Internment of Japanese Americans still haunts

In San Francisco, residents of Japanese ancestry await a bus (1942).
In San Francisco, residents of Japanese ancestry await a bus (1942).
Image: Department of the Interior, National Archives.
If ever Democrats and Republicans agreed on anything, it is this: The internment of residents of Japanese ancestry during World War II was wrong.

     In 1988, President Ronald Reagan apologized for this dark chapter in our country’s history. Even so, the country still struggles to balance the rights of individuals in a free society with the need for security. 
     After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, nationals from a list of countries were subject to registration under the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). The Department of Homeland Security effectively ended the system in 2011.
     But during the past week, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, surrogate for President-elect Donald Trump, spoke of reinstating the registry for immigrants from Muslim countries. Yet another Trump supporter, former Navy SEAL Carl Higbie, cited the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as precedent for such a registry during a Fox News interview. While he subsequently clarified that he was not suggesting internment camps, his words stirred painful memories of the imprisonment of entire families.
     Here is a backgrounder, along with sources for further study:

The years before World War II: Starting in 1861 and continuing through 1940, a wave of Japanese immigrants arrived in the U.S. -- approximately 275,000 in Hawaii and the mainland, according to the National Archives. The majority came between 1898 and 1924, when quotas ended Asian immigration.

Relations sour: In the wake of Japan's invasion of China in 1937, the U.S. in 1940 imposed an embargo on Japan. The U.S. also gradually increased aid to China. (For more, see: U.S. State Department, Office of the Historian, Japan, China, the United States and the Road to Pearl Harbor,1937–41.)

Attack on Pearl Harbor: Japan led an audacious attack on Naval Station Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, an act that thrust the U.S. into World War II.

The blame game: In the aftermath of the attack, fear -- fueled by racism and avarice -- led to a public fixation on residents of Japanese ancestry. “Though Japanese-owned farms occupied only 1 percent of the cultivated land in California, they produced nearly 40 percent of the total California crop,” writes Doris Kearns Goodwin in No Ordinary Time, Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (Simon & Schuster; 1994). One group, the Grower Shipper Association, “blatantly admitted wanting to get rid of the Japanese for selfish reasons.”

An easy target: Japanese immigrants lacked the political power to stop the actions taken against them. The first arrivals of a Japanese immigrant family, “known as the Issei, were prevented by law from voting or becoming citizens,” Goodwin writes, “and since the great majority of the American-born Nisei were still in school, they provided an easy target.”  
     The Japanese word Issei means "first generation" and refers to Japanese immigrants, especially to the U.S., according to Merriam-Webster online. The Nisei were the second-born generation.

Executive Order 9066: President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an order granting the secretary of war power to “prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate military commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded.” The order was immediately applied to residents of Japanese ancestry. Citizens as well as new immigrants were forced from their homes. They were relocated outside of the Pacific military zone. “In Washington and Oregon, the eastern boundary of the military zone was an imaginary line along the rim of the Cascade Mountains; this line continued down the spine of California from north to south,” the National Archives website explains. “From that line to the Pacific coast, the military restricted zones in those three states were defined.”

War Relocation Authority: In March 1942 the War Relocation Authority was established. By the end of the month, Japanese Americans along the West Coast were getting orders to evacuate. The process started that month with the evacuation of some 250 farmers and fishermen of Bainbridge Island, Washington.
    “The Bainbridge Islanders, both aliens and non-aliens (i.e., citizens), were given six days to register, pack, sell or somehow rent their homes, farms and equipment,” recounts the University Libraries, University of Washington website. “On Monday, March 30, at 11 a.m. these Japanese Americans, under armed guard, were put on the ferry Keholoken to Seattle, where they boarded a train to Manzanar in central California. They were not to return to Bainbridge Island for more than four years.”

Sadness and fear: A field supervisor giving a report of the Bainbridge evacuation, wrote, “The actual leave-taking between friends of long standing was a sad occasion, and everyone involved tried to cooperate understandingly in every way possible.”
     Later, one of the evacuees, Sukezo Takayoshi, described the troops accompanying the families this way: “When I left the island I was a bit worried about our treatment, but when we sat down to eat our lunch on the train, I could not hide the tears of appreciation. Food, service of soldiers, and the special attention they gave to the children, the attention we received from the porters and soldiers at bed-time--we were treated like first-class passengers.” 
     Nonetheless, they couldn’t return to their homes, and by definition they were prisoners.

Processing: Out of roughly 120,000 people relocated, two-thirds were native-born citizens of the U.S. Some were first sent to one temporary facility before being moved to another. There were 10 relocation centers, according to the National Park Service.  

Inside the camps: Families lived in primitive conditions. One student, writing home to a teacher in the Seattle area, said that seven people were sharing one room, sleeping on mattresses made of straw. The walls had holes and cracks. (See more letters from schoolchildren on the University of Washington website.)
    Although the government had not planned for schools, the inmates organized classes for both children and adults. 

An outspoken librarian: In San Diego, a children’s librarian named Clara Estelle Breed went to the train station when the Japanese families were being evacuated. She handed out self-addressed stamped cards and encouraged them to write, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s Education website. Breed also spoke out against the internment policy. 

Release: Over time, the government allowed some of the detainees to leave. Others enlisted in the U.S. Army. Most of the centers closed by the end of 1945. A high-security camp in California closed in 1946.

Restitution: In April 1988, the Senate voted “overwhelmingly to give $20,000 and an apology to each of the Japanese-Americans who were driven from their homes and sent to internment camps in World War II,” The New York Times reported.

 An apology: At the signing of a bill providing restitution for the internment of residents of Japanese ancestry, Reagan said: “More than 40 years ago, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in makeshift internment camps. This action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race, for these 120,000 were Americans of Japanese descent.
    “Yes, the nation was then at war, struggling for its survival, and it's not for us today to pass judgment upon those who may have made mistakes while engaged in that great struggle. Yet we must recognize that the internment of Japanese-Americans was just that: a mistake. For throughout the war, Japanese-Americans in the tens of thousands remained utterly loyal to the United States. Indeed, scores of Japanese-Americans volunteered for our Armed Forces, many stepping forward in the internment camps themselves.”
     While the bill provided payment to the survivors, Reagan said that “no payment can make up for those lost years. So, what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”

    To know more:


     FDR's home away from the White House

     Citing founders, leaders advocate tolerance

     The lasting impact of Sept. 11, 2001

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