What Modern Americans Should Know About Japanese Internment In WWII

It seems impossible that the United States government would round up citizens and send them off to internment camps but that's exactly what happened to Japanese Americans during WWII. From 1942-46, families were forcibly relocated to designated areas and held prisoner. It's a chilling chapter of history that today's politicians frequently cite, some as a cautionary tale, others as a basis for future discrimination.

After the war, public opinion declared that the forceful internment of around 120,000 Japanese Americans was one of the most shocking things ever done by the U.S. government. The internment sites may not have had gas chambers like German concentration camps, but their creation was rooted in xenophobia and racism nevertheless — a 1980 investigation by President Carter revealed as much. Dragging law-abiding citizens off to remote prisons when they weren't even accused of breaking a law is a messed up thing to do, and that is just the beginning of the story.

There are plenty of Japanese internment camp horror stories to be told. They're not easy to read, but necessary to understand how fear can undermine the supposed values of American democracy.

  • Internment Was By Executive Order

    On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Under pressure from panicked citizens, west coast political leaders, and organized labor, FDR authorized the Secretary of War and any designated commander to "to prescribe military areas... from which any or all persons may be excluded." The order allowed the military to remove Japanese Americans from their homes and put them in patrolled camps.

    Notably, the move was opposed by many in the Justice Department.

  • Two-Thirds Of Internees Were American Born

    Two-Thirds Of Internees Were American Born
    Photo: Movieevery / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    American citizenship was not enough to keep someone out of the internment camps. Many Japanese immigrants suspected they would be detained, since the Constitution technically only grants legal protections like due process to US citizens. However, they assumed their American-born children would be protected.

    Tragically, Nisei, Japanese Americans born in the US, were rounded up along with their parents and herded out to camps all the same. Many of them had never even been to Japan. Further complicating matters at the camps, only Nisei were allowed to hold positions of relative authority within them. This upended family dynamics completely, with children outranking their parents.

    Though German and Italian aliens were also subjected to internment on a much smaller scale, no comparable policy of internment existed for American-born citizens of German and Italian descent.

  • George Takei Recalls Being Forced Into A Camp At Gunpoint

    George Takei Recalls Being Forced Into A Camp At Gunpoint
    Photo: Trialsanderrors / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When actor George Takei was 5 years old, his family of five was forced from their home at gunpoint and sent to live in a horse stable at a local race track. After several weeks living in the horse stall, they were sent by rail 1,000 miles eastward to the Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas.

    The grounds were surrounded by barbed wire, which Takei recalls seeing beyond the American flag as he was made to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Armed guards in sentry towers made sure no one attempted to escape. Internees shared one common latrine, ate "wretched" food in a mess hall, and shared barracks with other families.

    As a child, Takei did not fully understand the gravity of the situation. As an adult, he has become an activist, warning of the real dangers of racism and intolerance. He has come to view the internment centers "as an assault not only upon an entire group of Americans but upon the Constitution itself — how its guarantees of due process and equal protection had been decimated by forces of fear and prejudice unleashed by unscrupulous politicians."

  • People Couldn't Bring Much With Them

    People Couldn't Bring Much With Them
    Photo: US National Archives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    As innocent Japanese Americans were shuffled out of their houses by armed men, they didn't have the luxury to properly pack for their trip. People were given little notice to "tie up their loose ends" before they were to report to the temporary detention centers.

    Internees were only allowed to bring with them what they could carry. People took one suitcase each, filled with whatever clothes and essentials they could fit. They wore their best clothes, so as to not have to pack them, which gave the impression that Japanese Americans were "dressing up" to go to the camps.

  • Many Families Lost Everything

    Many Families Lost Everything
    Photo: US National Archives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Given only a week's notice at best before moving to a camp, many Japanese Americans had to sell their land, homes, and businesses at extreme discounts. Other property was confiscated, up to $400 million according to some estimates. The savings accounts of Japanese Americans were also frozen under the internment order.

    If they couldn't sell, people had to leave their property abandoned, hoping that it might still be there when they returned. Usually, it wasn't — Mitsuko Hashiguchi, for example, returned to a farm that was gone. In total, estimates value the lost property around $1.3 billion and the lost wages around $2.7 billion.

  • San Franscisco Declared The Japanese District A Slum

    San Franscisco Declared The Japanese District A Slum
    Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY

    People on the west coast went to great lengths to purge their streets of Japanese Americans. In San Francisco, for instance, local residents and officials made efforts to physically remove citizens of Japanese descent, going so far as to declare "Little Tokyo" a slum area.

    Articles published at the time illustrate unfounded public fears, which included "an attempt to create a Japanese-Negro anti-white-race fifth column." Even Dr. Seuss got in on the hysteria by drawing anti-Japanese cartoons.