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Japanese American National Museum



An Event That Lives In Infamy

Becky with the Manzanar mountains behind her. The camp took up 6,000 acres and had over 10,000 people at one point.
I guess it's appropriate now for me to make a startling confession: your faithful trekker found history to be a complete bore in high school. I found it boring for all the reasons I've heard some of you say. It's about dead people. It has no relevance to your life. There are too many dates. I sleep-walked through my history classes until the one fateful day junior year when my teacher taught us about how during World War II, over 120,000 Japanese living in the US, two-thirds of them US citizens, were shipped off to concentration camps. That information snapped me out of my usual napping state. I pelted my teacher with angry questions. For the first time, I felt history rudely intruding on my here-to-fore undisturbed life in the suburbs, spent mostly at the mall and on the phone. The thought that, at any moment, the government could take me away from my beloved Nordstroms, Macys and Nintendo all because of my race enraged me. As Becky and I headed towards Manzanar, home of the first internment camp to be built, I had to confront anew the pain and hurt caused by one of the most embarrassing events in American history.

On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, killing over 2,000 people. It was called a "day that will live in infamy," by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. America mobilized all of its resources towards defeating the Axis Powers: Japan, Germany and Italy. It also started mobilizing against many of its own citizens back home. Anti-Japanese sentiment had been growing ever since the turn of the century. Now, many Americans immediately began accusing the Japanese living in the United States, 40% of the population in Hawaii, of collaborating in the attack. In California and Hawaii, there was suspicion that Japanese farmers were planting their crops in formations pointing to places Japan should target.

Manzanar High School used to be here.
The Japanese, in the months following Pearl Harbor, tried to prove their loyalty to America. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) had a pledge recited by many of its members that went, "I am proud that I am an American citizen of Japanese ancestry, for my background makes me appreciate more fully the wonderful advantages of this nation." The leader of the JACL wrote to FDR after Pearl Harbor, "We are ready and prepared to expend every effort to repel this invasion together with our fellow Americans." Japanese families started getting rid of everything associated with their Japanese ancestry that could taint them as traitors. There are heartbreaking stories of priceless samurai swords, diaries, Japanese opera scores, photographs, letters, vases, Japanese books and magazines, tea sets, and silk tablecloths all being burned and trashed.

The original evacuation order.
Despite all their best efforts to prove themselves loyal Americans, Japanese immigrants and citizens found themselves up against a tidal wave of outrage and fear. Japan, by February of 1942, had quickly gained victories in Guam, Singapore, Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore. The West Coast could be bombed at any moment. In this atmosphere, the American Legion declared, "This is no time for namby-pamby pussyfooting…not the time for consideration of minute Constitutional rights."

On February 19, 1942, FDR issued Executive Order 9066 allowing for the removal of designated persons from their homes to "relocation camps." On March 3, General John DeWitt ordered the evacuation of all West Coast Japanese, both alien and non-alien. Because they were only given a few days warning, Japanese families were forced to give up their homes, businesses and possessions. Children had to leave behind pets and toys. Some Good Samaritan whites offered to store some of their Japanese friends' things. Many whites, however, took advantage of the Japanese's plight and bought their farms and houses for bargain rates.

Irene and Kenji, a survivor of Manzanar who really really loves USC.
Becky and I visited with Kenji Yamamoto, a Nisei (second-generation Japanese) who was 24 years old when the government ordered his family to leave Terminal Island, California. We asked him whether he felt what the government did was right. "Oh, I understood. We were in a war," he told me without a hint of bitterness. His attitude made me think perhaps the internment was a justifiable action in the face of a gruesome war. It's easy to look back and regret the fact that due process of law was denied the Japanese, but what else could have been done? I understood Kenji's view, but needed to probe deeper.


Remembering by Eating / Since it was my birthday, my cousin Joanna took us out for some divine sushi...

Was there any evidence of sabotage or spies among the Japanese living in the US? Never, I discovered. Not a shred. In fact, the lack of proof was thought to be proof that there was Japanese subversion going on! General DeWitt said, "The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken." The FBI was never able to uncover any plots. In a report to the State Department that was kept secret for decades, Curtis Munson wrote, "There is no Japanese problem on the West Coast. For the most part, the local Japanese are loyal to the United States. Their family life is disciplined and honorable. The children are obedient and the girls virtuous. [The Nisei] show a pathetic eagerness to be Americans."

Map showing all the places where the Japanese were interned.
The second question I had was why the Japanese were interned when Americans of German and Italian ancestry were not? They were our enemies in World War II as well. It turns out that individual Germans and Italians were arrested and held, particularly at Ellis Island in New York. However, there was never a massive internment campaign against them as there was against the Japanese. Japanese immigrants, because they were not allowed to become citizens, lacked the political power of Italians and Germans. General DeWitt believed that, "The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become 'Americanized,' the racial strains are undiluted." Racism, plain and simple, seemed to be the deciding factor in the decision to intern Japanese Americans.

What Manzanar looked like in 1942
10 hastily assembled camps were built across the country. The barracks the Japanese lived in had only one room and one light bulb for the entire family. Large cracks in the boards meant freezing nights and often dusty days. I asked Kenji what he remembered the most about the camps. "The restrooms were in one room and didn't have any doors or walls. Some of the ladies took a shower at night when everyone was asleep." I also heard that people wore bags on their heads for privacy reasons when using the toilets. Kenji, who got married at the Manzanar camp, also had lots of good memories. There were dances, outdoor movies and a community store. But he also remembered "feeling cooped up" since people were not allowed to leave and eight watchtowers guarded everyone's movement closely. Discussions about why they had been moved to these desolate places almost never came up. The Japanese, known for their obedient, law-abiding ways, thought that complying with the Executive Order was the best way to show their loyalty.

Typical size cabin for a family in the camp.
Don't think the Japanese were all passive doormats. There were three cases brought to the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the Executive Order. The court in all of them upheld the right of the government to intern its citizens in times of emergency. Riots and rebellions periodically broke out in the camps. Several people were shot to death by guards. Some internees, particularly the first generation issei, committed suicide. The older generation, who had sacrificed so much in immigrating to America, had lost everything they worked decades to build.

Graveyard of the people who died at the Manzanar camp. Only one is labeled. The memorial was built by the internees.
By 1944, it was becoming rather obvious that the Japanese posed no threat to American security. Many politicians began expressing doubt about the need for the camps. Thousands of Japanese had volunteered for the army and left the camps. Others resisted the draft, thinking it ridiculous to fight for a country that had deprived them of their rights. 6,000 Japanese served in the Military Intelligence Service. Their deciphering of the enemy's documents and messages played a key role in the Allied victory. The all-Japanese 442nd regiment became one of the most decorated in US military history with over 1,000 Purple Hearts. Their heroism played a major role in reducing the anti-Japanese hostility of Americans.

The auditorium where dances and sporting events were held is one of the few original buildings left at the camp.
In 1948, the government paid the internment survivors $38 million for the loss of their property. However, the total loss was actually $400 million ($6.2 billion in today's terms!). Many Japanese had difficulty rebuilding their lives as they were refused housing and loans. Most never discussed the tragedy that had befallen them, preferring to keep the pain to themselves. I've said at times that you'll never catch Asians on Jerry Springer airing our dirty laundry. But finally in 1982, after hearing hundreds of emotional and tearful testimonies, a government commission concluded that "Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity. The broad historical causes…were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership." President George Bush in 1990 offered a formal apology to Japanese Americans, stating that "A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories…But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during WWII." Reparations of $20,000 each were given to internment survivors.

I was shocked to learn that during the War, 2,000 Latin American Japanese spent time in a camp in Crystal City, Texas. 80% were Japanese Peruvians. The US wanted to use them in exchange for their own prisoners of war in Japan. There are many in the Japanese community who are calling for a forceful apology from the US government for this outrageous act.

A school in Manzanar. There was often not enough paper and books for the children. People learned to type on pieces of paper.
As I stood in the desert in Manzanar, shivering in the cold mountain air, I was overcome with sadness. It was the day before what is known in the Japanese community as the Day of Remembrance, when FDR issued his Executive Order 9066, the fateful day when all the Japanese's Constitutional rights and liberties were smashed by the United States government. All Americans who cherish their country's ideals of liberty and justice should consider February 19 as important as the Fourth of July.

And yet I felt in the desert a powerful feeling of hope and redemption. Congressman Robert Matsui, a child during internment, points out that few other countries could own up to their mistake as America has done. Manzanar is now a national historic site and an interpretive museum is being planned, but not without controversy. Some claim that it's "unpatriotic." It's important to note that the concentration camps in the US were not the equivalent of the Jewish death camps run by the Nazis. Nor did they compare in evil to the ones in Russia where millions perished in anonymity. But the internment of the Japanese shows how fragile our Constitution can be and how we need to be vigilant and never take for granted the rights contained within it.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephen - The sweet solace of a farm in war time
Nick - When you must survive, you will find a way
Becky - Suit up! It's time for Zooting in Los Angeles
Daphne - Saving the world is a full time job
Nick - You work hard and still that isn't good enough
Becky - The making of the world's largest vaporizer: The Bomb
Stephen - What did the war mean to the fighters?
Team - Why wouldn't you help, if you could?