On February 19, 1942, about two months after the United States entered into World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, an order that ultimately led to the forced removal and incarceration of all Japanese immigrants and Japanese American citizens living on the West Coast—an episode then called the Japanese American internment.
This page provides a brief summary of what’s now known as the Japanese American incarceration and the grassroots movement that followed to obtain an official apology and restitution from the U.S. government.
While reading, reflect on the quote above and consider whether you agree or disagree with it.
Pearl Harbor attack and Executive Order 9066
On Sunday December 7, 1941, Japan’s naval and air forces attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The following day, the United States officially declared war on Japan.
For Japanese immigrants living in the United States and their American-born children, it was like a nightmare come true.
The media often made no distinction between Japanese American residents and Japanese imperial soldiers. How would Americans at large perceive them?
Amid the hysteria of war, racial fear and prejudice combined with other forces—economic opportunism, political opportunism, hysteria generated by yellow journalism—and resulted in a complex political climate in the United States that led President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942.
Executive Order 9066 impelled the U.S. government to forcibly remove from the West Coast approximately 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, nearly two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens.
They had to abandon homes, jobs, businesses, schools, pets, and most of their belongings to be sent to incarceration camps located in isolated regions of the United States.
These camps were initially referred to by the U.S. government as “concentration camps.”
A limited number of people of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii were also incarcerated in camps in Hawaii, and some were transported to camps on the U.S. mainland.
The response of the Japanese American community to mass removal and incarceration was one of shock and devastation.
Even so, some viewed mass removal and incarceration as an opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States.
Others objected to it as a violation of their civil liberties. Some expressed their objections by deliberately violating one or more of the orders. These violations were attempts to test the legality of the orders in the courts.
Response to Executive Order 9066
The fourth legal case was brought under the name of Mitsuye Endo, an employee at the California Department of Motor Vehicles in Sacramento.
Endo’s attorneys argued that it was illegal for the government to detain her without due process of law.
On December 18, 1944, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Endo should be given her liberty, but it failed to address the larger constitutional issues underlying the case.
Thus, although the Endo case resulted in a technical “victory” for Japanese Americans, the legality of the incarceration remained unresolved.
The closing of the incarceration camps
After the war ended in August 1945, the incarceration camps began to close.
Incarcerated Japanese Americans had not only lost their liberty but also sustained huge economic losses in terms of confiscated property, lost jobs, and disrupted education.
But that was not all they lost. As Congressman Robert Matsui noted in 1999,
Hard work could overcome the material losses of seized property or the four years lost to camp, but it could not replace the dignity and self-respect lost when someone is ostracized and imprisoned without cause. For more than a generation Americans of Japanese ancestry bore this burden in silence and without remedy.¹
Seeking an apology and redress
After World War II, some Japanese Americans thought the U.S. government should officially recognize that it had unjustly incarcerated them.
Beginning with a few individuals, these efforts grew into a national movement to obtain an apology and redress from the U.S. government for its treatment of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II, and to help ensure that such injustices would never be allowed again.
Japanese Americans and their supporters sought redress for injustice through all three branches of government, all of which had contributed to the denial of their constitutional rights.
How and why did Japanese Americans organize to demand redress from the U.S. government?
Share your thoughts on the quote at the beginning of this reading. Do you agree or disagree with it? Offer a few examples to support your opinion.
Share your thoughts on the concepts of justice and reconciliation in the context of the mass removal and incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry in the United States during World War II and the Japanese American redress movement. Have your thoughts on these concepts changed since reading the article above? If so, how?
What do you think your reaction would have been to Executive Order 9066 if you and your family were affected by it? Would you have cooperated or objected?
If you and your family had been incarcerated, would you have been willing to serve in the U.S. military? Why or why not?
Earlier you examined a few dozen quotes about justice. Choose your favorite quote and elaborate your thoughts on it in a written reflection. Why did you choose this quote? What do you like about it? What light do you think it sheds on justice?
Choose three of your favorite quotes about justice and apply them to the Japanese American redress movement. To what extent do these quotes ring true? To what extent do they not? Support your analysis with evidence from the reading.
What responsibilities do governments have for righting past wrongs? What strategies can/should governments employ to do so?
Upon signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, President Reagan stated, “here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.” Do you think similar redress movements could have succeeded in other countries? Why or why not? How does this example weigh into your thoughts on “What does it mean to be an American?”
executive order—a rule or order issued by the president to an executive branch of the government and having the force of law
yellow journalism—journalism that is based upon sensationalism and crude exaggeration
due process—fair treatment through the normal judicial system
ostracize—to exclude (someone) from a society or group
redress—remedy or compensation for a wrong or grievance
writ of coram nobis—a legal order allowing a court to correct its original judgment upon discovery of a fundamental error that did not appear in the records of the original judgment’s proceedings and would have prevented the judgment from being pronounced
Instruct the students to read Case Study: The Japanese American Redress Movement [student version] and respond to the questions at the end of page (content reproduced below for reference).
Also 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.
Allow them the rest of the period to work on this assignment. If they do not finish in class, they may complete it for homework.
Note: This article includes only basic information on the Japanese American internment—information that is important for understanding the redress movement. If you would like to introduce students to a more comprehensive overview of the internment, please direct them to The Japanese American Incarceration [student version] from the "Civil Liberties & Equity" lesson.
Gordon Hirabayashi, a student at the University of Washington, challenged the orders by refusing to register himself with federal authorities.
Minoru Yasui, an attorney from Portland, Oregon, violated a military curfew order which required that all persons of Japanese ancestry be indoors between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Fred Korematsu, a welder from the Oakland, California area, was arrested for failing to report to camp.
Gordon Hirabayashi, left, Minoru Yasui, center, and Fred Korematsu at a fundraiser to reopen their cases, San Francisco, 1983. Image courtesy of Fred T. Korematsu Institute.
Bringing up painful memories of discrimination and incarceration was a difficult but necessary step toward seeking justice.
In 1969, Japanese Americans in Southern California organized a pilgrimage to the Manzanar incarceration camp.
In 1978, Seattle community members held the first Day of Remembrance, an annual event meant to commemorate the anniversary of Executive Order 9066, educate people about the mass incarceration, and resolve to prevent similar civil liberties violations from occurring in the future.
Japanese Americans and others also worked to educate elected officials about the mass incarceration and persuade them to support some form of redress for victims.
One successful effort resulted in President Gerald Ford’s rescinding of Executive Order 9066 in 1976, 34 years after it had been signed.
We now know what we should have known then—not only was that evacuation wrong, but Japanese Americans were and are loyal Americans.²
Through the 1970s, many individuals and groups worked to build support for redress. In 1970, the national Japanese American Citizens League called for the federal government to pay monetary reparations to victims of the incarceration.
While passing federal redress legislation seemed impossible to many people, others organized to make it happen.
The Seattle Evacuation Redress Committee, the National Council for Japanese American Redress, and the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations were among many groups that built the redress movement.
The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) was formed in 1980 by an act of Congress to study the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
The CWRIC gathered thousands of pages of evidence from government and military records.
In 1981 it held hearings in major cities across the country at which hundreds of Japanese Americans testified about their experiences.
Key government personnel involved in the development and implementation of Executive Order 9066 also testified.
In 1983, the Commission concluded that the “relocation and internment” had been unjustified and recommended that the government issue an apology and make monetary compensation to individuals.³
It found that “Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity,” and that the true causes of the mass removal and incarceration were “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”⁴
The U.S. Congress reaffirmed the Commission’s findings, stating that “a grave injustice was done” and that “the evacuation, relocation, and internment of civilians during World War II…were carried out without adequate security reasons and without any acts of espionage or sabotage documented by the Commission, and were motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."⁵
Class action lawsuit: Hohri v. United States
William Minoru Hohri was born in San Francisco in 1927 and incarcerated in Manzanar during World War II. In 1983, he filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all incarceration camp survivors.
The camp survivors claimed a multitude of injuries including “summary removal from their homes, imprisonment in racially segregated prison camps, and mass deprivations of their constitutional rights,” and asked that each survivor be awarded damages of $10,000 for each violation. These claims could have resulted in a total award of $27.5 billion.⁷
Although the case was ultimately dismissed in 1988, it was a significant part of the redress movement as it increased national visibility for the issues and evidence of injustice, along with the huge potential damages that the government might have become responsible for paying.
In 1983, the legal cases of Korematsu, Hirabayashi, and Yasui were reopened due to new evidence discovered in the 1980s that during World War II the government had suppressed, altered, and destroyed evidence showing there was no military necessity or risk to national security that justified the mass incarceration. The defendants’ convictions were nullified by the courts in the 1980s.
In her opinion on the Korematsu coram nobis case, District Judge Marilyn Patel wrote:
Korematsu remains on the pages of our legal and political history ... As historical precedent it stands as a constant caution that in times of war or declared military necessity our institutions must be vigilant in protecting constitutional guarantees. It stands as a caution that in times of distress the shield of military necessity and national security must not be used to protect governmental actions from close scrutiny and accountability.
It stands as a caution that in times of international hostility and antagonisms our institutions, legislative, executive and judicial, must be prepared to exercise their authority to protect all citizens from the petty fears and prejudices that are so easily aroused.⁸
Coram Nobis cases
After years of struggle and a massive lobbying campaign by Japanese American individuals, community organizations, and their supporters, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on August 10, 1988.
It authorized payments of $20,000 to each surviving victim and allocated $50 million to create the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund to fund research and education about the incarceration so as to prevent similar injustices in the future.
In 1990, the oldest surviving Japanese Americans were the first recipients of redress from the federal government in the form of a check and an apology signed by President George Bush.
The apology read, in part,
A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories.... We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II.⁶
Letter of apology from George H. W. Bush, President of the United States, October 1990.
Korematsu coram nobis press conference.
Four notable Japanese Americans had their cases taken to the Supreme Court.
All three of these men were convicted for their violations, and in each case the Supreme Court upheld their convictions.
Japanese Americans and the war effort
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, thousands of Japanese Americans either volunteered or were drafted into the U.S. military.
In 1943, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was organized after more than a year during which Americans of Japanese descent were declared enemy aliens by the U.S. War Department. Eventually, the 442nd (including Japanese Americans from the incarceration camps) and the 100th Infantry Battalion (comprised primarily of Japanese Americans from Hawaii) fought for the U.S. Army in Europe.
The combined 442nd/100th unit became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service. Other Japanese Americans served in the Military Intelligence Service in the Pacific Theater.
Some incarcerated Japanese Americans resisted conscription into the U.S. Army given that their civil liberties had been violated and because they and their families were incarcerated by their country. Most served time in federal prison for their resistance. They are often referred to as “resisters of conscience.”
The “resettlement” period was intensely challenging. Many returned to communities where they were no longer welcomed. Many chose to live elsewhere in the United States, recalling the difficulties they faced in their communities prior to their incarceration. There were also some cases of good will, e.g., neighbors who took care of Japanese Americans’ property until they returned.
Mitchell T. Maki, et al., Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), ix.
Proclamation 4417, “An American Promise.” See Eric K. Yamamoto, et al., Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment (New York: Aspen Law & Business, 2001), 400.
Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 459–464.
Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, 459.
Public Law 100-383. See Yamamoto, et al., 407–408.
Maki, et al., 213–214.
William Minoru Hohri, Repairing America (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1988), 191.
Korematsu v. United States, 584 F. Supp.1406 (N.D. Cal. 1984). See also Yamamoto, et al., 329–330.