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The Japanese American Incarceration

Reading Assignment

Learn about the U.S. government’s forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Read about the history of the Japanese American incarceration below, then respond to the prompts at the end.

Note that in many of the captioned photos, there will be quotation marks placed around out-of-date terminology that was used during that time.



The Japanese American Incarceration

The Japanese American incarceration was an episode in U.S. history during which people were forcibly removed from their homes en masse and detained in government-run facilities without due process. It happened during World War II, when the United States was at war with Japan and some parts of the U.S. government and military grew suspicious of Japanese Americans’ loyalty. Although the incarceration was billed as a military necessity, subsequent investigations have concluded that it was motivated primarily by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership¹. Of the approximately 120,000 people incarcerated, 62 percent were U.S. citizens.²

due process

fair treatment through the normal judicial system

en masse

in a group; all together

PI28050, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Photograph Collection. Source:
Museum of History & Industry,
Seattle (MOHAI)

Lead-up to the incarceration

Japanese began officially immigrating to the United States and Hawaii in 1885, mostly in order to work in agriculture.³

By 1941, 56 years later, the Japanese American community was well established. Many Japanese Americans owned businesses or ran successful farms, and their families comprised as many as three generations:


a Japanese immigrant to North America; literally “first generation”

1.  Issei immigrants

2. Nisei children, who were born and raised as U.S. citizens

3. Sansei grandchildren. 


a person born in the United States or another country like Canada whose grandparents were immigrants from Japan; literally “third generation”


a person born in the United States or another country like Canada whose parents were immigrants from Japan; literally “second generation”

Members of the Shibuya family are pictured at home before "evacuation," Mountain View, CA, April 1942.

Photo by Dorothea Lange. Identifier: 210-G-A60. Source: National Archives and Records Administration

However, when Japan suddenly bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many feared that Japanese Americans would become a target of persecution because of their ancestry.


In the hours following Pearl Harbor, more than 1,200 leaders in the Japanese American community were immediately arrested, but the vast majority of Japanese Americans continued their daily lives.⁴

Pearl Harbor naval base and USS Shaw ablaze after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

Identifier: LC-USZ62-16555. Source: Library of Congress

Friends say goodbye as a family of Japanese ancestry awaits an "evacuation" bus, Hayward, CA, May 1942.

Photo by Dorothea Lange. Identifier: 210-G-C164. Source: National Archives and Records Administration

Initially, American public discourse strongly supported the Japanese American community, advocating tolerance and restraint.


On December 8, the Los Angeles Times characterized Japanese Americans as “good Americans, born and educated as such,” and called for “no precipitation, no riots, no mob law.”


These appeals for calm and understanding appeared in prominent newspapers throughout the West Coast in Pearl Harbor’s immediate aftermath.

San Francisco Examiner headlines Japanese American "relocation," San Francisco, CA, February 1942.

Photo by Dorothea Lange. Identifier: LC-USZ62-17121. Source: Library of Congress

However, public sentiment dramatically turned against Japanese Americans in the following weeks, with the press and government officials increasingly calling for “all Japanese, whether citizens or not, [to] be placed in inland concentration camps.”

In February 1942, even the Times reversed its editorial stance, calling instead for the “proper detention of Japanese and their immediate removal from the most acute danger spots” in the West Coast.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the government to designate military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded.”

Two weeks later, Army General John DeWitt designated the West Coast as a military area, and people of Japanese ancestry were soon targeted for exclusion. Posters began appearing in neighborhoods across the West Coast informing all Japanese residents that they would soon be forcibly removed from their homes.


Once they received an eviction order, residents had a few days to choose and pack their most precious belongings, try to sell everything else, find homes for pets, and prepare themselves for eviction. They were only allowed to bring what they could carry. 


the act of expelling someone, especially a tenant, from a property; expulsion

Japanese American boy tagged for "evacuation," Salinas, CA, 1942. 

Photo by Russell Lee. Identifier: LC-DIG-ppmsc-09960. Source: Library of Congress

Copy of beautiful-color-ui-gradients-bac

Ironically, mass eviction did not occur in Hawaii, the actual home of Pearl Harbor. In contrast to DeWitt’s actions on the West Coast, Hawaii’s military governor, Army Lieutenant General Delos Emmons, resisted calls for mass incarceration and treated Japanese Americans as loyal to the United States. Emmons knew there was no evidence of Japanese American espionage or sabotage against the United States, and in fact, no Japanese American during the war was ever convicted of such acts.

Mass removal and incarceration

In March 1942, the U.S. government began uprooting about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from their homes on the West Coast and incarcerating them in various government facilities around the nation.


Today, these facilities are often called “internment camps,” although scholars have advocated the use of less euphemistic terms such as “concentration camps” (which was the term used popularly at the time). After forced removal, prisoners were typically first whisked to “Assembly Centers”—usually racetrack stables or hastily-built barracks at county fairgrounds to temporarily house inmates in 1942-43—while more permanent camps were constructed.


A few weeks or months later, they were eventually moved to one of the 10 permanent “Relocation Centers” run by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), where they spent the remainder of their detention.


a building or group of buildings used to house a specific group of people, such as laborers or prisoners, in austere conditions

"Evacuees" of Japanese ancestry line up for lunch at the Santa Anita Assembly Center, Arcadia, CA, 1942.

Photo by Clem Albers. Identifier: 537452. Source: National Archives and Records Administration

The 10 WRA Relocation Centers were spread across seven states (Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming) and ranged in size from about 7,000 to 19,000 inmates at peak occupancy. They were located in remote interior areas far from population centers and staffed by armed guards.


Each incarceration camp was different—from the marshy swamplands of Arkansas to the arid deserts of California and Arizona—but inmates did share certain common experiences.  

Manzanar War Relocation Center for "evacuees" of Japanese ancestry, Manzanar, CA, June 1942.

Photo by Dorothea Lange. Identifier: 210-G-C835. Source: National Archives and Records Administration