Enduring Lessons of Justice from the World War II Japanese American Internment

Article excerpt

We supported our families; we honored our culture; we believed in our country. We never thought to display any civil disobedience. The U.S.A. was our home too.

--Reflections from an 80-year-old Japanese American internment camp detainee

In the spring of 1942, nearly 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living along the west coast of the United States were ordered to evacuate their homes and abandon their businesses. These federal orders, giving Japanese and Japanese Americans just a few days warning before being rounded up and sent to internment camps, came less than four months after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent United States entry into World War II. Two-thirds of those evacuated from their homes were American-born citizens. More than half were children, exiled only because their parents had been born in Japan. (1) Evacuees were not told how long they would be held, nor were they charged with any crimes. (2)

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, giving the military commander power to select certain parts of the West Coast as military areas. People considered enemies of war or a threat to national security were forbidden access to those areas. On March 2, General John DeWitt, who had been named military commander, issued a proclamation designating military areas in the states of Washington, Oregon, California, and portions of Arizona. The proclamation, known as Public Proclamation No. 1, excluded certain persons from these areas, specifically Japanese, German, and Italian aliens. (3) On March 16, the states of Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Utah also were designated military areas.

Then, on March 18, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9102 creating the War Relocation Authority, (WRA) which established the orderly evacuation of designated persons living in the restricted military areas. Just a few days later, on March 21, Roosevelt signed Public Law 503 making it a federal crime for anyone to disobey General DeWitt's orders. (4)

Throughout the spring and summer of 1942, Civilian Exclusion Orders directed all persons of Japanese ancestry, both immigrants and U.S. citizens, to report to control stations or assembly centers, consisting primarily of fairgrounds and horseracing tracks. (5) From there, Japanese Americans were transported to relocation centers, essentially prisons or internment camps constructed of wooden framed barracks situated in desolate, harsh, unsanitary sites. (6) The evacuees, separated from their extended families, former neighbors, and well-established lifestyles, were detained for almost three and a half years at 10 WRA camps scattered across the western United States. (7) The internees were gradually released throughout 1945, the year World War II ended. For most Japanese Americans, their re-entry into the U.S. mainstream was a slow and painful process. (8)

Honoring Fred Korematsu

One of the best-known Japanese Americans who fought the internment orders was Fred Korematsu. Korematsu, who was born in Oakland, California, was in his early twenties when he refused to report for transportation to an internment camp, even as his family and friends complied with government orders. Korematsu insisted that "it was wrong to subject innocent people to this treatment without trial or any evidence of criminal behavior" ... and that the evacuation order "should be declared unconstitutional." (9) Korematsu was found guilty of violating Public Law 503; his case was appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decision upheld the exclusion order, and Korematsu was found guilty of a misdemeanor. However, the case provoked strong reactions on all sides for many years to come. (10)

Over time, presidents Nixon and Ford signed bills repealing the law for which Korematsu was convicted. In 1983, Korematsu's case was reopened and the conviction set aside. …