At 7:55 AM on Sunday, December 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese warplanes, launched from aircraft carriers far out at sea, attacked the American Pacific fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack took a terrible toll: eight battleships, including the USS Arizona, three light cruisers, three destroyers and four other naval vessels were either sunk or damaged. One hundred and sixty-four American aircraft were also destroyed. Most hadn’t even gotten off the ground. And 2,403 Americans, servicemen and civilians, were dead. Nothing like this had ever happened to the United States of America before.
Seventeen-year-old Daniel Inouye, the son of a Japanese immigrant, was a senior at William McKinley High School in Honolulu – and a Red Cross volunteer. “All of a sudden, three aircraft flew right overhead. They were pearl gray with red dots on the wing – Japanese,” Inouye said. “I knew what was happening. And I thought my world had just come to an end.”
That day altered the world for all Americans; for tens of thousands of Japanese Americans – particularly those living on the West Coast – life was about to change dramatically.
On February 19, 1942, just over two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Its tone was carefully neutral: It authorized the War Department to designate “military areas” and then exclude anyone from them whom it felt to be a danger. But it had a specific target: the more than 110,000 Japanese Americans living along the West Coast, whom the order would soon force into internment camps. Thousands of German and Italian aliens living in the U.S. would also be locked up, but millions of German and Italian-American citizens would remain free to live their lives as they always had. Only Japanese Americans were singled out. “It took no great effort of imagination to see the hatred of many Americans for the enemy turned on us, who looked so much like him,” observed Inouye.
At first, plans had been drawn up in Washington for the wholesale internment of all 158,000 people of Japanese descent living in Hawaii,too – nearly 40 percent of the total population of the islands. But wealthy landowners in Hawaii opposed the plan; they depended on Japanese field workers to tend their sugar and pineapple plantations. And the presence of a massive American military force on the islands made the danger of an internal threat seem less and less plausible. In the end, Japanese Americans in Hawaii would be allowed to go about their lives more or less as they always had.
But their counterparts on the West Coast would find themselves the subject of an anti-Japanese frenzy that seemed immune to reason. While they represented a tiny portion of the population, Japanese Americans on the West Coast had long been special targets of white hostility. Laws and customs shut out Japanese Americans from full participation in economic and civic life for decades. Japanese immigrants – known as Issei – could not own land, eat in white restaurants, or become naturalized citizens. But the American-born descendants of Japanese immigrants – called Nisei – were citizens by birthright, and many had become successful in business and farming. Pearl Harbor gave whites a chance to renew their hostility toward their Japanese neighbors – it also offered white growers and business interests an opportunity to agitate anew for the elimination of unwanted competitors. The head of the California Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association told the Saturday Evening Post:
“If all of the Japs were removed tomorrow, we’d never miss them… 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.”
Within days of Pearl Harbor, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover assured the U.S. Attorney General that “practically all” suspected individuals were already in custody, and there was no need for mass evacuations of Japanese for security reasons. But Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command, pushed for wholesale Japanese evacuation. “The Japanese race is an enemy race,” DeWitt wrote, “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.”
West Coast congressmen also agitated for the removal of the Japanese. Los Angeles representative Leland Ford insisted that “all Japanese, whether citizens or not, be placed in concentration camps.” In the end, political pressure prevailed, and the army was empowered to force all West Coast Americans from their homes.
All across the West, relocation notices were posted on April 30, 1942. All people of Japanese ancestry – including those with only 1/16th Japanese blood – were given one week to settle their affairs. Farmers desperately looked to neighbors to help take care of their crops, but like many Japanese-American business owners, they faced financial ruin. Families lost everything, forced to sell off homes, shops, furnishings, even the clothes they couldn’t carry with them, to buyers happy to snap them up for next to nothing.
Almost no one protested the government’s decision, and most non-Japanese took the evacuations in stride. But some were troubled by the removal of their friends and neighbors. “These students that we were going to school with, they were like our family,” said Dolores Silva of Sacramento. “And all of a sudden they said you have to leave within three days. And it was a terrible shock to us. And they were, like taking away my brothers and sisters. And I just felt so bad and we were just, we had our arms around each other that last day of school and we were all crying. Because we didn’t want them to go. It was not fair.”
110,000 Japanese Americans up and down the Pacific coast were assigned numbers and herded to ill-equipped, over-crowded assembly centers at stockyards, fairgrounds, and race tracks, from which they then would be reassigned to one of ten internment camps: Amache in Colorado, Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Gila River and Poston in Arizona, Minidoka in Idaho, Jerome and Rowher in Arkansas, Topaz in Utah and Manzanar and Tule Lake in California.
“The camp that I had to go to was Amache, in Colorado,” Robert Kashiwagi said. “And it hit 25 below zero. And one has to be very familiar how to live in areas of below zero like 25 below because you just don’t grab the doorknobs without being careful. Otherwise, you leave all your skin on the doorknob.”
The camps were generally located in remote, desert areas. Internees lived in rickety barracks barely heated by wood stoves and ate in crowded mess halls; guards in gun towers watched the perimeter of the camps and shot those who tried to escape. But most adapted as best they could to life behind barbed wire. Camp residents organized newspapers, fire departments and baseball leagues, planted gardens and sent their children to school. They constructed tracks for exercise, opened shops and staged dances. Organizations were formed to advocate for the rights of the Japanese Americans in the camps and deep divisions sometimes arose between internees with different ideas of how to respond to their situation.
“It was democracy on a small scale in action,” Asako Tokuno said. “And we made it work because everybody cooperated and we knew we were going to be living together for who knows how long.”
Civil liberties advocates brought lawsuits to try to challenge the constitutionality of Japanese relocation – but a timid Supreme Court refused to overturn the internment orders. By mid-1944, the government began to release some internees that they certified to be loyal Americans, but the majority remained locked up. Some of FDR’s top advisors advocated for an end to the internment of innocent people, but worried that such a move would be politically dangerous during an election year. The internees were ultimately released in January 1945, and many returned to their homes and tried to rebuild their lives. Some found that their homes had become occupied by strangers and needed to evict them in order to move back in. For many others, the years behind barbed wire had resulted in financial calamity, and they faced the daunting task of starting over with nothing.
In 1948, the Federal government distributed a mere $37 million in reparations, but in 1988 after 40 years of political agitation, Japanese Americans persuaded Congress to approve legislation providing an official apology and an additional payment of $20,000 to each surviving internee.
“The government made a mistake, and they apologized,” Asako Tokuno said. “Made redress. And tried to make things right. You can’t eliminate all the feelings and the hurts that happened, but the fact that, what other country would do so ... do that? I kind of wonder. So, there are a lot of great things about our country. And I don’t think I’d ever want to live anywhere else.”
In 1940, Japanese-American farmers grew 95% of the fresh snap beans and spring and summer celery, 67% of the fresh tomatoes and 44% of the onions in California.
110,000 Japanese Americans were held in 10 internment camps from May 1942 to January 1945.
Japanese Americans comprised 40% of Hawaii’s population when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Representing over 90% of carpenters and almost all the transportation workers in Hawaii, Japanese labor was essential for the rebuilding of Pearl Harbor.
Despite their treatment at home, Japanese Americans served their country with honor.