The Internment of Japanese Americans in World War II

The attack on Pearl Harbor caused even more disdain from Americans toward Asian immigrants (Japanese Americans included) than there already was. Before, they were treated similarly to African Americans, such as segregation, racism, and denying their right to own land. They also prevented Asian immigrants from becoming citizens in the U.S.

Although this treatment of Asian Americans was apparent, the U.S. made sure there were ways to distinguish between Chinese and Japanese Americans, especially since Americans believed that Chinese Americans, “whose homeland is our staunch ally”, Life magazine wrote (along with an article about “how to tell a Chinese from a Jap”), should be protected from unwarranted attacks. Ernie Plye, an author of a newspaper, wrote, “In Europe we felt that our enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people. But out here I soon gathered that Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive; the way some people feel about cockroaches or mice.”

Numerous Americans saw Japanese Americans as potential enemy agents, and even a threat to national security. The Executive Order 9066 was signed by Roosevelt that allowed the military to keep certain areas off-limits to any people. The head of Western Defense Command, General John L. DeWitt called the whole West Coast a military zone and closed it to “all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien.” which evacuated all people of Japanese descent, and even orphanages had to send Japanese American babies elsewhere. (Orphaned babies!)

Roosevelt made the War Relocation Authority in March 1942 that forcefully moved 38,000 Japanese immigrants and 72,000 Japanese American citizens to internment camps, where they were held under armed guard in abandoned stockyards and stables in remote areas in the West. Some had never even been to Japan, and half of them were children. They were only allowed to bring what they could carry to the camps, and given just a few days to sell their belongings, (houses, stores and assets included) with no guarantee that their livelihoods would still be there once they were freed. Since there were so many people trying to sell their things all at once, Japanese Americans were only able to sell their things at much lower prices than they were worth.   They made ten camps in secluded areas, made up of mostly tarpaper barracks. The prisoners were surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard towers, and lived in blocks of barracks that had communal bathrooms, dining halls, and laundry facilities. Upon arriving, the only furnishings given to them were cots, an oil stove, one lightbulb, blankets, and mattresses filled with straw. They had little to no privacy, being forced to sleep in a small room with up to six other people. The U.S. government hoped that interns could make the camps self-supporting by farming, but it was very difficult due to the dry ground. Japanese Americans had to deal with extreme weather (up to  110ºF in the summer and well below zero in the winter), dust storms, and lack of food. Many died because of the lack of medical care and the emotional stress, and some were killed by military guards supposedly for not following orders.

Most Japanese Americans complied to the internment terms, showing their loyalty to the U.S. Some did protest, as being forced into internment camps was taken as a violation of their civil rights (Japanese American World War I veterans included). In 1943, Nisei men (children of Japanese immigrants born in America) were recruited by the army and joined Japanese Americans from Hawaii, deciding to prove their loyalty to the United States by fighting with them against Europe. This became the most decorated American unit in the nation’s history, called the 422nd Regimental Combat Team. Some Japanese Americans tried to correct the government’s evacuation policy in 1944, but the Supreme Court refused and called it a wartime necessity. When this was eventually repealed, many Japanese Americans could not go back to their hometowns since there was still a lot of hateful feelings for them. Some towns even put up signs threatening evacuees that they could not return. Congress gave $20,000 to the 60,000 surviving internees as an apology and reparation payment in 1988.

The book mentioned a quote that one internee said after the incident: “It is difficult to describe the feeling of despair and humiliation experienced by all of us as we watched the Caucasians coming to look over our possessions and offering such nominal amounts knowing we had no recourse but to accept whatever they were offering.” I really feel as though this quote summarizes what most Japanese Americans were feeling at this time. If I had been in their situation, I would have been furious and broken. They were essentially taking the blame from other terrified Americans for what happened at Pearl Harbor, because of their ancestry. Even if there was no proof evidence they would betray the country in which most had citizenship, or had anything to do with Japan’s attack on the U.S. Going through living in internment camps must have made them feel like anything but citizens of the United States. Their civil rights were violated, and they were treated like prisoners, all because of their Japanese ancestry. They were forced to live under these awful circumstances without proof of any disloyalty or unlawful acts. There were some imprisoned who had never even set foot in Japan. I can understand the fear that other Americans would have had, especially since this was a time of war, but there was no need to go to these lengths.


“Core Story.” Densho: Japanese American Incarceration and Japanese Internment,

“Japanese Americans at Manzanar.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior,

Keene, Jennifer D., Cornell, Saul, and O’Donnell, Edward T. Visions of America: A History of the United States. Volume 2, 3/e. Boston: Pearson.

Japanese American Internment Notes from e-Learning


10 thoughts on “The Internment of Japanese Americans in World War II

  1. I think you make a good point at the beginning of your post about how the Japanese Americans were treated after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This segregation was continued even after the war was over and the Japanese were released from the internment camps. I think that the way this group of people were treated after the war was unfair and really hurt the image of the United State’s freedom and citizenship.

  2. Japanese internment camps were established during WWII by president Roosevelt through his executive order. Enacted in reaction to Pearl Harbor and ensuing war, the Japanese internment camps are now considered one of the most atrocious violations of American civil rights in the 20th century.

  3. I don’t blame the Japanese Americans for feeling the way they did, I would have felt the same way. Having everything taken from you, having to sell your house and business and having to live in such poor conditions makes me sick. Our government should have been ashamed of themselves for allowing this.

  4. I staunchly disagree with the practice of the internment camps and find them grossly excessive and not American, however, I can understand the idea that there will be no spies if remove all of the potential spies or saboteurs from the population. With that being said, who in their right mind thought moving orphaned infants was a necessary step in our national security efforts? That simply doesn’t make any logical sense to me.

  5. I think it is crazy that so many of the Americans (let’s call them what they really are) went willingly to the camps to show their support for America. Also, removing veterans AND orphaned babies? The paranoia was absolutely ridiculous. Then, after the war was over, the reparations were very little in comparison to what was taken from internees. This topic as a whole needs to be spoken of more.

    1. I definitely agree, this is something that should be brought up more. This was a terrible time and incident in our history, but it doesn’t make it any less important or crucial. The unnecessary lengths that other Americans went to for removing Japanese Americans, including veterans and orphaned babies like you mentioned, leaves me speechless.

  6. I don’t like the fact that the government meant to confine all of the Japanese and American-Japanese to show that they are the cause of war and thus ruining their lives. The government took everything away from them with no intention of giving it back.

  7. It amazes me that people formed a prejudice towards all Japanese people just because it was the country of Japan that attacked Pearl Harbor. Even though it wasn’t their fault, many people, even the Japanese-Americans, faced horrible treatment and were even forced into concentration camps because no one wanted to trust them because of their race and ethnicity. It is sad to think that something so simple can turn people to discriminate against others when every human deserves to be treated the same.

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