Thousands of Japanese immigrants came to Hawaii and California in the late nineteenth century to work. During the first decade of the twentieth century, almost 130,000 Japanese immigrated to the United States despite longstanding efforts at restricting their entry and widespread discrimination when they arrived.
First-generation Japanese immigrants were known as Issei; the second generation was called Nisei. The Nisei claimed citizenship by birth. Because many Issei were proud of Japanese culture, they tried to impart this heritage to their offspring, which led many in the United States to fear that Japanese Americans were disloyal to their adopted country.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 provoked fears of Japanese invasion and collaboration with “the enemy” by the Issei and Nisei. Congress declared war on Japan on December 8, 1941. Soon after, the FBI incarcerated thousands of Japanese American men. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, giving the Secretary of War the right to send both Issei and Nisei to internment camps.
“Military necessity,” or fear of sabotage and espionage, was the rationale given for Executive Order 9066. More than 120,000 individuals, many of whom were citizens, were forced to sell their homes, businesses, and belongings. One Japanese American citizen, Fred Korematsu, refused the order to evacuate and took his case to the Supreme Court. By a vote of 6-3, the justices upheld the legality of Executive Order 9066. The order required families to appear at assembly centers for transit to “relocation centers” or internment camps. Camps were located in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas. Among the most famous ones were Manzanar and Tule Lake in California, and Topaz in Utah.
The camps were often in desert areas where it was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Around the perimeter of the camps were barbed wire fences and guard towers. Soldiers policed the camps. The buildings where internees slept were overcrowded, dusty, and dirty. Cots with thin cotton mattresses were laid out in rows, with little privacy to be had. Meals were taken in mess halls with long lines for a paltry allotment of food.
Many internees worked for meager wages, typically about $16 a month. Children were supposed to go to school, but recruiting and retaining teachers was difficult. Sports and libraries provided diversion from daily routines. Boredom and anxiety, however, were constant companions.
“Always, he would remember the dust. It was soft and white and chalky, like talcum powder. ...The dust got into your shoes. Your hair. Your pants. Your mouth. Your bed. Your dreams.”
—Julie Otsuka, from When the Emperor Was Divine
For most individuals, an end to the ordeal of internment came as the war wound down in 1944 and 1945. Some internees chose not to return to their homes, wishing to make a fresh start in a new place. Others did return, only to discover that their homes, properties, or businesses had been vandalized or appropriated for non-payment of taxes. The sense of shame from being considered dangerous or disloyal to their adopted land shadowed all those released from the camps. Sometimes these feelings led to depression and suicide; other times, they led to disillusionment and protests over the injustice perpetrated against them.
The last internment camp was closed in March 1946. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act that apologized for the internment, attributing it to racial prejudice and war hysteria. The U.S. government eventually distributed more than $1.6 billion in reparations to internees and their heirs.