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Eighty Years After the U.S. Incarcerated 120,000 Japanese Americans, Trauma and Scars Still Remain

By Dr. Alice George 

Smithsonian Magazine 

February 11, 2022

They lived inside barbed-wire fences and beneath looming guard towers. They stood in line to get food, to use restrooms and to launder their clothes. They lost their freedom and most of their belongings, and their sole alleged crime was a simple one: Their ancestors were Japanese.

On February 19, 1942, little more than two months after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 brought the United States into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Most Americans of Japanese ancestry lived on the Pacific Coast or in Hawaii, then a U.S. territory, where less than two weeks after Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were already being arrested and held in local jails.

The order, which did not specifically name Japanese Americans or any other group, would lead to the forced removal of more than 100,000, two-thirds of whom were American citizens. One of those who witnessed the Pearl Harbor attack and instantly recognized its potential impact on his own life was a 17-year-old boy named Daniel Inouye, who would become a war hero and later a U.S. senator. He saw three Japanese planes attacking, and thought “my world had just come to an end.”

Over the following months, Japanese Americans in military exclusion zones within California, Arizona, Oregon and Washington were forced from their homes into a future they could not imagine. They had few options, whether they were first-generation immigrants known as Issei or their children, the Nisei, who were U.S. citizens. They could take with them only what they could carry.

Families “were stripped of their identity,” says Noriko Sanefuji, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The incarcerees’ names were no longer important. Instead, each family received a five-digit number to be worn on a tag around their necks. “That becomes who you are,” she says. “Even the offspring who never experienced the camp—the third generation, the fourth generation—it’s an ongoing trauma.” This loss of identity, she believes, is almost like a part of their DNA, passed from generation to generation.

In recognition of the 80th anniversary of the executive order, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, in collaboration with the National Park Service and Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, is marking this year’s National Day of Remembrance with a series of virtual events and panel discussions featuring community members, activists and scholars from around the country. The opening ceremony includes remarks from Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director Anthea Hartig, the Ambassador of Japan, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and other U.S. officials. “With the recent increase in hate crimes and racial violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, collaborations and programs such as these,” said Hartig in a release, “are critical to righting the wrongs of U.S. history.”

Under the so-called “internment” plan, only about 20,000 Japanese Americans were not forcibly removed and would remain free in other parts of the United States; though often they, too, were made to feel unwelcome. Euphemistic language served to cloud the injustices of the government’s actions. By calling the incarcerated Japanese Americans “evacuees,” by labeling temporary incaraceration centers as  “assembly centers,” and by referring to the concentration camps as “internment camps,” official terminology strategically undermined the severity of the government’s actions.

The U.S. government also imprisoned 11,500 of the country’s five million German Americans and another 3,000 Italian Americans when even more Italian Americans were recent immigrants or children of immigrants. The rationale for forcing a disproportionate number of Japanese Americans into the camps arose from a long history of unbridled prejudice and fear. Officials would turn a deaf ear to the reports of experts who praised the loyalty of Japanese Americans. To be incarcerated in what the government labeled as a “war relocation center,” an individual had to be just one-sixteenth Japanese. Yet by the war’s end or in the years following, no Japanese American was ever convicted of sabotage or espionage.

Japanese Americans lost their homes and much of what they had worked to earn. Their businesses were hijacked by people eager to profit from their misfortune. As they prepared to reach the first stop in their odyssey—temporary detention centers—many were forced to sell property at bargain-basement prices. An estimated $3.64 billion (in 2022 dollars) of wealth vanished. In centers, the so-called “evacuees” lived in dwellings that previously had served as horse stalls. From there, they went to one of ten large camps scattered across seven states. Unless the father had been imprisoned elsewhere as a suspect, families lived together in flimsy tar-paper barracks that provided little protection from harsh weather and even less opportunity for privacy. Suddenly thrown together, youth spent more time with each other, and parental authority weakened.


Yet Japanese Americans attempted to maintain their dignity and their family ties, says Sanefuji. In the museum’s collections is a child’s pair of sandals painted with a picture of Mickey Mouse. A father living in a high-security New Mexico facility made them for his son. This type of wooden shoe is what the Japanese call a geta—a clog to be worn outdoors. The sandals were sent to the man’s nine-year-old son, living in a Utah concentration camp. The father crafted the shoes with high heels that were meant to help the boy avoid sinking into the muddy ground around his camp. The traditional Japanese style sandals, poignantly adorned with the familiar Disney icon, were part of the museum’s popular 2017 exhibition, “Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II,” which documented other personal stories with stunning photographs and documents. The show, organized by Sanefuji, and addressing the issues of immigration, prejudice and civil rights, continues to tour the country today.

While many Japanese Americans struggled to adapt to incarceration, others sued the government over its decision to treat them as “enemy aliens” rather than U.S. citizens. Minoru Yasui, Gordon K. Hirabyashi and Fred T. Korematsu challenged affronts to their community in 1943 and 1944. In judging these practices, the Supreme Court accepted the government’s policy without question and ruled against the complainants. Speaking in praise of the Declaration of Independence, Gordon Hirabyashi said: “We, the people of these United States, have made tremendous advancements in the liberation of mankind from political, social, and economic, and religious slavery. . . .But even though this is America, these things happening today are not American.

However, when Mitsuye Endo questioned the imprisonment of her people without a fair trial, the Supreme Court ruled in December 1944 that military authorities had erred in imprisoning citizens without the right to a swift hearing—or any hearing at all. When she received that news, Endo was still in the Topaz camp in Utah. She and her best friend “danced around the room.”

By that time, many had left the concentration camps to attend universities in the East, to fight in the war, or to take jobs far from the West Coast. In the final days, the camps held mostly children, young mothers and the aged.

Congresswoman Doris Matsui, who was born at the Poston War Relocation Authority camp in Arizona, recently recalled the concentration camps before a congressional subcommittee addressing 21st-century attacks on Asian Americans. “We have seen the consequences when we go down that path,” she said. My family has lived through these consequences. This is what we are working to root out from the deepest place in our social conscience.”

In June 1946, President Harry Truman liquidated the War Relocation Authority. The camps have since become part of the National Park Service, which offers tours and has sponsored archaeological digs to recover traces of the history and stories of the families forced into the camps.

Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese American men had enlisted in the armed services, but after the attack, they were dismissed and re-classified as enemy aliens. But by 1943, when military leaders called for more soldiers, camp-dwellers became eligible for the draft. This fueled still more frustration and controversy in the camps; 315 refused to serve. But about 25,000 Japanese Americans fought against Germany and Italy. Sanefuji sees great courage among those who went to war: “You’re going to die for your country that put you in a prison camp.”

Soldiers in the almost entirely Japanese American 100th Infantry Battalion were the first Nisei to enter the war, reaching North Africa in 1943, and the following year in Italy, the battalion was attached to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, also a Nisei unit. On the battlefield, the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team was among the war’s most decorated, but also suffered a casualty rate of 300 percent. During the fighting in Europe, 680 gave their lives to protect the U.S.

On the Pacific front, Japanese Americans became part of the Military Intelligence Service. They worked with 130 army and navy units as battlefield translators. After the war’s end, President Harry S. Truman greeted the 442nd Regiment, saying: “You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice—and you have won. Keep up that fight, and we will continue to win—to make this great Republic stand for just what the Constitution says it stands for: the welfare of all the people all the time.”

After the war, Japanese Americans tried to ensure that all Americans would never forgot what had happened to their families. In the 1970s, they organized the Redress Movement; a 1982 Presidential Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians concluded that the military lacked justification for the incarceration and that the policies were driven by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

More than 40 years after the war’s end, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which apologized to still-living Japanese Americans who had been held in the camps and ordered restitution of $20,000 for each one. “We must recognize,” said Reagan, “that the internment of Japanese-Americans was just that: a mistake. For throughout the war, Japanese-Americans in the tens of thousands remained utterly loyal to the United States.”


In the last 50 years, Asian Americans sometimes have been called “the model minority” because of often-cited academic successes, but Sanefuji sees that label as still one more damaging stereotype. She is saddened by on-going racism that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders face today; because even many generations after their ancestors first arrived in the U.S., their community “continues to be treated as foreign” by their fellow Americans

This article was originally published by The Smithsonian Magazine. Read the original article

Dr. Alice George is a Museum Correspondent and an independent historian. 

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