Internment of Japanese-Americans

One hundred twenty five thousand people born in Japan or of Japanese descent, known as “Issei” lived in the United States at the time of Pearl Harbor. One hundred and ten thousand of them lived on the West Coast. There were an additional 70,000 persons of Japanese ancestry born in the U.S. These people were referred to as “Nisei.” (TFC, Vol. 5, p. 201.)

Many Americans feared an invasion of the mainland and suspected Japanese-Americans of secret loyalty to the enemy government. These fears played on the latent racial prejudice against the Japanese that was lingering under the surface of American public opinion. The press pejoratively used the word “Jap” in headlines while political cartoonists used blatant racial stereotypes. Reflective of this attitude was the comment by Chase Clark, Gov. of Idaho: “The Japs live like rats, breed like rats and act like rats.” (Id. at 204.)

Japanese were refused services; they could not purchase goods; insurance companies cancelled policies; professional licenses were revoked; business permits were cancelled as were business licenses, and they were dismissed from civil service jobs.   A coalition of politicians, patriotic organizations, business groups, and military officials called for the removal of all Americans of Japanese descent from Pacific coastal areas. (Id.; See also, Sakamoto, Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese American Family Caught Between Two Worlds, pp. 45-47, 117-125, 132-36.)

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that authorized the exclusion of more than 112,000 Japanese-American men, women, and children—two thirds of whom were American born citizens, from designated military areas mainly in California, but also in Oregon, Washington, and southern Arizona. (TFC, vol. 5, pp. 201-207.) The people were relocated to one of ten internment camps, which were located as far away as Arkansas. (Id.) Some of the camps were: Manzanar in the California desert two hours west of Death Valley; Poston, in Arizona, 12 miles south of Parker on the Colorado River Indian Reservation with a population of close to 18,000 making it the third largest city in Arizona at the time; and Tanforan also in Arizona. (”Injustice in the Desert”, Arizona Republic, April 25, 2015, p. 1D.) Japanese-Americans were the only ethnic group signaled out for such treatment.   By August, almost every West Coast resident who had at least one Japanese grandparent was interned. (Id.)

During the Spring of 1942, the  Army rounded up Japanese-Americans from the communities where they lived and worked, sometimes for generations. They received one week’s notice to close up their businesses and pack up their homes. They could only bring what they could carry. They were forced to sell property and personal goods at fire-sale prices, if at all, resulting in the loss of nearly $1.23 billion of yearly income, $70 million worth of farms and farm equipment, $35 million worth of fruit and vegetable produce, plus uncounted lifetime savings. (TFC, Vol. 5, at p. 201; Hakim, p. 289.)

Crammed together in barracks-like housing, they were kept in barbed wire enclosures, like prisoner of war camps. Rudimentary facilities were lacking; there was no electricity, poor plumbing, little furniture, no running water, community mess halls, laundries, latrines and showers. Thirty thousand children of school age did not have enough books for school work. Males were made to work building dams, roads, canals, schools, or doing farm labor for which they were paid $12 to $19 per month. (TFC, Id.; Arizona Republic, Id.)

A group of citizens, the Japanese American Citizens League, charged that “racial animosity” rather than military necessity dictated the internment policy and challenged the taking of the internees’ property in the courts as unconstitutional. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In Korematsu v. United States (1944), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of relocation and confiscation on grounds of national security. In protest, nearly 6,000 Japanese Americans renounced their U.S. citizenship.

Internees were released in 1945, after the surrender of Japan, but they never got their businesses or property back. Not one American of Japanese ancestry was ever charged with treason. In 1998, the U.S. Congress voted reparations of $20,000 and a public apology to each of the 60,000 (some estimates are as high at 100,000) surviving victims of the Japanese internment.

 Ironically, 8,000 Japanese-Americans volunteered to served in the military during World War II. They were stationed in segregated units and mostly served as interpreters and translators. However, one combat unit of Nisei soldiers, the 442nd, fought heroically in the European theatre and was much decorated.

 Listen to “Manzanar,written by Tom Russell (Mid-1970s) about the Japanese Internment Camp of the same name, sung by Laurie Lewis. (

He said my name is Nakashima
And I’m a proud American
I came here in ’27
From my homeland of Japan

And we picked your grapes and oranges
Made some money, bought a store
Until 1942
Pearl Harbor and the war

Came those relocation orders
They took our house, the store, the car
Then they drove us to the desert
To a place called Manzanar

The Spanish word for “apple orchard”
Though we saw no apple trees
Just the rows of prison barracks
And barbed wired boundaries

And we dream of apple blossoms
Waving free beneath the stars
Till we wake up in the desert
The prisoners of Manzanar

Fifty years, they’ve all but vanished
And now I am an old man
But I don’t regret the day
That I came here from Japan

But on moonlit winter nights
I often wish upon a star
That I’d forget the shame and sorrow
That I felt at Manzanar

And we dream of apple blossoms
Waving free beneath the stars
Till we wake up in the desert
The prisoners of Manzanar,

“Kiri’s Piano, written and sung by James Keelaghan (1993) ( is about the Japanese internment that occurred in Canada and the cynical, hypocritical mindset that allowed someone to appreciate those neighbors yet be willing to take their property. The “Kiri” of the song was a real person, who had a white upright piano before the war.

Of all of Kiri Ito’s joys, the thing she loved the best
Was to play her prized piano when the sun had gone to rest
I used to hear the notes drift down along the silent water
As Kiri played the notes and scales for her dear sons and daughters
Now me I played piano though not as good as Kiri
She went in for that long haired stuff but my she played it pretty
The old piano had a tone would set my heart to aching
It always sounded sweetest though when it was Kiri playing
In December when the seventh fleet was turned to smoke and ashes
The order came to confiscate their fishing boats and caches
And Kiri’s husband forced to go and work in labour camps
And Kiri left alone to fend and hold the fort as best she can
But the music did not drift as often from up the cove at Kiri’s house
And when it did it sounded haunted, played with worry, played with doubt
For Kiri knew that soon she too would be compelled to leave
And the old upright would stay behind and Kiri she would grieve
I loaded Kiri on the bus with stoic internees
The crime that they were guilty of was that they were not like me
And if I was ashamed I didn’t know it at the time
They were flotsam on the wave of war they were no friends of mine
I went up to Kiri’s house to tag all their belongings
And set them out for auctioneers who’d claim them in the morning
One piece that I thought I’d keep and hold back for myself
Was that haunting ivory upright that Kiri played so well
But Kiri had not left it there for me to take as plunder
She’d rolled it down onto the dock and on into the harbor
That old upright in strangers’ hands was a thought she couldn’t bear
So she consigned it to the sea to settle the affair
So many years have come and gone since Kiri’s relocation
I look back now upon that time with shame and resignation
For Kiri knew what I did not that if we must be free
Then sometimes we must sacrifice to gain our dignity
Yes Kiri knew what I did not that if we must be free
Then sometimes we must sacrifice to gain our dignity