Tragedy of War Japanese American Internment

The Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University presents public events, exhibits, and educational resources focused on World War II and the Holocaust in an effort to promote education and dialogue about the past and its significance today.

As learning at the university level has shifted to an increased digital format, the team at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education developed several units, including this one, for university students to participate in.

In 2014, the Museum of History and Holocaust Education, in conjunction with students from the Kennesaw State University Public History Program, created a traveling exhibit called The Tragedy of War: Japanese American Internment.

This online unit builds upon that exhibit by focusing on the circumstances that led to internment, the process of confinement, the experience of internees, postwar resettlement, and the fight for redress.

Title Photo: Manzanar street scene. Photograph by Ansel Adams. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Photo: Janice "Sam" Sears, daughter of Japanese American internees, delivers remarks at the exhibition opening. Courtesy Museum of History and Holocaust Education.

Essential Questions

Using the primary source materials and content in this online unit, respond to the three essential questions found below. In your responses, include evidence from the content in this online unit. Please refer to the directions provided by your instructor on submitting your responses to these essential questions as well as to the questions posed throughout this unit.

  1. What were the long-term and short-term circumstances that led to the internment of ethnic Japanese during World War II?
  2. How was the mass incarceration of ethnic Japanese carried out?
  3. What were detainees' experiences of internment, resettlement, and redress?

Photo: Enemy aliens turning in their cameras and radios, 1941. Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

Pearl Harbor

The Japanese Imperial Navy Air Service bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii before 8:00 a.m. on December 7, 1941.

The attack damaged nearly 20 U.S. naval vessels, including eight battleships, and over 300 airplanes. More than 2,400 Americans died in the attack, including civilians, and another 1,000 people were wounded. The next day, Congress declared war on the Empire of Japan.

Click the button below to read the "Joint Address to Congress Leading to a Declaration of War Against Japan":

The bombing of Pearl Harbor prompted the United States, which had largely been isolationist, to join World War II.

Click the button below to explore how tensions escalated between the United States and Japan in the lead up to Pearl Harbor:

Photo: Sailors stand amid wrecked planes at Ford Island seaplane base, watching ship explode in the center background. Courtesy National Museum of the U.S. Navy.

The attack also amplified racial discrimination, already prevalent, against ethnic Japanese in Canada and South America as well as on the West Coast of the United States, where Japanese American communities were well established.

Racism, combined with war hysteria, political expediency, failure of leadership, and economic greed, led the U.S. government to confine more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent in camps that were spread across the western United States and as far east as Arkansas.

Photo: Pearl Harbor naval base and U.S.S. Shaw ablaze after the Japanese attack. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Watch the interview clip below, "Jimmy Doi: Pearl Harbor." As you view the clip, consider the following questions:

  1. How did Jimmy learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor?
  2. What was Jimmy's first reaction to the news of the attack?
  3. What immediate effects did Pearl Harbor and people's reactions to it have on Jimmy's daily life?

Pre-War Discrimination

People of Japanese descent faced discrimination in the United States prior to internment.

Immigrants from Japan arrived in Hawaii in the 1880s to work in the sugar industry there. By 1891, Japanese immigrants had reached the West Coast of the U.S. mainland, where they faced an environment of social and legal discrimination.

  • Issei: Those born in Japan who immigrated to the United States. The first generation of Japanese Americans.
  • Nisei: Those born to Issei. Second-generation Japanese Americans; the first generation born in the United States.

The Nationality Act of 1790 limited citizenship to "any alien, being a free white person." In 1870, in compliance with the newly-ratified 14th Amendment, Congress amended the law to include "aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent." Asian Americans repeatedly petitioned the courts to be considered "white" and thus eligible for U.S. citizenship, but they continued to be denied.

Click on the buttons below to read the Ozawa v. United States and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind decisions. As you read, consider the following questions:

  1. On what grounds did Ozawa and Thind claim eligibility for U.S. citizenship?
  2. Why do you think both Ozawa and Thind claimed to be "white" instead of "black," even though African Americans were also eligible for U.S. citizenship?
  3. Why did the Court rule against Ozawa and Thind?
  4. How did the Court define "whiteness"?

Photo: Japanese agricultural workers packing broccoli near Guadalupe, California, March 1937. Photograph by Dorothea Lange. Courtesy Library of Congress.

In 1908, Japan and the United States signed a "Gentlemen's Agreement," and the Japanese government agreed to limit migration to the United States. The Immigration Act of 1924 further limited Japanese immigration to the United States by establishing strict quotas on immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and Asia. Together, these pieces of legislation largely ended Japanese immigration.

Other acts limited the financial and personal freedom of Japanese immigrants and included violent riots, biased court rulings, attempts at school segregation, and prohibitive land laws.

In 1913, for example, California passed land laws making it impossible for “aliens” to buy or lease land. Similar laws were enacted by several other states as well. In 1920, the alien land laws were amended to become even more restrictive, thereby rendering Japanese-American property ownership nearly impossible.

Click the button below to learn more about California's Alien Land Laws:

Photo: A resident of Hollywood, California, makes clear her sentiments to any Japanese looking for housing in her neighborhood, 1923. Courtesy National Japanese American Historical Society.

Rampant Racism

The rampant racism faced by Japanese Americans became explosive after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Japanese businesses and homes were attacked, newspapers began editorializing on the dangers of an “enemy alien” presence, and vituperative propaganda campaigns, featuring a dramatically stereotyped Japanese enemy, crowded public spaces.

By early 1942, newspaper editors, politicians, and groups such as the American Legion and Native Sons and Daughters of the American West, vocally supported concentration camps for people of Japanese descent. Some farmers, eyeing the farmland of Japanese immigrants, also pushed for internment.

Cartoon: "Waiting for the Signal Home..." February 13, 1942 political cartoon by Dr. Seuss. Courtesy UC San Diego Library.

Watch the video below, "Looney Tunes: Tokio Jokio." As you view the video, consider the following questions:

  1. How does the caricature of Japanese compare to caricatures of other marginalized groups, including Jews and African Americans?
  2. What purpose do these caricatures serve, particularly for wartime propaganda?

Prelude to Internment

This heightened fear of a Japanese “fifth column” was largely unfounded; even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, an FBI report found no threat to security from the Japanese American communities on the West Coast.

And yet, it was in the highly-charged atmosphere of war frenzy and heightened racism that President Roosevelt issued his Executive Order 9066, laying the groundwork for internment.

Photo: Oakland, California. Following evacuation orders, this store was closed. The owner, a University of California graduate of Japanese descent, placed the "I AM AN AMERICAN" sign on the store front the day after Pearl Harbor. Photograph by Dorothea Lange. Courtesy National Archives.

World War I Precedent

The rapid mass incarceration of ethnic Japanese during World War II was largely possible because of the foundation established two-and-a-half decades earlier during World War I.

Ethnic Germans, and later Austrians, were required to register as enemy aliens. As enemy aliens, they were prevented from living near, working at, or traveling by areas deemed essential to national defense. They experienced increased scrutiny and a barrage of racist propaganda. Those suspected of disloyalty faced internment, deportation, and even death.

U.S. citizens and enemy aliens alike could be arrested and incarcerated just for being suspected of violating the following wartime laws:

Document: Enemy Alien Case File for Emma Campen, 1919. Emma was arrested for sending care packages to POWs of both the Allied and Central Powers. She escaped custody, was recaptured, and sent to the women's barracks at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Courtesy National Archives.

German and Austrian enemy alien men were detained in internment camps at Fort Douglas in Utah, Hot Springs in North Carolina, and Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia. Enemy alien women were held in homes for delinquent girls, religious institutions, immigrant detention facilities, and eventually a newly-established women's barracks at Fort Oglethorpe. U.S. citizens were incarcerated in various local jails, state prisons, and federal penitentiaries.

Because the federal government was still relatively small before World War I, the surveillance and arrest of suspected subversives was largely ad hoc. In fact, federal authorities had discussed imprisoning all ethnic Germans but had decided against it because they lacked the manpower and infrastructure necessary to carry out such a feat.

Importantly though, the national effort to identify and incarcerate target populations led to the creation and centralization of institutions that later played key roles in the internment of Japanese Americans.

Photo: Civilian prisoners awaiting transport from Fort McPherson, Georgia, to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, during World War I. Courtesy National Archives.

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