The internment of hundred of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II is one of infamous blotches in the United States’ experience with racial discrimination and human and civil rights violations. Although less discussed in the history books than the country’s fight against discriminatory practices against the African Americans, the incarceration of the Japanese Americans, nevertheless, has tainted the nation with guilt. The reason for this is that the incarceration did not have profound effects on the positive outcome of the war.
Instead, it only meant the alienation and the violation of the members of a certain race that the US government judged with sweeping generalization as the enemy. The impact on the Japanese Americans was definitely negative. They had to bear the harshness of living in substandard conditions and, worse of all, the racial prejudice that they suffered from the eyes of the American public. On the other hand, the stigma was felt and continues to be felt by American society itself.
The internment has been considered as another shameful chapter in the history of a nation that prides itself of being a promoter of freedom, democracy, and civil rights. The arrival of Japanese into the country had been occurring a century before World War II. The more significant increase in migration however occurred in the 1890’s. Before Pearl Harbor was bombed, the single devastating event that prompted the US to got war against Japan, government statistics already confirmed that there was nearly 200,000 people who were either born in Japan or were with Japanese ancestry.
The US mainland, particularly the states along the Pacific coast were home to more than 125,000 of these people while the 150,000 were in Hawaii, which was then just a territory of the US. The death toll and the destruction brought about by what was considered as a treacherous act by the Japanese in Pearl Harbor changed the image of the Japanese Americans in the eyes of the Americans. Spurred by the government’s own paranoia over the existence of these people within the country’s backyard, the American public began to treat the Japanese Americans with contempt and distrust.
They began to see them as “American citizens with enemy faces. ” (Daniels et al 12) The paranoia was initiated by a government report on the Pearl Harbor attack that came out in January 1942. Penned by US Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts, the report without much evidence alleged that the Japanese Americans in Hawaii spied for the Japanese navy in preparation of the attack. Barely a month after the report came out congress members of the west coast states sent the US president a letter that recommended the immediate evacuation of Japanese Americans in their respective states.
As the members of congress made their move, the US Army’s Western Defense Command also sent a memorandum to the Secretary of War that advised the removal every person of Japanese descent from the entire west coast area. In response to both recommendations by the members of the legislature and by the military area high command, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Executive Order 9066 which provided blanket authority to the Secretary of War and all military commanders to implement the recommendations.
One part of the memorandum that influenced the President in issuing EO 9066 stated that “in time of national peril, any reasonable doubt must be resolved in favor of action to preserve the national safety, not for the purpose of punishing those whose liberty may be temporarily affected by such action, but for the purpose of protecting the freedom of the nation, which may be long impaired, if not permanently lost, by non-action. ” (The War Relocation Authority) The President and his advisers clearly knew that the internment of the Japanese Americans could gravely affect their basic human rights.
Nevertheless, driven by the sense of urgency to protect the country from the enemy, they would rather incarcerate thousands of innocent Japanese American civilians than be at risk from spying activities by a few if there were any proven. The process taken to implement the internment was tainted with violations of the Japanese Americans’ right to privacy. The United States Census Bureau, a department ran by civilians for purely civilian functions, was employed to assist in identifying individuals and families who should be sent to internment.
It took a role in spying neighborhoods and gathering information on Japanese Americans. The bureau vehemently denied this role but in 2007, after several decades, this was finally proven. (Minkel) The US government in 1988, under President Ronald Reagan, came out with a legislation of an apology for the internment. It stated that the decisions and actions of the US government regarding the status of the Japanese Americans anchored on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership. (100th Congress)
As a result of this legislation, the US government paid more that $1. 6 billion to Japanese Americans who were victims of the internment or were heirs of those who suffered it. It was just that, although late by several decades, the US government issued an apology and paid reparations for the Japanese American victims of the mass internment. The sense of alienation and injustice resulting from mandatory evacuations was already painful. Making it even worse, was the sub-human conditions in the internment camps and the separation from their properties and livelihood.
The barracks in which the internees, many of these families, were made to live in barracks with barely insulation from the hot or cold weather. Many of the barracks did not have plumbing as well as facilities for cooking. Some of them even had common toilets. Since the barracks were mostly built by civilian contractors who usually made the military’s camps, these were naturally unsuitable for family living. Some of the internment facilities such as the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in Wyoming may have names that did not actually reflect the living conditions of the internees.
In fact, the Heart Mountain facility actually appeared like a concentration camp with a “barbed-wire-surrounded enclave, un-partitioned toilets, cots for beds, and a budget of 45 cents daily per capita for food rations. ” (Myer) The mandatory evacuation was done hastily, with the military employed to enforce it. Due to such short notice, many of the internees were not able to prepare enough food and clothing for their stay in the camp. Herded by the military into mass transport systems, they were not informed of their respective destinations or the location of their assigned camps.
Because of this, they were not able to bring clothes suitable for the climates in which their camps were. A great number had to make do with the thin clothing usually worn in California as they struggle with the harsh winters in Wyoming. Most of the internees consequently lost valuable properties due to the limits of properties that could be brought to the camps. Japanese Americans who had stable employment were naturally forced to leave their jobs permanently. The Japanese Americans were treated unequally.
Although they all lived under the same subhuman conditions of the internment camps, the nissei or those who were born in the US and were granted citizenship and their children were give preferential treatment. On the other hand, the nikkei, who were immigrants from Japan and who did not hold US citizenship, were treated with suspicion by the authorities heading the military zones of which the Pacific coast was subdivided. Stricter rules were also applied to them while they were in the camps.
As a consequence of their incarceration, Japanese American children experienced difficulties in their studies. Although basic education was still provided in the camps, the system it employed was not only meant to teach children the necessary academic subjects. Education was also made as a channel for anti-Japanese war propaganda. The camp schools were not conducive to learning. There were very few books, teaching aids, and schools supplies for the students to use. Heating was also quite poor, making the children vulnerable to sicknesses.
However, what made the educational system worse then was that it embedded shame and hatred for being of Japanese descent. The effect of the daily dose of war propaganda that they experience was such that “once in a while a child would confide timidly about not wanting to go to school- ashamed of being Japanese in front of his teachers who read every morning from a newspaper about the horrible Japanese soldiers and how fine American soldiers were fighting and winning. ” (Hirabayashi 45)
The traditional way of bringing up families was destroyed by the internment. Parents found it difficult to discipline their children because the living arrangements in the barracks did not allow them so. If they insist on raising their voices while scolding their children, they would certainly annoy their neighbors with whom they share a common thin wall. Because of this, “the nissei children, for their part, often ate with their peers in the mess hall and roamed around the camp in packs, thus further escaping the influence of their elders. (O’Brien & Fugita 62)
As are result of this, it was common for internment camps to have problems with juvenile delinquency. Experiencing the difficulties of living in the internment camps had a great impact on Japanese Americans in the duration of World War II. However, it was not the certain degree of depravation that they encountered that was serious enough for them. It was the psychological effect of the incarceration that was more overwhelming. Internment camp administrators admitted that they observed many Japanese Americans showed signs of depression.
They also observed that the feelings of insecurity and helplessness were prevalent in the camps’ population. On the other hand, there was quite a number who expressed apprehensions of living outside the camps and be with mainstream society. The reason for this was that they knew of the rabid anti-Japanese propaganda being spread around and accepted by Americans. They were afraid of integrating themselves in a society that might still consider them as enemies and suffer worse racial discrimination in the end.
The internment, therefore, only embedded in them fear and hatred against themselves or against other races. After the war, Japanese American internees were released into mainstream society. They tried living as normal as they once lived before the internment but many of them found it difficult to recover. The no longer have the shops, farms, and jobs which were their sources of living. Opportunities of regaining these were bleak as the general population still tended to treat them with contempt.
While before they share the same fate as the African Americans as victims of racial discrimination, after the war, even the African Americans tended to treat them as a lesser race. Several years after, adults who were then young boys and girls in the internment camps still experienced episodes of depression. A former child internee wrote that even after all those decades, there were still times when remembered his experience in an internment camp, as well as the “feeling of isolation and abandonment. (Tateishi 130)
Aside from these depressing memories that former internees continue to suffer, they also suffered confusion of their racial and national identity, especially the nissei. Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, another former child internee, remembered a time when she was made to do a Japanese dance inside the camp; “vulnerability and fragility exposed my old confusion: Am I Japanese or am I American in this barbed-wire camp, about to perform a Japanese dance? ” (Looking Like the Enemy 69) The impact is still experienced by Japanese Americans of this generation.
They still “have trouble feeling at home in their adopted country. ” (Alfaro 206) They still fear the possibility that the people of other races upon seeing them would remember them as enemies who had the chance of partaking the opportunities offered in the US. Majority of the American public still has to know the truth about the internment of Japanese Americans. This sad part of history should have a positive impact on society, making the people more vigilant against various forms of racism.