75 years ago, 120,000 Japanese Americans went from living peacefully in their homes, to living in constant fear and misery in prison camps. Their crime? Being of Japanese descent. Words will never be able to fully explain the horrors that the Japanese American internees went through, but in this essay, their experiences will be explained with respect and as much effort as possible. Although anti-Japanese and anti-Asian prejudice has been engraved in America’s very bones for decades, the main cause of Japanese American internment camps was Pearl Harbor.
In December of 1941, Japan bombed the U. S fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Within hours of the attack, FBI agents swept through Japanese communities in California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii, arresting anyone who was suspected to have had any sympathetic ties to Japan. These people were rounded up, questioned, then shipped off to detention camps. Not only were these people innocent, but they were blamed for the attack, even though the majority of them were American citizens. As anti-Japanese prejudice and paranoia increased, unfair laws increased as well.
All Japanese branch banks were closed, and anyone born in Japan had their bank account frozen by the U. S Treasury. A mandatory curfew was applied, as well as a demand to carry some form of identification at all times. In February of 1942, a few months after the attack, President Roosevelt signed an Executive Order 9066. This order authorized the exclusion of anyone of Japanese descent from areas in California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona, especially in areas around airports, railroads, power plants, and military installation, in an attempt to avoid and prevent any acts of sabotage.
The Japanese Americans living in those areas were forced out of their homes, told to report to a designated civil control station, and then “relocated” to an assembly center until more permanent camps could be established. Often times extended family members had no idea where they had gone or what had happened to them for weeks. No one of Japanese ancestry living in America was ever convicted of any serious crimes or sabotage, yet these innocent people were being imprisoned. Two thirds of the internees were Nisei, meaning that most of them were American citizens.
It made no difference to the government that many had never even been to Japan, they were still looked at as second class citizens. Japanese Americans were labelled by generation. There were four groups– Issei, Nisei, Sansei, and Kibei. Issei was first generation. If you were Issei, that meant that you immigrated to America first. Nisei meant that you were second generation–the child of an Issei. Sansei meant that you were a child of a Nisei, though most of the internees were Issei and Nisei. Lastly, Kibei was what you were called if you were a person of Japanese descent born in America, who then went back to Japan for education.
Kibei were looked at as “too American” in Japan, and “too Japanese” in America. Internment camp survivor Irene Suyeoka reported in her article for Discover Nikkei “At the time, the government suspected kibei more than other Japanese Americans. They called us “the most dangerous element”. Some of the Japanese Americans in the camp distrusted us as well. ” About three months after being held in assembly centers, official prison camps were built, and the internees were moved. These camps were isolated, dirty, and surrounded with barbed wire.
In the book Only What We Could Carry, internee James Goto states “For a few months our diet at first consisted of brined liver–salted liver. Huge liver. Brown and bluish in color weighing up to twenty pounds and would bounce if dropped. ” (110) After a while, the food improved slightly, but ran out quickly due to the fact that there were 200-300 internees all herded into one mess hall. Farmers eventually started harvesting their own crops, but it was difficult due to the quality of soil at the camps. Their living arrangements were sad and quite humiliating.
Each family shared a small one room stables that had a small wood burning stove in the middle, one light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and mattresses made out of hav. Due to poor insulation, summers were often too hot and winters often too cold. The restrooms were located away from their living spaces, as well as the shower and laundry facilities. They knew that if they tried to flee, armed guards surrounding the camps would shoot them. Actor and activist George Takei wrote in an article for The Washington Post that “Armed guards looked down upon us from sentry towers; their guns pointed inward at us; searchlights lit pathways at night.
We understood. We were not to leave. ” Freedom was torn away from innocent people, but they made the most of it. School classes for kids were started by internees, as well as English classes for adults. Church groups were formed; singing groups started as well. People enjoyed both playing and watching sports like baseball or soccer, and played games such as hide and seek and tag. Unfortunately, after over a year of internment, the U. S army started seeking volunteers for war. When there weren’t enough volunteers, men started getting drafted.
The U. S Army wanted to ensure that the men they were drafting were loyal enough, so they sent out military groups throughout each camp and had them round up Japanese American men. In an attempt to segregate “loyal” from “disloyal” men, the War Location Authority required the men to go through registration, in which they were given loyalty questionnaires. While some men found it easier to just fight in war, others resisted. Draft resister groups in multiple locations were formed, fighting together against the cruelty and unfairness of being drafted.
The draft resisters answered “no” to two specific questions on the loyalty questionnaires: question #27 and question #28. Question #27 asked, “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered? ” Question #28 asked “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the lapanese emperor, or other foreign government, power or organization?
After about 300 of internees at 10 different camps answered no to those questions, they were deemed the No No Boys. The No No boys were prosecuted, and served up to 3 years in federal prison. Fellow Japanese people who were not victims of internment often frowned upon draft resisters. They thought it was wrong of them to be disloyal to America. Endo 5 The draft resisters were blamed for the prejudice against Japanese people, and for the assumption of many Americans that all Japanese people were unpatriotic.
About half way through the year of 1944, the government started releasing internees that were certified to be loyal Americans, but most internees remained in the camps. In the beginning of 1945, the last internment camp finally closed. While happy to be released from the camps, most people had nowhere and no one to go to. Many Japanese Americans had lost their homes, jobs, and money. A lot of people were left with no choice but to live on the streets, and in homeless shelters if they were lucky. They were faced with hate signs presented by many stores and businesses. These signs had ugly words such as “JAPS KEEP MOVING.
THIS IS A WHITE MAN’S NEIGHBORHOOD. ” and “JAP HUNTING LICENSE SOLD HERE! ” and were displayed publically which was not only humiliating, but it made it really hard to find a job. Some even came home only to see that their house had been vandalized with the words “NO JAPS WANTED HERE”. In 1952 the Walter-McCarran Act was passed, allowing Japanese immigrants to become naturalized citizens of the United States of America. In 1970, Japanese Americans, along with their supporters, began a movement lasting over a decade that persuaded Congress to give a formal apology to those that suffered internment.
It wasn’t until 1988 that an apology along with $20,000 to each surviving internee was issued. Japanese Americans worked hard to get state discriminatory legislation removed and to restore full citizenship and landowner rights. Endo 6 The toll that this dreadful event had on the victims is beyond words. Japanese people living in America were blamed for something they were not responsible for. Although an apology and money were issued, nothing could make up for the trauma and sadness that these innocent people have suffered through. It’s sad to know that Japanese American internment is rarely taught in school and hardly mentioned in society.