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Note that in many of the captioned photos, there will be quotation marks placed around out-of-date terminology that was used during that time.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

They lived and slept in barracks, ate in mess halls, and used public bathrooms. Facilities were generally very spartan and often overcrowded, with little privacy. In many camps, 25 people were forced to live in spaces built for four.¹⁰ 

Living conditions were generally poor, leading the Secretary of the Interior to write to President Roosevelt in 1943 asking that living conditions in the camps be improved, and expressing his concern that the camps’ poor conditions were gradually turning “thousands of well-meaning and loyal Japanese into angry prisoners.¹¹    


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

mess hall

 a room or building where groups of people, especially soldiers, eat together


 showing the indifference to comfort or luxury traditionally associated with ancient Sparta

Secretary of the Interior

 the head of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the division of the U.S. government responsible for the management and conservation of most federal land and natural resources

Tom Kobayashi, Manzanar War Relocation Center, CA, 1942.

Photo by Ansel Adams. Identifier: LC-DIG-ppprs-00245. Source: Library of Congress


That said, many inmates were eventually able to continue a version of normal life in camp. Each camp became its own town, with schools for children, various jobs for adults, self-governance structures, community organizations, organized sports, and a press. Although they were forced to adjust to a completely new environment and lifestyle, inmates tried their best to preserve as many aspects of normal life as possible.

As the incarceration wore on, many camps began to loosen their restrictions and allow inmates more freedoms, even allowing some Japanese Americans to leave camp indefinitely to attend college or find work in an area outside of the exclusion zone (i.e., West Coast).

After Japanese Americans were allowed to enlist in the military, many Nisei left camp to serve in the Military Intelligence Service or in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service.¹²

Major Charles V. McManus administering the oath to four AJA [Americans of Japanese ancestry] volunteers to serve in U.S. Army Combat Regiment, Kauai District, Territory of Hawaii, March 1943.

Identifier: LC-USW33-054302-ZC. Source: Library of Congress

442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed almost entirely of second-generation American soldiers of Japanese ancestry (Nisei) who fought in World War II.

Source: 442nd Veterans Club

End of incarceration

The legality of the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans was challenged in several well-known court cases, including one called Ex parte Endo.


In that case, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in December 1944 that a loyal U.S. citizen could not be detained in a WRA camp against her will.


Even before the court issued its decision, however, government officials had already realized that it was legally indefensible to continue incarcerating loyal Japanese Americans, and the Roosevelt administration began making preparations to shut down the incarceration camps and allow inmates to return to the West Coast. 


 not justifiable by argument

A truck with Japanese American residents of San Pedro, CA, leaves for a temporary detention center, April 5, 1942.

Photo by Charles E. Mace. Identifier: 210-G-H480. Source: National Archives and Records Administration


The last WRA camp was closed in 1946. Upon release, most inmates were given $25 and a one-way ticket to their pre-war place of residence. Many people, however, had little or nothing to go home to, having lost their houses and businesses because of the forced removal and incarceration.¹³


After overseeing the mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans for more than four years, the WRA was finally decommissioned in mid-1946.


Its final status report ended with these words: “The United States has been forged out of many minority peoples and in connection with some of them there remains for the Nation some unfinished business—the business of carrying on the fight against discrimination against minority groups so that this country may live in unity, and so that it may take its place in the community of nations with full confidence that the democracy it advocates is really practiced.¹⁴