EDITOR NOTE: Before World War II almost 10,000 Japanese civilians lived in Mexico and worked on coffee plantations or mines, but around 1942 thousands were forced to relocate and dispersed to the U.S. or other areas of Mexico. Today there is a strong Japanese influence after Mexico paid $56,000 in wartime reparations to the Japanese community.
Japanese internment camps were established during World War II by President Franklin D. Roosevelt through his Executive Order 9066. From 1942 to 1945, it was the policy of the U.S. government that people of Japanese descent, including U.S. citizens, would be incarcerated in isolated camps. Enacted in reaction to the Pearl Harbor attacks and the ensuing war, the incarceration of Japanese Americans is considered one of the most atrocious violations of American civil rights in the 20th century.
On February 19, 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 with the stated intention of preventing espionage on American shores.
Military zones were created in California, Washington and Oregon—states with a large population of Japanese Americans. Then Roosevelt’s executive order forcibly removed Americans of Japanese ancestry from their homes. Executive Order 9066 affected the lives about 120,000 people—the majority of whom were American citizens.
Canada soon followed suit, forcibly removing 21,000 of its residents of Japanese descent from its west coast. Mexico enacted its own version, and eventually 2,264 more people of Japanese descent were forcibly removed from Peru, Brazil, Chile and Argentina to the United States.
Weeks before the order, the Navy removed citizens of Japanese descent from Terminal Island near the Port of Los Angeles.
On December 7, 1941, just hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the FBI rounded-up 1,291 Japanese American community and religious leaders, arresting them without evidence and freezing their assets.
Concurrently, the FBI searched the private homes of thousands of Japanese American residents on the West Coast, seizing items considered contraband.
One-third of Hawaii’s population was of Japanese descent. In a panic, some politicians called for their mass incarceration. Japanese-owned fishing boats were impounded.
Some Japanese American residents were arrested and 1,500 people—one percent of the Japanese population in Hawaii—were sent to prison camps on the U.S. mainland.
Lt. General John L. DeWitt, leader of the Western Defense Command, believed that the civilian population needed to be taken control of to prevent a repeat of Pearl Harbor.
To argue his case, DeWitt prepared a report filled with known falsehoods, such as examples of sabotage that were later revealed to be the result of cattle damaging power lines.
DeWitt suggested the creation of the military zones and Japanese detainment to Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Attorney General Francis Biddle. His original plan included Italians and Germans, though the idea of rounding-up Americans of European descent was not as popular.
At Congressional hearings in February 1942, a majority of the testimonies, including those from California Governor Culbert L. Olson and State Attorney General Earl Warren, declared that all Japanese should be removed.
Biddle pleaded with the president that mass incarceration of citizens was not required, preferring smaller, more targeted security measures. Regardless, Roosevelt signed the order.
War Relocation Authority
After much organizational chaos, about 15,000 Japanese Americans willingly moved out of prohibited areas. Inland state citizens were not keen for new Japanese American residents, and they were met with racist resistance.
Ten state governors voiced opposition, fearing the Japanese Americans might never leave, and demanded they be locked up if the states were forced to accept them.
A civilian organization called the War Relocation Authority was set up in March 1942 to administer the plan, with Milton S. Eisenhower from the Department of Agriculture to lead it. Eisenhower only lasted until June 1942, resigning in protest over what he characterized as incarcerating innocent citizens.
Relocation to 'Assembly Centers'
Army-directed removals began on March 24. People had six days notice to dispose of their belongings other than what they could carry.
Anyone who was at least 1/16th Japanese was evacuated, including 17,000 children under age 10, as well as several thousand elderly and disabled residents.
Japanese Americans reported to "Assembly Centers" near their homes. From there they were transported to a "Relocation Center" where they might live for months before transfer to a permanent "Wartime Residence."
Assembly Centers were located in remote areas, often reconfigured fairgrounds and racetracks featuring buildings not meant for human habitation, like horse stalls or cow sheds, that had been converted for that purpose. In Portland, Oregon, 3,000 people stayed in the livestock pavilion of the Pacific International Livestock Exposition Facilities.
The Santa Anita Assembly Center, just several miles northeast of Los Angeles, was a de-facto city with 18,000 incarcerated, 8,500 of whom lived in stables. Food shortages and substandard sanitation were prevalent in these facilities.
Life in 'Assembly Centers'
Assembly Centers offered work to prisoners with the policy that they should not be paid more than an Army private. Jobs ranged from doctors to teachers to laborers and mechanics. A couple were the sites of camouflage net factories, which provided work.
Over 1,000 incarcerated Japanese Americans were sent to other states to do seasonal farm work. Over 4,000 of the incarcerated population were allowed to leave to attend college.
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