Executive Order 9066 — How Racial Hatred Led to the Imprisonment of American Citizens in World War Two

Racism trumped justice in 1942 when a presidential executive order stripped Americans of Japanese ancestry of their rights, property and freedom. The lessons of this dark chapter of history still resonate 75 years later.
(Image source: National Archives)

“Executive Order 9066 destroyed the hard work of an entire generation. With the movement of a pen, irreparable damage had been done, and some would never recover.”

By George Yagi Jr.

FOLLOWING THE ATTACK on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, life changed forever for Japanese Americans.

Even though many had been residents for decades, while others had been born on U.S. soil, the mere fact that they resembled the enemy was enough to justify a campaign of persecution unlike any other in American history.

Having traveled from their homeland as early as 1869, the Issei, or first generation of Japanese Americans, had endured great hardship to establish themselves in their new country. Faced with increasing hostility as they met with success, they were forbidden by law to own land, rent land, marry whoever they wished due to anti-miscegenation laws, and were denied citizenship because according to the courts they were neither “free white persons” or “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent.”  When attempts were made to start families by sending for “picture brides” from Japan, laws were also passed to prevent the young women from gaining entry to the U.S.

By 1924, the Immigration Act went so far as to close America’s borders to all immigrants from Japan. In addition, even the U.S.-born children of the earliest arrivals, known as Nisei, were not spared from state-sanctioned bigotry. Some were forced to attend segregated schools — a practice reminiscent of life in the Old South.

Despite this harsh reality, the Japanese prospered in America. Starting from lowly farm laborers, many quickly rose to become farmers themselves, such as George Shima. Nicknamed the “Potato King,” he was not only the first Japanese American millionaire, but was also responsible for 85 per cent of California’s potato crop. Other Japanese families settled in cities like San Francisco, Seattle, San Jose, Stockton, Fresno, Sacramento and Los Angeles, where they founded vibrant “Japantowns” or Nihonmachi. Businesses flourished in these cultural enclaves, providing a wide range of goods and services to local residents.

Following the attack against Pearl Harbor, life came to a sudden stop.

A Japanese American shop owner tries to show where his true loyalties lie. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Overnight, signs went up in front of businesses that read, “I am an American,” but such gestures of loyalty were in vain. Government agents quickly swept through the Japanese American community, arresting church leaders, newspaper editors, officials of cultural organizations and principals of Japanese language schools. Many homes were also thoroughly searched without warrants. While the roundups continued, plans were already in motion to remove the Japanese from the West Coast. Washington preferred to call these forced relocations “evacuations.” Ironically, the Third Reich used the same term to describe the mass deportation of Jews from Warsaw, Krakow and other locations in Eastern Europe.

America’s own concentration camps came into existence largely due to the efforts of Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt. A man filled with hatred, he justified the harsh treatment of the Japanese by simply stating, “a Jap is a Jap!” Claiming that the imprisonment of Japanese Americans was in the interest of national defense he argued:

In the war in which we are now engaged racial affinities are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race 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… It, therefore, follows that along the vital Pacific Coast over 112,000 potential enemies, of Japanese extraction, are at large today.

Under pressure from DeWitt, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the forced evacuation of 117,000 Japanese Americans from their homes. In a manner similar to what was happening in Europe, orders further stipulated the removal of anyone with at least 1/16 Japanese blood.

On average, families had less than 48 hours to settle affairs before their departure. Many found themselves exploited by profiteers who offered pittances for valuable personal possessions and property. Some, however, refused to allow others to take advantage of them. Riku Wakatsuki, for example, chose to smash her valuable china rather than sell it to an unscrupulous buyer, who watched in horror as bits of porcelain shattered on the floor in front of him.

In great haste, families packed their possessions for safekeeping, and tried to make provisions for the care of property which had been purchased under the names of their children, who were American citizens. After the war, a lucky few would return to find their belongings intact. Many, however, did not. Homes were ransacked, belongings stolen, and even small parcels of land were claimed by others through dubious means. Many found that their lives had been utterly ruined.

The Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of 10 U.S. camps where more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were held between 1942 and 1945. It’s now a national historic site dedicated to preserving the memory of wartime internment. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Executive Order 9066 destroyed the hard work of an entire generation. With the movement of a pen, irreparable damage had been done, and some would never recover. On Aug. 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed H.R. 442, which provided financial restitution for the losses suffered. Prior to affixing his signature on the document, Reagan remarked:

The legislation that I am about to sign provides for a restitution payment to each of the 60,000 surviving Japanese-Americans of the 120,000 who were relocated or detained. Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. So, what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.

During the dark days of the Second World War, the concept of equality and the protection of basic rights laid out in the Constitution had been trampled upon in the name of national security. A group of innocents suffered because they were of a different race, and some who entered the camps never experienced freedom again. While only a few buildings remain of the concentration camps today, they serve as a lonely reminder. It must never happen again.

Dr. George Yagi Jr. is a historian at California’s University of the Pacific. His family was among those imprisoned during World War Two at Amache, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter @gyagi_jr.

3 comments for “Executive Order 9066 — How Racial Hatred Led to the Imprisonment of American Citizens in World War Two

  1. Angus
    13 February, 2017 at 8:55 pm

    I find it remarkable that one of the main architects of this, Earl Warren then gov. of California isn’t even mentioned.

    Worse, the fact that in Hawaii where over 50% of the population was Japanese, there was no evacuation nor internment, despite the fact that these people were much closer to possible combat, could have been a far greater threat. The author also fails to mention that there wasn’t a single act of sabotage or espionage, nor disloyalty among the Jaqpanese American population.

    I would also hope someone would do an article on the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The most highly decorated unit in WW2. Unfortunately it too was subject to racism, and not a single Medal of Honor was awarded to the war, despite the remarkable acts of heroism and sacrifice. Decades later some were awarded in recognition of past valor.

    To those who believe it can’t happen here, the SCOTUS said such treatment was constitutional. We see the same attitudes toward in the American judicial system that regards the Constitution and American law as mere speed bumps to be altered and shaped as they wish.

    • Just wondering
      19 February, 2017 at 2:12 pm

      Was there any country at war with Japan that did not do something analogous? Canada? Australia? Britain?

      Was there even one country or colony invaded by Japan (e., g. Philippines, Indonesia. Malaya, Burma) in which indigenous Japanese did not assist the invasion?

      Could the thousands of German-Americans and Italian-Americans rounded up and put into a score or more of relocation camps, man not getting out until 1946, get out of the camps by joining the Army?

    • LSM
      15 October, 2017 at 9:58 pm

      Outstanding sir.

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