The Internment of Japanese American Civilians

A true aspect of the Holocaust story is that Jews were sent to concentration camps, forced to live in ghettos, conscripted for labor, stripped of their rights, and suffered extreme hardships. Unfortunately, many Jews died from mostly natural causes in the German camps during World War II. This article documents that many of the same hardships inflicted on Jews during World War II were also inflicted on Japanese Americans during and after the war.

Japanese internment camp. Image: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-DIG-ppprs-00229)

Historical Background

The first Japanese arrived in California in 1869, and were initially welcomed as a form of cheaper labor than even the Chinese. Through hard work, they soon saved enough to purchase land, mostly in the form of farms, small hotels, and other commercial real estate. By 1940, the 535,000 acres of Japanese farms, typically situated on California’s most fertile land, raised 41% of the state’s staple “truck” crops, such as celery, carrots, onions, lettuce, and tomatoes. The success of the Japanese in California soon resulted in so much xenophobia that California passed the Alien Land Law in 1913, which prevented noncitizens from buying any more land.1

The impressive ascendancy of the Japanese ended almost immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack. Police soon began arresting everyone who looked Japanese in the Los Angeles district known as Little Tokyo. The U.S. Treasury also froze Japanese bank accounts the next day and seized all Japanese-owned banks and businesses. Even Japanese language schools were closed two days after the attack. Fueled by reports of intercepts of communications among Japanese diplomats that allegedly discussed the recruitment of Japanese spies, the paranoia in California and across the nation reached a fever pitch. The American public called for extreme actions against Japanese Americans.2

Japan had become the nation of the enemy. This enemy had struck without warning allegedly as part of a well-planned military offensive. From Vancouver to San Diego, Americans on the Pacific Coast and throughout the nation trembled in anticipation of what might happen next. Many Americans began almost immediately to insist that, as a matter of revenge, or safety, or both, persons of the Japanese race should be locked up without trial or any evidence against them.3

Many West Coast newspapers also began using inappropriate and offensive language in identifying Japanese Americans. These include not only the word “Japs,” but also the words “Nips,” “mad dogs,” and “yellow vermin.” Newspapers and magazines nationwide ran false stories about Japanese American spy rings, alleging that the FBI had confiscated navy signal flags, illegal radios, and ammunition from Japanese American homes.4

The Hearst and McClatchy newspapers especially began an openly racist campaign, running inflammatory editorials and news columns that produced a sense of outrage among white Californians against Japanese Americans. Henry McLemore wrote in his syndicated column:

I am for immediate removal of every Japanese…to a point deep in the interior. I don’t mean a nice part of the interior either. Herd ’em up, pack ’em off and give ’em the inside room in the badlands. Let ’em be pinched, hurt, hungry and dead up against it…Personally I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.5

The American government had found an easy scapegoat in Japanese Americans, who had somehow become responsible for the Pearl Harbor attack.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which gave the secretary of war the power to exclude any persons from designated areas in order to secure national defense objectives against sabotage and espionage. This order mandated the detention of people believed to be a possible danger, especially the West Coast Japanese. Virtually all 120,000 West Coast Japanese were placed in temporary facilities and given less than two weeks to arrange for the sale of their property before being transported to concentration camps in isolated areas of the country. These Japanese Americans would spend the next three and a half years in concentration camps.6

The Japanese Americans were given only 48 hours to leave their homes for transport to temporary holding stations. After a few days of detention, the Japanese were ordered onto transport buses with no room for their few salvaged belongings. The U.S. government then delivered the Japanese to relocation centers in desolate interior regions of the country, where they were housed in hastily built barracks surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by soldiers in watch towers.7

Although military justification was the main reason given for the evacuation and internment of Japanese Americans, government intelligence determined that the Japanese were not likely to be a national security threat. Chicago businessman Curtis B. Munson worked as a special representative of the State Department to gather intelligence material on Japanese living in the United States. He spoke with Naval Intelligence, British Intelligence and FBI agents. Based upon his investigation, commonly referred to as the Munson Report, he wrote:

There will be no uprising of Japanese…For the most part the local Japanese are loyal to the United States or, at worst, hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concentration camps or irresponsible mobs. We do not believe that they would be at least any more disloyal than any other racial group in the United States with whom we went to war.8

Munson concluded in his report that the Japanese living in the United States would not be a threat to national security.

Japanese American Incarceration

Ten concentration camps, referred to as Relocation Centers, were constructed in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, and Arkansas. During the war they became the permanent homes for Japanese Americans who had previously lived in Oregon, Washington, California, and Arizona.9

The sites of these 10 Japanese American concentration camps were chosen precisely because they had little strategic importance. They were all located in desolate environments distant from major towns and cities. The U.S. government went out of its way to use land in particularly remote areas of the country. Most of the Japanese incarceration sites are hard to locate and are not well marked; they are often difficult to find even with directions.10

Japanese American Internment Camp Locations. This map shows the extent of the exclusion zone Japanese Americans were forced to leave and the locations of the 10 internment camps to which they were sent. Image: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

The majority of Japanese Americans housed in these compounds—about 77,000 out of 120,000—were United States citizens referred to as Nisei, born and raised in this country. However, some were resident aliens, known as Issei. The Issei were first-generation Japanese immigrants who had chosen to live in the United States, but who were not allowed naturalization by federal statutes. Denied fundamental rights guaranteed to all Americans, Japanese Americans became prisoners in their own country.11

Life in the camps was crowded and unpleasant, with privacy being almost impossible. Former internee Mine Okubo said that “the incomplete partitions in the [latrine] stalls and the barracks made a single symphony of yours and your neighbors’ loves, hates, and joys. One had to get used to snores, baby-crying, family troubles…The sewage system was poor, [and] the stench from the stagnant sewage was terrible.” The outer buildings were also communal and lacking privacy.12

The overcrowded barracks were, moreover, in poorly built structures equipped with only the most rudimentary fittings. A block manager at Poston, California reported in October of 1942 that, four months after opening, the barracks still lacked anything resembling real floors, ceilings, and wall coverings to keep out the elements. He said there was “unbearable heat in the barracks; dust and soot all over everything; flies, crickets, dragon flies, etc., buzzing in and out the open windows and doors.” These flagrant violations of housing standards were not a temporary phenomenon; many of these same problems remained in 1944.13

The Japanese detainees sometimes endured temperatures as low as 35 degrees below zero Fahrenheit in winter and 115 degrees above in summer. In the Arizona camps, dust storms regularly sent sand through wide cracks in the poorly constructed barracks. A visiting journalist to the Manzanar barracks in California wrote that “on dusty days, one might just as well be outside as inside.” Outside the barracks, internees faced the additional hazards of rattlesnakes and other poisonous wildlife.14

The U.S. government told Americans that the Japanese detention centers had nothing in common with the concentration camps in Germany. The Army public relations agency continually referred to the Japanese camps as “resettlement camps,” while the U.S. State Department denied that the camps were concentration camps. Rather, the State Department described the camps as communities in which the Japanese may organize their social and economic life in safety and security under the protection of the central authorities of the United States.15

It is true that Japanese in American-run camps never experienced the starvation and horrific conditions experienced by inmates in the German camps toward the end of World War II. However, contrary to publicized claims, no researcher has been able to document a German policy of extermination through starvation or the use of poison gas in German camps. The virtual collapse of Germany’s food, transport, and public health systems and the extreme overcrowding in the German camps led to the catastrophic conditions in these camps toward the end of the war.16

The War Relocation Authority (WRA), a U.S. government agency created to handle the internment of Japanese Americans, tried to make the camps self-supporting. Thus, the food eaten at the camps was mostly homegrown by Japanese field laborers who worked 48 hours per week for minimal wages on camp farms. Some internees took advantage of their past work experience to work as carpenters, roofers, and brick makers, while other internees worked in professional jobs such as doctors and teachers. WRA regional offices in cities such as Salt Lake, Cleveland, New York, and Chicago also had representatives who attempted to find work for Japanese Americans to enable them to be released early from the internment camps.17

The situation was similar for Japanese Australians: Tatura civilian internment camp (Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial) Source: Australian War Memorial
An internment camp for Japanese Canadians in British Columbia, 1945. Image: Jack Long / National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/PA-142853.

Economic Loss and Discrimination

Most West Coast communities initially were opposed to the return of Japanese Americans. Because of this hostile atmosphere, thousands of Japanese internees decided to move away from the West Coast upon release from the camps. About 53,000 Japanese Americans, 45% of the population, had moved east by 1949. WRA representatives helped the Japanese find housing and jobs, and encouraged them to get involved in community groups.18

The WRA in its Final Report concluded that the handling of Japanese American evacuee property was poorly done. Japanese Americans lost much in the initial days after the Pearl Harbor attack through panic sales, and more property was sacrificed as fear and hysteria mounted. Responsibility for safeguarding evacuee property “bounced from agency to agency” before it came to rest with the WRA. Initial losses were compounded by vandalism and the indifference of local officials to protect Japanese property. The WRA’s report concluded that “wartime handling of evacuee property is a sorry part of the war record.”19

Once Executive Order 9066 was issued, Japanese Americans grew increasingly fearful and sacrificed even more of their possessions in haste. Given mere days to sell their property and all the belongings they could not carry, Japanese Americans faced an extreme buyer’s market for their property. One Japanese victim stated, “It is difficult to describe the feeling of despair and humiliation experienced by all of us as we watched the Caucasians coming to look over our possessions and offering such nominal amounts knowing we had no recourse but to accept what they were offering.” The army also forced Japanese Americans to sell, give away, or euthanize family pets.20

Numerous agricultural groups unfairly made substantial profits through the mass removal of Japanese farmers. Japanese farmers were about to harvest many of their crops when the orders to evacuate arrived. Since the American government needed these crops, the military stated that crop neglect or damage would be considered an act of sabotage. Thus, not only did Japanese farmers lose the benefits of their months of hard work, but they were also forced to continue working until the final moment of evacuation to support a government that was forcibly removing them from their farms.21

Some representatives of agricultural groups acknowledged that the internment of Japanese American farmers was motivated as much by economic greed as by military security. For example, the managing secretary of the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association at the time stated:

We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific or the brown man…If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we’d never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we don’t want them back when the war ends either.22

An estimated 75% of Japanese who had been removed from the West Coast lost all their property. Virtually everyone else lost something. Many Japanese who had stored their property in churches or warehouses returned to discover that their property had been pillaged or vandalized. In some cases, unscrupulous whites took advantage of the anti-Japanese climate to claim property left in their custody, remain on property they had been assigned to watch, or keep for themselves profits the Japanese had made during the war.23


The relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans is today widely considered to be unjust. A 1981 report by the Presidential Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians stated:

The promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it…were not driven by analysis of military conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership…A grave injustice was done to American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry who, without individual review or any probative evidence against them, were excluded, removed, and detained by the United States during World War II.24

Most people acknowledge that the relocation of Japanese Americans was wrong. As U.S. President Gerald R. Ford stated on February 19, 1976: “We know now what we should have known then—not only was [that] evacuation wrong, but Japanese Americans were and are loyal Americans.”25

In the late 1960s, small groups of Japanese Americans began campaigning for some kind of compensation for the wrongs done to them and their people during World War II. They sometimes used the word “reparations,” but the softer term “redress” prevailed.26

Japanese Americans eventually obtained some redress for their lost property and incarceration. In the summer of 1988, after numerous attempts to bring legislation to the floor of Congress to obtain a vote, H.R. 442 was finally approved by Congress. This law was signed by President Ronald Reagan during the last months of his presidency. It established a fund of $1.2 billion from which surviving Japanese Americans affected by Executive Order 9066 would receive a one-time $20,000 tax-free payment. The remainder of the money was awarded for educational and other programs by a new nonprofit body, the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund. An apology and the first redress checks were sent to former Japanese inmates during President George H. W. Bush’s administration.27


1 Russo, Gus, Supermob, How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America’s Hidden Power Brokers, New York: Bloomsbury, 2006, p. 101.

2 Ibid.

3 Daniels, Roger, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1988, p. 199.

4 Bahr, Diana Meyers, The Unquiet Nisei: An Oral History of the Life of Sue Kunitomi Embrey, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007, p. 40.

5 Tateishi, John, And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Centers, New York: Random House, 1984, p. xvi.

6 Russo, Gus, Supermob, How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America’s Hidden Power Brokers, New York: Bloomsbury, 2006, p. 102.

7 Ibid., p. 103.

8 Ng, Wendy, Japanese American Internment during World War II, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002, p. 14.

9 Castelnuovo, Shirley, Soldiers of Conscience: Japanese American Military Resisters in World War II, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008, p. 4.

10 Alinder, Jasimine, Moving Images: Photography and the Japanese American Incarceration, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009, p. 9.

11 Tateishi, John, And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Centers, New York: Random House, 1984, pp. xiii-xiv.

12 Zurlo, Tony, The Japanese Americans, Farmington Hill, MI: Lucent Books, 2003, p. 60.

13 Park, Yoosun, Facilitating Injustice: The Complicity of Social Workers in the Forced Removal and Incarceration of Japanese Americans, 1941-1946, New York: Oxford University Press, 2020, p. 208.

14 Russo, Gus, Supermob, How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America’s Hidden Power Brokers, New York: Bloomsbury, 2006, p. 104.

15 Weber, Mark, “The Japanese Camps in California,” The Journal of Historical Review, Spring 1981, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 45-58. See

16 Ibid.

17 Zurlo, Tony, The Japanese Americans, Farmington Hill, MI: Lucent Books, 2003, p. 63.

18 Ibid., pp. 71-72.

19 Taylor, Sandra C. (editor), Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress, Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1986, p. 163.

20 Russo, Gus, Supermob, How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America’s Hidden Power Brokers, New York: Bloomsbury, 2006, pp. 104-105.

21 Nagata, Donna K., Legacy of Injustice: Exploring the Cross-Generational Impact of the Japanese American Internment, New York: Plenum Press, 1993, pp. 17-19.

22 Ibid., p. 18.

23 Robinson, Greg, A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, p. 257.

24 Daniels, Roger, Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II, New York: Hill and Wang, 2004, pp. 3-4.

25 Daniels, Roger, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1988, p. 201.

26 Daniels, Roger, Taylor, Sandra C., Kitano, Harry H. L. (editors), Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress, Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1986, p. 188.

27 Robinson, Greg, A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, pp. 299-300.

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