Japanese American National Museum
An Event That Lives In Infamy
An Event That We Will Never Forget
I guess it's time for me to make a 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 nothing to do with your life. There are too many dates. The one time I did pay attention was when we learned about World War II. That was when I found out that 120,000 Japanese living in the U.S. were sent to camps for the duration of the war. As Becky and I headed towards Manzanar, home of the first camp to be built, I had to confront the pain caused by one of the most embarrassing events in American history.
Remembering by Eating : Since it was my birthday...
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 entered the war against
Japan, Germany and Italy. Americans began to distrust the Japanese people who were living in the United States. They began accusing them of helping in the attack.
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."
Their best efforts to prove themselves loyal Americans failed. Japanese immigrants and citizens found themselves up against a great deal of outrage and fear. Japan, by February of 1942, had won victories in Guam, Singapore, Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore. The West Coast could be bombed at any moment. People wanted something done.
On February 19, 1942, FDR issued Executive Order 9066, which ordered Japanese people removed 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. They were only given a few days. Children had to leave behind pets and toys. People lost their homes and businesses.
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. In war time many countries take prisoners, but this seemed different to me.
Was there any evidence of sabotage or spies among the Japanese living in the US? Never. Not a shred. 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."
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. Some Germans and Italians were imprisoned, but not in the huge numbers that Japanese were. Racism, plain and simple, seemed to be the deciding factor in the decision to intern Japanese Americans.
10 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." Kenji, who got married at the Manzanar camp, also had good memories. There were dances, outdoor movies and a community store. But he also remembered "feeling cooped up". People were not allowed to leave and eight watchtowers guarded everyone's movement closely
Some Japanese tried to fight their imprisonment in the courts. The Supreme Court upheld the right of the government to intern its citizens in times of emergency. Riots sometimes broke out in the camps. Several people were shot to death by guards. The older generation, who had sacrificed so much, had lost everything they worked to build.
By 1944, it was becoming rather obvious that the Japanese posed no threat to American security. Many people began expressing doubt about the need for the camps. Thousands of Japanese had volunteered for the army and left the camps. 6,000 Japanese served in the Military Intelligence Service. The all-Japanese 442nd regiment became one of the most decorated in US military history with over 1,000 Purple Hearts. They changed many people's minds about their loyalty.
In 1948, the government paid 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. 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.
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. February 19 should be remembered by everyone.
And yet I also felt in the desert a powerful feeling of hope and redemption. The United States is making some effort to recognize its mistake. A memorial is being built at Manzanar. People need to remember these events to make sure it never happens again.
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Links to Other Dispatches
Becky - Suit up! It's time for Zooting in Los Angeles
Daphne - Saving the world is a full time job
Stephen - What did the war mean to the fighters?