Japanese-American Internment Camps in WWII: Heinous Civil Liberties Violations in U.S. History

Japanese-American Internment Camps in WWII: Heinous Civil Liberties Violations in U.S. History

By Aïda Yuen Wong, Professor of Art History at Brandeis University; Founder and Head of Design of Callimode, an Asian American contemporary jewelry brand specializing in luxury designs to express antiracism in Asian calligraphy. Ethical & Sustainable Jewelry with Recycled Gold and Non-Conflict Diamonds.

November 3, 2022

Injustices of the Internment Camps

Enacted as a response to Pearl Harbor and World War II, Japanese internment camps are now considered to be among the most heinous violations of American civil rights of the 20th century. By early 1942, fears about Japanese American collusion in Japans war efforts led the U.S. Government to suspend the rights of its Japanese American citizens and relocate them to internment camps. There were ten camps located in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. Approximately 110,000-120,000 Japanese Americans including children mostly living along the Pacific coast, were incarcerated in these camps. About two-thirds of the detainees were born in the U.S. To be interned at what the government called a "relocation center" for the war, the person had to be only one-sixteenth Japanese.

Residents of Japanese ancestry in California being moved by trucks to internment campus. Archives of the Library of Congress.

Residents of Japanese ancestry in California being moved by trucks to internment campus. Archives of the Library of Congress. 

There were worries that citizens with Japanese heritage would serve as agents of the Japanese government, either as spies or saboteurs. As World War II dragged on, many young Nisei, Japanese immigrant children born with U.S. citizenship, volunteered or were conscripted into service in the U.S. Army. A segregated unit commanded by white officers, the Nisei faced severe racism and discrimination back home. Particularly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States incarcerating many of them and their families in wartime internment camps. Japanese-Americans who had already been training early in World War II were removed from active service soon after Pearl Harbor, and the Army stopped accepting new Nisei recruits in early 1942. 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing incarceration of persons of Japanese descent in the United States. On February 19, 1942, by Executive Order 9066, the U.S. began the process of interning Japanese-Americans, following decades of discriminatory laws directed at Japanese immigrants and their children. The War Relocation Administration was created to round up and interning all persons of Japanese descent on the west coast. Part of the policy was also to intermarry Japanese-born persons into segregated camps.

Embarrassed at the finger-pointing from the enemy, and impressed with the Nisei members of the National Guard, the U.S. Army created the 442nd Combat Unit, a Japanese-only unit, in February 1943. Some used their Japanese-language skills at Military Intelligence Service units in the Pacific Theater, and others formed the 100th Infantry Battalion, which was fighting in Europe, including as a unit attached to the Nisei-manned 442nd regimental combat team. While their families were interned at their homes camps, the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Infantry Regiment, both composed mostly of Nisei--Americans born children of Japanese immigrants--fought on the Western Front in World War II on behalf of their allies. 

The Army was never required to show that the Americans interned at the camps were a military threat, or that relocation made the U.S. safer from attack in any way; their background was considered sufficient proof. Furthermore, there was no mass internment of German and Italian Americans, although the U.S. government was at war with both Germany and Italy. 

By 1943, it had become apparent that an invasion of Japan was highly unlikely, and Washingtons Department of War found it harder to justify indefinitely holding thousands even as anti-Japanese feelings ran rampant in its own government. The administration (including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover) dismissed all speculation about Japanese-American spying on behalf of the Japanese war effort, pressure mounting on the administration as the tide of public opinion turned against the Japanese-Americans. 

Although War Relocation Authority director Dillon Miles and others had insisted on ending internment sooner, American citizens were not allowed back onto the Pacific coast until January 2, 1945, delayed until after the election in November 1944, so as not to hinder President Franklin D. Roosevelts reelection campaign. Finally, Executive Order 9742 ordered that the War Relocation Agency be disbanded, allowing the return of the Japanese-Americans home. This was signed by President Harry S. Truman on June 25, 1946, ordering the liquidation of the War Relocation Authority and allowed Japanese-Americans to return to their homes. 

In subsequent decades, there has been controversy about the terminology used to denote camps where US citizens of Japanese descent, as well as their immigrant parents, were imprisoned by the US during the war. In 1998, the Jewish Committee of America and the Japanese-American National Museum held a major, formal discussion on Ellis Island regarding the use of concentration camps to describe Japanese-American internment in World War II. According to these groups, It is essential to accurately portray the story of mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II Japanese Americans WWII, without perpetuating the euphemistic terms used at the time by the U.S. Government and others, or incorrect terms later replaced, which fail to adequately describe the injustice. 

Conditions and Survival Tactics in the Camps

Because nobody outside of Japan-American communities seemed to know that such camps existed, because they were never talked about among classmates or mentioned in textbooks, the camps seemed like a fictional place, a collective nightmare that only haunted Japanese-Americans. 

Most lived in Army-style tattered barracks for almost three years, and then more, until the war ended. Life at the designated internment camps had a military feel; interns slept in barracks or tiny cells without running water, took meals in large mess halls, and conducted much of their everyday activities in public. For the most part, the internees did what they could to build up a sense of community and continue their lives as normal as possible.    

Life was difficult within the confines of internment camps, amid a climate of tension, suspicion, and desperation. The everyday life of the Japanese internees at camp was a struggle to have few resources, to endure intrusions into personal space, horrific acts of betrayal, harsh conditions, and, in many cases, death. 

While many white Americans believed the internees lived lavishly off government handouts, with their own resources being rationed to support the war effort, the truth was that internees were asked to maintain the camps themselves, growing vegetables and caring for livestock to supplement their food supplies.   

High School Students Raking at Minidoka Relocation Center, Idaho. Records of the War Relocation Authority, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

High School Students Raking at Minidoka Relocation Center, Idaho. Records of the War Relocation Authority, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

While interned by the United States, the Japanese Americans used scraps and found materials to create furniture and other objects that adorned their surroundings. Most people at the camps had never made any art or crafts prior to internment. The Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi had the idea of going to one of the camps (in Poston, Arizona), as he explained in letters of the era, to make internment camps more humane, using his position as an important artist and informal representative for the Japanese-Americans to make better living conditions for internees. Noguchi was the son of a Japanese father and a Caucasian mother who were born in America, and is a New York City resident.

Noguchi interned himself, spending two years in the Arizona desert in hopes of using his talents as a designer to improve community life. He wanted to start apprenticeship crafting guilds, and Poston's school superintendent agreed to hand out tools and books containing images of the best Japanese art, free of martial aspects, and bring in outside experts in Japanese culture and Nisei visual artists from New York--well-known anti-fascists--to talk as role models. 

Thinking that he could make Postons internment camp more humane, Noguchi first aimed at working at a woodworking shop, designing parks and recreation areas like a baseball field and swimming pool. His vision of the Arizona Poston war relocation center included winding paths and canals, a Japanese burial ground, as well as the planting of palms, figs, and mesquite trees.

In July 1942, Noguchi was given a one-man exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art, but was not able to attend, as he was still at Poston. After the Second World War, Noguchi went to Japan and spent years exploring social issues that he had championed as a political activist, while continuing his quest for artistic salvation.

Post-Internment and Reparations

On December 18, 1944, the government announced that the detention camps would be closed by the end of 1945. The last of which at Tule Lake, California, was closed in March 1946. After liberation, those Japanese-Americans who still had homes waiting for them returned to reclaim them. However, many found their belongings and properties stolen or sold. 

Many who had once held white-collar jobs or owned businesses, were only able to obtain jobs after the war doing menial work or household services--a blow not just to pride, but also to the traditional patriarchal structure of most Japanese-American families, which praised the father as the head breadwinner and valued economic status and community leadership. 

Without doubt, the Federal governments internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry in this war is an embarrassing aberration of Americas triumph against militarism and totalitarian regimes. This history represents a Civil Liberties catastrophe, characterized by mass, racial-based, non-selective forced removals and imprisonments of civilians, the majority of whom were American citizens.

The Japanese-American Evacuation Claims Act, passed on July 2, 1948, provides reparations for the losses of real and personal property to Japanese-American citizens evacuated from the west coast during World War II. To compensate former internees for losses to property, Congress passed the Japanese-American Claims Act of July 2, 1948, which allowed Japanese Americans to claim compensation for losses of property that occurred as the reasonable and natural result of their evacuation or deportation. Other Japanese-American families received some restitution from America shortly after World War II, according to a Federal report decades later, but the government paid only one-fourth of claims filed for damaged or lost property under the 1948 act.

Beginning in the 1960s, a younger generation of Japanese Americans, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, began what is known as the Redress Campaign, a campaign to seek official apology and compensation from the Federal government for incarcerating their parents and grandparents during the war. It was determined that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's executive orders incarcerating Japanese Americans were motivated by racism and wartime hysteria, rather than by military necessity, and that reparations were owed to survivors. Finally, in 1988--a decade after the Redress Campaign began, and more than 40 years after the camps closed--President Ronald Reagan signed a Civil Liberties Act offering formal apologies and paying $20,000 each to survivor.  The U.S. would ultimately pay $1.6 billion (or $3.5 billion in 2019 dollars) in compensation to the 82,219 Japanese Americans formerly interned.

The Japanese American community was among the first communities to be compensated by the state for civil injustices. Some within the American Jewish community have long been rallying support for redress. In the fall of 2020, Nikkei American Civil Rights & Redress, and the progressive Nikkei Party, formed a joint commission to examine the issue of reparations to Black Americans by the US government. 

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