment

Unlike the Japanese-American population, the German-American population present in the United States at the time Germany declared war on the United States was numerous and geographically diverse. In 1940 1.2 million people of German birth lived in the United States five million Americans were children of German parents, and at least one million more children had at least one German parent. (See Personal Justice Denied, p. 289.) Approximately 1,200 German nationals were detained at the start of the war and 11,000 German-Americans were detained during the war by the Enemy Alien Control Program. (See Judgment Without Trial, p. 124.)

Italian Internment

After the declaration of war in December of 1941, the United States began actions to identify and control the movement of all Italian immigrants and naturalized citizens of Italian descent, a population of approximately 600,000 people. Registration was required and the carrying of identification papers was mandated. Italian-Americans were also subjected to removal from "restricted areas," travel restrictions, a curfew, and were not allowed to own cameras, weapons, flashlights, or short-wave radios. Approximately 1600 Italian-Americans were arrested and 250 Italian-Americans were incarcerated in military camps. These actions created an atmosphere of harassment which had an impact on Italian-American schools, social clubs, and organizations.

The restrictions placed on Italian-Americans were lifted on October 12, 1942 (Columbus Day). Those incarcerated in internment camps were released after the surrender of Italy to the Allies on September 8, 1943.

Racism of another form

We may shudder now to think of such a blatant violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equality before the law, and rightfully so. But it is important to remember that the fight to uphold equal treatment is a perpetual battle, and not one that ended when the Fourteenth Amendment passed in 1866, or when Japanese Americans were finally released from captivity.

The story of Japanese internment camps is just one chapter in the long history book of atrocious government acts committed against not only Japanese Americans, but other individuals of Asian descent.

Yet these horrific acts perpetuated by the government did not turn any of these individuals into victims. On the contrary, it inspired many to encourage their descendants to become ever-more-vigilant and prepared for any future discriminatory acts committed by the hand of the state.

In spite of the discrimination faced, and still being faced, by many Asian-Americans, much progress has been made in the years since 1942. But that does not mean the fight for fairness is over.

Pacific Legal Foundation has been actively involved in the fight to protect the constitutional guarantee to equality before the law.

PLF recently filed an amicus brief on behalf of Students for Fair Admissions in their suit against Harvard University’s racist admissions policies designed to limit the number of Asian-American students accepted. These courageous students are hoping their case will be heard in front of the Supreme Court, so that they might have the opportunity to continue the fight for fair treatment.

In March, PLF filed suit against the Fairfax County School Board on behalf of Coalition for TJ—a group of over 5,000 students, parents, and community members—to fight back at discrimination against Asian-Americans in academia.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, or TJ, is the nation’s top-ranked public high school. It earned this title by establishing rigorous merit-based admissions policies that admit only the students who have proven themselves well-prepared to take on the school’s challenging curriculum.

But new equity based-admissions policies were created, specifically targeting Asian students and limiting the number admitted to the school each year. No longer are test scores and GPAs deciding factors in admittance, penalizing those who have been preparing for TJ admittance since the start of their K-12 educations.

This change has been justified as a means of allowing other minorities the chance to attend TJ. Students have historically been admitted based on merit, and this should not change simply because one race happens to be achieving these standards more often than others.

As Harry Jackson, a TJ parent, stated:

“To be clear, as an African-American father of a TJ student, I would also like to see more Black and Hispanic students at the school. But if those students are not making the grade, the problem isn’t the standards.”

Of his daughter who hopes to attend TJ someday, he said:

“I tell her she’ll have to work just as hard as he did to earn that privilege—there won’t be any shortcuts or special favors extended to her. Just as there were no shortcuts or favors for my father when he was one of the first Black graduates of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, or when I was admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy. We had to work hard to earn those opportunities, and she will, too.”

When government treats people differently on the basis of race, bad things happen. Making race a factor in any public institution’s admissions policy is not only wrong, it’s illegal.

This is why we fight relentlessly for equality at PLF.

Every single person in this country has the right to pursue happiness and prosperity without being trampled upon by government discrimination. This applies to situations as extreme as the internment camps of WWII and the acts occurring in both K-12 and higher education.

To truly live out the meaning of the now-trending #StopAsianHate, we need to understand how racism and discrimination come in many forms, all of which inhibit the livelihoods of American citizens.

Of the internment of Japanese Americans, Aiko likes to remind Americans:

“We haven’t learned from all these lessons! It’s happened once, and unless you are careful it could happen again.”

We should do all we can to ensure that the government does not treat people differently based on arbitrary factors, like race.

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