Historical Background to the Internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII

Having discussed my “discovery” of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, in this post I offer some historical background to the internment, based on my reading of scholarly studies which I note as I go along.

To contemporary sensibilities, the evacuation and detention of  Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II seems unjust, inhumane and even racist. But to someone who had followed the history of the Japanese in America, detention based on race would not be that surprising.

Like most people of color who have come to the United States (voluntarily or involuntarily), Japanese immigrants were subject to numerous forms of overt, covert, and institutional racism. And as with most people of color, racial discrimination against the Japanese bore the seal of approval of various local and state governments, as well as the federal government.

From the early period of immigration from Japan to the West Coast of America, “resident Japanese were an unpopular and unwelcome group in the eyes of many residents … Their race and the semiclosed communities into which they were forced set them apart from the larger population. Their adherence to Old World culture patterns further served to emphasize their isolation and to make them the target of popular distastes” (Morton Grodzins, Americans Betrayed: Politics and the Japanese Evacuation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949, p. 2).

In essence,  their  inability and, for some, unwillingness to assimilate was both a product and a cause of Eurocentric discrimination. Discrimination against the Japanese, however, was merely a continuation of the racism which had earlier served to provoke violence against Native Americans, Mexicans, and Chinese, especially in California.

In 1790, three years after the ratification of the United States Constitution, the first immigration law of the US was passed, and it spoke very clearly to the racialized nature of American “democracy.” The law “provided that only ‘free whites’ could be naturalized,” and as a result, of the 72,157 Japanese in the continental US in 1910, only 4,502 (6%) were American citizens (Dillon Myer, Uprooted Americans: The Japanese Americans and the War Relocation Authority During World War II, Tuscon: University of Arizona Press. 1971, p. 9).

That no immigrant Japanese could be a naturalized citizen was not enough, though. In the 20th century, racism and the desire to eliminate all immigration from Japan resulted in further governmental legislation. “By 1900, widespread economic and social antagonisms had developed, and agitation in opposition to further Japanese immigration had begun. The 1906 San Francisco school law, ordering the segregation of oriental students, was the first official discriminatory act of importance [directly aimed at Asians]. It was followed by action on the state level, as in the passage of the 1913 California Alien Land Law (prohibiting ‘aliens ineligible for citizenship’ from acquiring ownership of agricultural land), in the subsequent strengthening of that law, and in the passage of similar statutes, following the California example, in Oregon, Washington, and other states” (Grodzins, Americans Betrayed , p. 3).

Discrimination against Japanese became a matter of federal policy with the passage of the Exclusion Act of 1924 which “den[ied] admission to the United States of all immigrants ineligible for American citizenship,” a law that was amended exclude Japanese specifically (Myer, Uprooted Americans, p. 12).

The judicial branch continued in its tradition of racism with “a Supreme Court decision denying the citizenship previously granted a Japanese who had served with United States forces in [World War I]” (Jacobus tenBroek, Edward Barnhart, and Floyd Matson, Prejudice, War and the Constitution, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968, p. 28).

After the passage of the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924, relations between “whites” and Japanese improved somewhat. But racism only needed a catalyst to incite further discrimination driven by the desire to eliminate the “yellow menace” altogether. In 1942, the collective weight of half a century of racial antagonism on the West Coast collapsed onto 113,000 residents of Washington, Oregon, Arizona and California who happened to have ancestry in the country which had attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor.

Although there was no action against Japanese and Japanese Americans immediately after December 7, 1941, there would soon enough be calls for measures against the “Japs,” this time with the full force of a wartime mentality behind them.

The politics behind the decision to hold a mass evacuation of a single racial group is beyond the scope of this discussion. Suffice it to note that on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066 which authorized the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson “to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restriction the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.” (The Japanese American National Museum is running an exhibit of reflections on Executive Order 9066 called “Instructions to All Persons,” through 13 August 2017.)

On February 20th, Stimson delegated his authority prescribed in Executive Order 9066 to General John DeWitt of the Western Defense Command of the US Army. For many Japanese, this was an ominous foreboding of future events. In a February 14, 1942 memorandum to Stimson called “Final Recommendations,” DeWitt expressed his desire to exclude from military areas all Japanese aliens as well as all Japanese American citizens. (For the full text of DeWitt’s “Final Recommendations,” see Appendix A in Myer, Uprooted Americans, p. 301.)

DeWitt — notorious for his assertion that “a Jap’s a Jap” — expressed his racialized view in the memorandum:

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 State soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become “Americanized,” the racial strains are undiluted. To conclude otherwise is to expect that children born of white parents on Japanese soil sever all racial affinity and become loyal Japanese subjects, ready to fight and, if necessary, to die for Japan in a war against the nation of their parents. That Japan is allied with Germany and Italy in this struggle is not ground for assuming that any Japanese, barred from assimilation by convention as he is, though born and raised in the United States, will not turn against this nation when the final test of loyalty comes. It, therefore, follows that along the vital Pacific Coast over 112,000 potential enemies, of Japanese extraction, are at large today. There are indications that these were organized and ready for concerted action at a favorable opportunity. The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken (quoted in Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, University of Washington Press, 1997, p. 6).

Not long after he was given authority under Executive Order 9066, DeWitt issued Public Proclamation No. 1. This proclamation essentially fell in line with the program he proposed in the “Final Recommendations” memo. Proclamation No. 1 “designat[ed] the western half of the three Pacific Coast states and the southern third of Arizona as a military area and stipulat[ed] that all persons of Japanese descent would eventually be removed therefrom” (Myer, Uprooted Americans, p. 25).

Whereas the program of removal from the designated military area was initially instituted as “voluntary evacuation,” and movement to any residence outside the military zones was allowed, it soon became one of forced evacuation and detention in “relocation” centers [Note 1*].

Through Civilian Exclusion Orders Nos. 1- 108, issued between March 24 and August 8, 1942, DeWitt was able to force the migration of 109,650 people of Japanese ancestry, American citizens and resident aliens alike, to fifteen “Assembly Centers” (really, detention centers), mostly racetracks and fairgrounds like Tanforan I mentioned before, where they would wait until relocation centers could be set up for their detention (Dorothy S. Thomas and Richard Nishimoto, The Spoilage: Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1946, pp. 11-13).

Photo of photo exhibit at Manzanar National Historic Site by David Yamane

Tule Lake in Newell, California was the first relocation center to open (May 27, 1942), and the final shipment of evacuees arrived at Arkansas’s Jerome Relocation Center in October 1942. In a matter of months, the evacuation and detention was complete.

The roughly 110,000 detained Japanese were most of the total Japanese population of 127,00 living in the continental US at the time. They represented “less than one tenth of one per cent of the total American population, less than two percent of the population in the state of their heaviest concentration (California)” (Thomas and Nishimoto, The Spoilage, p. 1).

This population can be broken down into Issei (first generation) and Nisei (second generation). The second generation Japanese were divided into the “Jun” (pure) Nisei and the Kibei (literally, “returned to America”). The Kibei were sent by their families back to Japan to live with relatives and generally to be educated, then returned to the US. They differed from the Jun Nisei in their more strict adherence to Japanese cultural traditions, and in ideological divisions between Issei and Nisei, they tended to side with the Issei.

Of the 127,000 total in the US, some 80,000 were Nisei and held American citizenship by virtue of their birth on American soil. Two thirds of the Nisei were under twenty years of age. Of the 47,000 Issei who were resident aliens, “Ninety eight per cent … had come to America prior to the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924, almost half of the total having arrived before 1910” (Thomas and Nishimoto, The Spoilage, pp. 1-2).

The Issei were characteristically old: 67% being over fifty years of age. Due to the tradition of racist exclusion described above, the 98% of the Issei who had lived in America at least eighteen years (almost 50% of those residing at least 32 years) were ineligible to be naturalized as citizens. Had the Japanese not been discriminated against previously, it is possible that fully 99% of all people of Japanese ancestry interned would have been United States citizens in 1942.

Photo of photo exhibit at Manzanar National Historic Site by David Yamane

Resentment, then, was not an unknown feeling among the Japanese in America. In a later post I will explore how this resentment played out in the drama of collective resistance in the detention centers.


[1*] “Relocation” center was meant to imply a stopping point on the way to resettlement outside the military zone. In reality, most did not resettle, but stayed in the centers until they were closed. Some stayed as many as four years. Most wanted to wait until the West Coast was reopened to them, while others simply feared racism on the outside of the centers regardless of the region of the country to which they would be resettled. A few even felt as though they were “getting back” at the government by staying in the centers and living at the monetary expense of the government.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Racism, Post-Ferguson Reflections on the Need for Basic Distinctions

Discussions of race, more often than not in my experience, generate more heat than light. I learned this early on in my own education when I was doing the research for my book, Student Movements for Multiculturalism: Challenging the Curricular Color Line in Higher Education.

Anger, frustration, hurt, misunderstanding, and other emotions were abundant on both sides of the debates over racism in the Ivory Tower. It is not surprising to me, then, that these same feelings are even more abundant in the wake of the refusal of a grand jury in Missouri to indict (now former) Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown while in the line of duty.

racial-tensionRacism is difficult to talk about under any circumstance. But talking about it over the dead body of Michael Brown or Tamir Rice seems impossible, even if it is all the more necessary.

As a sociologist, I teach about race and racism in my introductory class every semester. My goal is to show students that racism does exist, and also to give them a conceptual language within which to understand it more dispassionately. Light over heat.

Following the eminent 20th century sociologist Robert K. Merton, the first point I make is the need to distinguish between two dimensions of racism: racial prejudice and racial discrimination.

Racial prejudice relates to rigid and unfavorable attitudes, beliefs, and feelings about members of a racial group. Discrimination refers to the unfair treatment of individuals based on some social characteristic such as race, sex, or ethnicity.

In an essay first published in 1949, Merton shows how making this basic distinction allows us to see the ways in which racism works in a more subtle way. Consider the four categories created by combining prejudice and discrimination:

Merton FrameworkWhen thinking about racism, we typically think about the person who holds racially prejudiced attitudes or beliefs and engages in racial discrimination on that basis. This can range from race supremacists who go out and kill people to real estate agents who don’t want “those kinds” of people in their neighborhoods. We can also appreciate the opposite individual, the non-prejudiced, non-discriminator – what Merton called the “all-weather liberal.”

These are the easy categories, though, because they recognize those times when prejudice and discrimination go together. If prejudice and discrimination went together all the time, however, it would be a distinction without a difference.

Distinguishing between prejudice and discrimination allows us to see situations in which the relationship between the two varies.

In the first place, we can see instances in which there is racial prejudice but no discrimination. Merton called these individuals “timid bigots,” because they were afraid to act on their prejudiced beliefs. I add the term “powerless” to this category, because whether or not one discriminates has a lot to do with whether they have the power to discriminate. To be able to treat people unequally requires that a person be in a position to do so, especially in ways that matter.

Considering the issue of power in relation to racial prejudice and discrimination helps us to put claims of “reverse racism” in context. To be sure racial minorities can harbor rigid and unfavorable attitudes, beliefs, and feelings about members of the racial majority, but because they have less power, they are often unable to act on those feelings in discriminatory ways. Which is not to say it never happens – that racial minorities never engage in old school racism – but it does suggest why it is less common than racial majorities doing the same. Reverse racism is difficult to accomplish in a racially unequal society.

This distinction also helps us to see instances in which there is racial discrimination but it is not based upon the racially prejudiced attitudes of individuals involved. This is typically known in sociology as “institutional racism” or “institutional discrimination” (as it also works against women, for example). Of late, people have picked up on an idea put forward by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva called “racism without racists.” This is racial discrimination that is not dependent upon racial prejudice.

Sociologists define institutional racism something like the following: Laws, customs, and practices that systematically reflect and produce racial discrimination (inequalities) in a society, whether or not the individuals maintaining these laws, customs, and practices are racially prejudiced (have racist intentions).

Some examples of this are: “last hired, first fired” employment practices, the way the Educational Testing Service constructs the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and preferential admissions for legacies to elite colleges and universities.

Institutional racism also helps us to see and understand the way that historical old school racism can persist over time – even as individual’s racial attitudes become more liberal – when it is woven into the everyday practices of institutions and individuals.

For example, whether or not the Sheriff of Forsyth County, North Carolina and his staff are racially prejudiced, the fact that they are by law required to issue pistol permits – a very old school racist policy in its origins – makes them the enactors of this form of institutional racism (racism without racists). I am not a sociologist of crime and the criminal justice system, but I bet there are many more such examples.

So, when I look at situations like Mike Brown or Tamir Rice or Eric Garner or even back to Trayvon Martin, I don’t ask myself whether racism was involved or not. I try to approach the situations with a more complex conceptual framework that allows me to see the difference between prejudice and discrimination as well as their complex relationships to one another.

From the start I have said that it is possible BOTH for racial discrimination to be a problem in law enforcement AND for Darren Wilson not to be a racist. This is based on my understanding of Merton’s distinctions.

These distinctions in themselves do not cure the problem of heightened emotions in discussions of racism in American society, but perhaps for some they will be more of a conversation starter than a conversation stopper when it comes to talking about race and racism.

Poverty and Racial Attitudes

One of the most significant books I read as an undergraduate was Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations, by sociologists Howard Schuman, Charlotte Steeh, and Lawrence Bobo (1985). (A revised edition was published in 1998 by Harvard University Press.)

In fact, my first ever academic conference presentation (at the Western Anthropology/Sociology Undergraduate Research Conference at Santa Clara University) was inspired by this book. It was based on a paper I wrote for Dr. Yossi Shavit’s social statistics class: “From Bensonhurst to Berkeley: Trends in American Racial Attitudes, 1972 to 1988.” In that paper, I used General Social Survey (GSS) data to analyze whether American racial attitudes had improved or, I feared, declined or stagnated over time.

With the help of Shavit and my teaching assistant Eleanor Bell, I created a Guttman scale for racial attitudes based on 7 questions from the GSS.

Guttman Scale for GSS Race VariablesAs the snippet from my paper above shows, Guttman scales are hierarchical so that a person who agrees with a certain item should also agree with lower-ranked items. For example, a person who favors busing to achieve desegregation (the hardest item in the racial attitudes scale) should also favor easier items such as interracial marriage and having a family member’s black friend home for dinner.

I was reminded of this work today when I was surfing around the internet trying to find ways people have used the General Social Survey to study racial attitudes recently. Many of the same survey questions I utilized continue to appear, but I was taken aback when I stumbled across the following graphic on racial attitudes from Nate Silver’s FiveThiryEight website that examined responses to a question I had not analyzed:

Graphic on Blacks Lack MotiviationWow. That is all I can say.