It Could Have Been You
Imagine if one day you came home from school to find your family standing on the curb in front of your house. Each person had maybe a suitcase. Imagine then you were told that you had to leave your friends, your belongings, and your home. For how long? Well, maybe a few months, maybe a few years - no one really knew. And then, off you went, by bus or train, with a bunch of strangers, to a dusty, desolate camp in the middle of nowhere, surrounded with barbed wire and armed guards watching your every move. Welcome to your new home.
Sadly, this is almost exactly what happened to thousands of Japanese children, Japanese-American children, in 1942. During that year, between 110,000 and 120,000 Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of whom were American citizens and half of whom were children, were rounded up and put in camps for no other reason than that they were of Japanese descent and the United States was now at war with Japan. Said David Yamamoto, who was only four years old when he and his family were forced to leave, 'It made me sad and very scared.'
'Yesterday, December 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.' That day, December 7, 1941, was the date of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was a surprise Japanese attack on an American naval base in Hawaii that prompted the United States to enter World War II. But, the attack also intensified long-simmering feelings of fear and prejudice towards Japanese immigrants and their Japanese-American descendants.
In fact, these feelings were so pervasive that only two months after the attack, President Roosevelt signed an executive order, supposedly to deter sabotage and spying by Japanese Americans (even though there were never any documented cases of sabotage or spying). An executive order is a directive issued by the president that tells the military or government what to do. They are not usually noteworthy. But in this case, FDR issued Executive Order 9066, which:
- Authorized the military to exclude people from their homes and communities.
- Authorized the military to transport them to camps and intern them there indefinitely.
- Justified this treatment on the grounds of military necessity.
Internment means the imprisonment of a large group of people, usually during wartime and without due process of law. And due process is a legal rule that says that all people have certain rights, including the right to a fair trial. Sadly, Japanese-Americans were not given these rights. The government questioned their loyalty solely because of their ancestry and were not even given a chance to defend themselves. Consequently, they were forced to drop everything and leave.
Life in the Camps
Though each of the ten camps varied slightly in its features, most of the Japanese-Americans were forced to live in poorly-constructed military barracks that had been partitioned into 20-by-25-foot rooms. For perspective, that's smaller than most classrooms. Up to eight people were sometimes crammed into a single room that had no toilet, no running water, no cooking equipment, and no privacy. They were provided only cots, straw-filled mattresses, a stove for heating the room during the winter, and a single light bulb that hung from the ceiling.
Outside, about a dozen or so barracks, which housed anywhere from 200 to 400 people, shared other facilities. At the mess hall, for instance, internees would wait in long lines for food. However, think 'mystery meat.' But one of the hardest things to endure were the group outhouses and showers, which had no dividers or walls. Of course, each camp was surrounded by barbed wire and a guard tower, and patrolled by armed military police at all hours of the day and night.
The internees tried to cope as best they could. To maintain some semblance of normal life, most worked while living in the camps as farmers, cooks, doctors, police officers, teachers, and more. Children attended school. Still others created recreational programs, including sports leagues, scouting troops, Japanese cultural festivals, and other clubs. They founded churches, too. Some even left the camps by joining an Army unit that was composed of Japanese-Americans and, over the course of the war, would become the most decorated unit in the history of the Army.
Even still, 'Life was very harsh at the camp,' according to Yamamoto. And the government knew it. A little more than a year after Executive Order 9066 was issued, a government report concluded that, 'The physical standards of life in the relocation centers have never been much above the bare subsistence level… and the environment of the centers - despite all efforts to make them livable - remains subnormal and probably always will be.'
Though the last camp closed in 1946, more than three years after the internment began, the experience had a major effect on the lives of Japanese-Americans for years to come. For instance, Yamamoto and his family were able to return to their family's farm. But because they had no money or jobs, they had to live in their barn, which had a view of the house where they used to live, until they could pull themselves out of poverty.
In a way, they were fortunate, as most had to start over completely. In total, the internees lost around $400 million, which today would be over $4 billion. Some even felt so betrayed that they decided to move back to Japan. Most Japanese-Americans continued to endure racism and prejudice for years to come. But by the 1970s, the prejudice began to subside, and the surviving Japanese-Americans and their children began to advocate for a government apology and reparations. Reparations are compensation intended to repair a past injustice.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially rescinded Executive Order 9066, and in 1980, President Jimmy Carter created a commission to study the internment. In 1983, the commission released a report titled Personal Justice Denied, which described how horrible and unnecessary the camps truly were. Finally, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan approved a law that:
- Authorized $20,000 in reparations for each of the 60,000 surviving internees.
- Offered a full government apology for the internment.
- Set up a fund to educate the public with the goal of preventing a similar event from occurring again.
Before signing the law, President Reagan himself said that the internment was a mistake and that the country had failed to provide equal justice to all its citizens. But the internment remains relevant. For example, since 9/11, we have seen a similar wave of prejudice directed toward American Muslims. Even today, the fight for equal justice for everyone is not finished.
Following the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War II. However, the attack also unleashed a wave of fear and prejudice directed towards Japanese Americans. Acting on these sentiments under the guise of military necessity, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the military to exclude Japanese Americans from their communities, place them in internment camps indefinitely, and deprive them of their due process rights, including the right to a fair trial.
Life at the camps was very harsh. According to a government report, the conditions were 'subnormal' and 'not much above the bare subsistence level.' Indeed, most internees lived in small, cramped, and poorly constructed rooms with one light bulb that dangled from the ceiling, no plumbing or cooking equipment, and little to no privacy. They were also forced to share other facilities, including a mess hall and group latrines. While most Japanese Americans tried to maintain some semblance of normal life, and a few even became decorated soldiers who fought in the war, there was no forgetting the barbed wire and armed patrols that surrounded their camp.
After the internment ended, most Japanese-Americans had few possessions and no job or money. They would have to start their lives again from scratch. By the 1970s, the survivors and their children began fighting for a government apology and reparations. Finally, in 1988, President Reagan signed a law that provided $20,000 for each remaining survivor, a government apology, and a fund to educate the public about the internment. Today, it remains important to remember and learn from this sad episode in American history, lest we repeat this mistake ourselves.
View and study this lesson in preparation to:
- Explore the circumstances that led to the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII
- Discuss FDR's Executive Order 9066
- Detail the conditions at the internment camps
- Understand the reparations that were eventually issued