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American Japanese Internment Camps Essay

1.0  Introduction

Japanese Americans refer to all Americans of the Japanese heritage who were born in Japan or the descendants of those who were born in Japan. Initially, they were the largest Asian American group but currently they are sixth largest group in those of mixed race and mixed ethnicity. The largest group of these people is found in California while others are distributed in other states such as Washington, New York, Illinois and Hawaii.  Although every year there is quite a considerable number of Japanese immigrants who enter United States, the net migration still remains low since the older Japanese Americans still leave United States and go back to their original country, Japan.

Japanese Americans have a long history in the United States since history records that the first group arrived American in the late 1800s.  In the year 1942, the United States government forced all the Japanese Americans and the Japanese who had settled along the Pacific Coast to relocate to war relocation camps which were referred to as internment camps.  Since the internment camps resulted from the presence of Japanese Americans, this research shall first focus on their history and later discuss about the internment camps.

2.0  History of Japanese Americans in the 19th Century

United States has ever been known as the country of immigrants as a result of war, food shortages and political persecutions in other countries where the immigrants hail from. Japanese people happen to make a large percentage of the immigrants, and as highlighted earlier, they began to migrate in to the United States from the late 1800s.  The main cause of the immigration of the Japanese was to work in the sugar plantations which were established along the Pacific by traders who had settled in the Hawaiian Kingdom.

The sugar industry had grown tremendously as it was aided by the Americas civil war in the year 1861-1865, and that called for more workers after the Hawaiian population was decreasing due to disease. Other workers were leaving the plantations for better work, and as a result the Hawaii’s foreign minister sought more workers from Japan. Consequently, in the year 1868, the first one hundred and forty nine Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaii.  Since they were not used to the harsh conditions in the region and all the hard work in the sugar plantations, about forty of them returned to Japan. The rest went ahead and even intermarried with the Hawaii residents.

The first Japanese immigrants in to the Hawaii gave formed the Japanese American community.  In the year 1886, the Japan and the Hawaii signed labor convection after which a lot of Japanese migrants arrived to Hawaii as contract workers and some went to California as student laborers.  According to the studies of Niiya and Japanese American National Museum-Los Angeles, Calif. (1993), the Japanese migration to Hawaii was mainly labor migration which intensified following Chinese exclusion from the United States in the year 1882.  It also involved emigration back to Japan and also to West Coast. It was halted by the Gentlemen’s Agreement in the year 1908 and finally by the Exclusion Act in the year 1924.

2.1  Reasons for the Japanese Migration to America

Although most of the Japanese went to America for the contract labor, some still had others reasons. For instance, some just followed their parents like the case of one teenage girl who narrates that she just followed her dad. In another case, a woman followed her spouse after he had stayed for quite some time without returning back to Japan. Though she had thought that they would make enough money and return home, they ended up settling there permanently. Student’s immigrants also made a good number of Japanese Americans especially in San Francisco. In the year 1890, there were about three thousand Japanese students in America. Since they did not have enough money for their upkeep and studies, they resulted in to working in the plantations to earn extra money.

Consequently, they ended up living in very poor conditions and one newspaper described them as “poor students and youths who have rashly left their native shores. Hundred of such are landed every year, with miserably scant funds in their pockets…Their objection is to earn with labor of their hands, a pittance sufficient to enable them to pursue their studies in language, sociology and politics” (Niiya & Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, Calif.) 1993 pp. 3).

2.2  Japanese Americans Life in the Early 20th Century

Contrary to what most Japanese had expected, life in America was quite hard for any one else other than the Native Americans.  The life and the work were made difficult by the banks, labor recruiters, and the immigration agents who used to charge Japanese immigrants extortion fees. In addition to the economic exploitation, the Japanese Americans also used to face racial discrimination. The social attitude, laws, and practices limited and excluded them from enjoying life fully, liberty, and also property. The salary that they were getting was barely enough to sustain them, leave alone saving money to enable them go back to Japan.  Most of them wished they were back in Japan like one worker who used to be paid fourteen dollars a month and out of those dollars, he used to pay more than half for the sleeping quarters. The rest was spent in buying food and other personal use.  In such a situation, it was practically hard for such a person to save enough money that would have enabled him to go back to Japan. As a result, majority were eventually forced to settle completely in America (Niiya, & Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, Calif.) 1993).

2.3  1941-1945

The harsh living conditions of Japanese Americans continued to worsen as the years progressed.  In the year 1941, the situation worsened further especially after the Japan attacked and damaged the Pearl Harbor. The Americans accused the Japanese Americans of collaborating with Japan and as a result, they betrayed America. Since every one had started spreading rumors of how the Japanese Americans had helped Japan in the war, the whole of the American population started to have a bad altitude towards them.  As a result, many people started to propose for their removal from the Western States, as they feared Japan might attack them from West Coast although Japan did not have such plans. However, other Americans had other reasons for their removal since some coveted their farms.

The groups who were pressing for the Japanese Americans removal from the West Coast continued to increase as groups like Anti-immigration Organizations, Chambers of Commerce from every city, and the American Legion joined the rest who were pressing for the same. The major reason why the Americans wanted the Japanese Americans removed was mere hatred other than the reasons that they were giving initially. Henry McLemore, one of the San Francisco Examiner was quoted to have said that “let us have no patience with the enemy or with any one whose veins carry his blood.” He continued to say that “I personally hate Japanese” (Spickard 2009 pp. 106). Still, some politicians continued to express their sentiments towards Japanese as some said that it was impossible to know whether they were loyal or not and were often referred to as inscrutable Orientals. With such hatred, it was obvious that the Japanese Americans were not going to escape relocation.

The decision of relocating or imprisoning the Japanese Americans was made in the Washington D.C. by the administration of Roosevelt guided by the military leaders. They were arguing that it was of military necessity to do so, though they were not able to demonstrate that necessity. The military leaders believed that Japanese were dangerous regardless of whether they are loyal or not. Moreover, they continued to argue that even giving them citizenship was not to help in any way, since that would not change their nature. Despite the fact that there were a few protests who argued that they had already jailed all the dangerous Japanese Americans, the administration went ahead and made the decision to remove all of them from the West Coast. Studies of Spickard (2009) record that on 19th February 1942, President Roosevelt issued executive order 9066 that empowered the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, to designate military areas with an aim of excluding Japanese Americans from the West Coast. As a result, Arizona, Washington, Oregon and California were divided in to two military regions and the Japanese Americans were prohibited from western parts of the states and some inland sections.

Following the order, some of the Japanese Americans started to move towards east with their belongings and family. However, moving with such a short notice was almost impossible for them and many American did not want them to settle in their territories. They were continuously harassed, and due to this, they continued to move to the east.  One governor from Idaho was quoted to have said that “The Japs live like rats, breed like rats, and act like rats. We do not want them buying or leasing land or becoming permanently settled in our state” (Spickard, 2009 pp.107). When voluntary migration failed to produce desirable results, on March 27, DeWitt stopped it and put travel restrictions on the Japanese Americans in the military zone. In addition, the army decided to move all of them in the concentration camps.

3.0  Concentration Camps

The concentration camps were the barbed wire enclosures where the Japanese Americans were moved to after the executive order was issued in the year 1942, to bar them from residing in the West Coast parts of America. Though there had been camps earlier in the history of America, these camps were exceptional because a whole ethnic group was forced to reside there.

Since Japanese Americans were passive by nature and accepted anything that was imposed on them, as some people argue, they did not resist moving in to the camps neither did they move out of the same without an order. Some people planed to resist legally though much was not derived from the same, since it did not stop them from being evacuated from their places. Studies of Spickard (2009), record that during the evacuation day, one hundred and twelve thousand Japanese Americans were taken to the evacuation camps. The camps were of very poor conditions since it is recorded that even the ground was wet especially on the day of evacuation. There was no adequate light and the rooms were very small. The environment was not favorable either since it was hot during the day and very cold at night. Whichever the case, they had no alternative but to stay in the barbed wire enclosures.

The ten camps were located at different locations particularly in the interior west, in the isolated desert areas. Some of the camps were located at Amache, Minidoka, Poston, Manzanar California, Jerome, Tula lake California and Heart Mountain. After evacuation, only six Japanese Americans remained in the local hospitals since they were seriously sick.  Since they were living communally, all facilities were being shared by about two fifty people. Given that the conditions in the camps were not conducive at all, around one thousand and two hundred left the camps when they were given the chance of joining the US Army.

Although many of the Japanese Americans had become desperate and frustrated at first given that some of them even attempted suicide, they later decided to adapt to the life of the camps. Each camp had a government owned farm land that was leased to them; they engaged in agricultural activities and produced poultry and dairy products. The cost of food was not high and other services like the medical cares were provided free of charge. Education was also offered free of charge up to the high school level and majority of the internees were recruited as teachers and others were trained to fit in the employment programs that were available at the camps.

3.1  Japanese Americans Life after Relocation from Concentration Camps

After January 1945, all people were finally allowed to leave the internment camps.  The Japanese Americans were given the identification card and they were told that once they presented them to the authorities, they would be allowed to go back to their homes. However, though the government had allowed them to leave, they were still afraid of the Americans for they were still hostile towards them. Even the people who received them were similarly harassed by the rest.  One man who had returned to California in May after the executive order was removed was quoted to have said “Everybody was afraid of being attacked by the white people. The war was still going on at that time and prejudice and oppression were very severe” (Niiya & Japanese American National Museum-Los Angeles, Calif., 1993 pp. 19) as he described the situation. Moreover, on top of racial discrimination and other forms of harassment, the Japanese Americans still went through a lot trying to rebuild their lives once again.

4.0  Conclusion

The Japanese Americans are among the many immigrant groups found in the United States. Since the late 1800s nearly half a million Japanese immigrants have settled in America and more than twice of that number today claim Japanese ancestry.  Although they went to America being optimistic that they would work hard and establish themselves, some of these dreams were never realized. Some thought that after making some money, they would go back to their motherland which never came to be since life in America was characterized by a lot of economic hardships. In addition, they faced a lot of prejudice and were discriminated against. The worst came to worst during the Second World War when all the Japanese Americans were forced in to camps with no apparent reason –other than being of the same ancestry with the America’s enemy, Japan. The relocation camps which were located far from the West Coast were characterized by the poor living conditions.  Since the year 1942 when the Japanese Americans was relocated to the internment camps, they were able to go back after the year 1945 when the executive order was finally removed.

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