Recap: The Japanese American Incarceration
Discuss the U.S. government’s forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Today, many Americans consider the Japanese American incarceration to be one of the greatest civil liberties violations in U.S. history, and legal scholars consider its upholding one of the worst decisions in Supreme Court history.¹ But at the time, many Americans actually supported it.
Why do you think this was the case? In what historical context did the incarceration occur?
As illustrated in the Japanese American incarceration, civil liberties often suffer in times of crisis. Even the mechanisms meant to prevent civil liberty violations—the Constitution, separation of powers, due process, etc.—are not failsafe.
This tension between individual rights and national security has been a classic dilemma throughout U.S. history, and it continues today. Can you imagine another mass incarceration happening in the United States in a time of crisis? Why or why not?
Pearl Harbor naval base and USS Shaw ablaze after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.
What civil liberties debates are in the news now? Whose civil liberties are being challenged, and why? How, if at all, are these debates related to security concerns?
What do you think have been the legacies of the incarceration within the Japanese American community?
What do you think have been the legacies of the incarceration for U.S. society broadly?
In 1980, Congress formed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) to extensively investigate and understand the Japanese American incarceration.
The bipartisan commission conducted hearings around the country, collected testimonies from more than 750 witnesses, and reviewed more than 10,000 documents.³ It published its findings in 1983 in a 467-page report called Personal Justice Denied.
It concluded that a “grave personal injustice was done…without individual review or any probative evidence.”
It also concluded that Executive Order 9066 was “not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it…were not founded upon military conditions.” Rather, the causes were racial prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.⁴
What lessons should be drawn from the Japanese American incarceration?
How can we as a society help prevent this kind of episode from happening again in the future?
Tom Kobayashi, Manzanar Relocation Center, CA, 1942.
“About the Incarceration,” Densho Encyclopedia, http://encyclopedia.densho.org/history/ [31 July 2020].
“Personal Justice Denied (book),” Densho Encyclopedia, http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Personal_Justice_Denied_%28book%29/ [31 July 2020].