In the days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America was jittery. We had just been attacked and we weren’t sure if it was going to happen again. The west coast was especially bad because they were the closest to our newly declared enemy. There was also a large number of people of Japanese descent living on the west coast. Everywhere people went, they saw someone that looked like the enemy. Americans were accusing Americans of having loyalty to the country their ancestors were from instead of their home. People feared the large Japanese-American population was a security risk, both for espionage and in the case of a Japanese invasion of the west coast. Paranoia was rampant and it spilled over into some of the darkest days in American history.
Two months after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered all Japanese-Americans to leave the west coast. This was not a voluntary evacuation. Over 127,000 people were relocated to “relocation centers” in the interior of the country. They were only allowed to take with them what they could carry. So in the rush to move, many people sold their homes, businesses and other assets, and took what they could get for them. In the camps were both Issei, those born in Japan and had immigrated, and Nisei, those born here to the Issei. Both native born and naturalized American citizens were imprisoned because of their ancestry. This was supposed to be for the Japanese-American’s safety, but the real reason was to keep America safe from them as in the minds of many, they had become the enemy.
According to the memoir Farewell to Manzanar, the attitude was shikata ga nai (“it cannot be helped”). Manzanar was one of the fortified relocation camps located 500 outside of Los Angeles, California in the desert. The other camps were located in Arizona, Utah, California, Wyoming, Arkansas, Idaho, and Colorado. The camps consisted of tarpaper barracks, communal latrines and communal mess halls. Adults could work for 5 dollars a day or try to cultivate the poor soil for extra food.
All of this took a toll on the traditional Japanese family. Women were deeply shamed by the communal bathroom situation as there was no privacy for bodily functions. Men felt shamed and emasculated by the low wages and sense of hopelessness. They began eating together in the mess hall while woman ate alone with their children. Teenagers gravitated together and searched for dwindling privacy in the overcrowded conditions. Conditions were too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter and the food was terrible. Everywhere they turned they saw the armed sentries who would shoot them if they tried to leave.
Even though they were imprisoned, many young men registered for the draft and even volunteered for the armed forces from the camps. They wanted to prove they were loyal Americans by fighting for their country. There were 3600 men that served in the armed forces from the camps, and entire units were made up of these men. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was one and they were heavily decorated for bravery for action in Germany and Italy.
What kind of cultural situation could allow American citizens to be imprisoned for no reason? At that time, Pearl Harbor had brought out an anti-Japanese sentiment that had been dominant. From movies, to magazines to children’s books, Japanese were referred to by racial slurs. Even Superman got in the act with the cover “You Can Slap a Jap”. This situation was ripe for the camps and the flagrant violation of civil rights they brought.
The legality of the camps was upheld by the Supreme Court decisions Hirabayashi v. United States and Korematsu v. United States. However, in 1945 when the war was over citizens from the camps with “undisputed loyalty” were allowed to return to the west coast. The last camp closed in 1946. Despite a 1948 law to compensate them for lost property, many returning from the camps lost everything and had to start over. It was not until the 1988 when Congress passed a law awarding reparation payments to the surviving 73,000 prisoners of the camps that many of them saw a dime. However, what can price can you put on dignity and liberty?