Historical Background

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese navy bombed Pearl Harbor; the next day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared war on the empire of Japan. That "date which will live in infamy" for the Japanese militarists became "years of infamy" for the United States government with the incarceration of Japanese Americans, over two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens.

Fearing that Japanese Americans were a threat to the western United States, FDR, in February of 1942, signed Executive Order 9066, creating "restricted military areas" and providing for the evacuation and imprisonment for the duration of World War II all persons of Japanese ancestry living on the Pacific Coast. [click to view Evacuation Proclamation] In doing so the President permitted the military, in the name of national defense, to circumvent constitutional safeguards of American citizens. (At that time 127,000 Japanese Americans were living in the United States, 93,000 in California and 19,000 in Washington and Oregon.) Eventually nearly 120,000 Japanese resident aliens and American citizens of Japanese descent were interned in ten detention camps in the West and South.

Until after World War II the generation of Japanese who immigrated to the U.S. (Issei) were prevented by American law from becoming citizens, but the children born in the U.S. were citizens by birth; those children-Nisei (second generation, such as Lawson Inada's parents) and Sansei (third generation, such as Lawson Inada)-were entitled to the full protection of U.S. law. However, in 1942 they were rounded up without accusation, legal counsel or trial, placed in assembly centers near their homes, then shipped to relocation camps. There are many bitter ironies in this history, including the U.S. government's inability to prove that even one Japanese American engaged in spying or sabotage, the professed reason for Japanese Americans' removal.

In the 1850's laws were instituted restricting the rights of Chinese who came to the U.S. to work in gold mines and to build railroads. They couldn't become naturalized citizens, engage in businesses that required licenses, or attend local schools. When the U.S. halted Chinese immigration, Japanese were encouraged to come as cheap labor. The Issei were prevented from becoming citizens and, eventually from owning land. Even so, they became successful farmers, leasing and cultivating areas neglected by whites. (Adult Nisei, as citizens, could own land.) Japanese Americans' success led to resentment. As Lawson Inada has said in an interview, "The camps didn't just happen. Things were going on way before that on the West Coast. There had been anti-Asian legislation out here for almost a hundred years. The whites needed the Chinese and Japanese as laborers and farmers, but they never wanted us to stay. We didn't look like Americans, and many people were waiting to get their hands on our property, which we had to sell quickly and cheaply when we were sent off to the camps." Although evacuation orders referred to "enemy aliens" in general, including Germans and Italians, it was Japanese Americans who were targeted.

Finally, in 1976, President Gerald Ford rescinded Executive Order 9066 saying, "An honest reckoning must include a recognition of our national mistakes as well as our national achievements. Learning from our mistakes is not pleasant, but as a great philosopher once admonished, we must do so if we want to avoid repeating them." In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Japanese American internment unconstitutional, terming it "one of the worst violations of civil liberties in American history."

Material for this section is taken primarily from Years of Infamy, the Preface to only what they could carry, and the Historical Note, a succinct and clear historical summary, at the end of The Journal of Ben Uchida.