Learning from the Japanese American Incarceration Camps: Part 1

In part one of a series, writer Malia Ogawa explores a little-known chapter of racism in U.S. against Japanese Americans and her family’s history with it.

We all know the story: On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and thrust the United States into World War II. But what about the lesser known story of the consequences on the Japanese American community and their forced incarceration into internment camps by the U.S. government? 

That story has gained more attention lately but has generally been unknown to most, in large part because it’s another shameful red mark on the checkered history of the U.S.

Executive Order 9066

On February 19, 1942, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. This infamous order gave regional military commanders the power to designate “military areas” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” Although it did not mention Japanese Americans by name, this executive order kicked off the forced relocation of the Japanese Americans in the states of Alaska, California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona. Hawai’i remained a special case, as it was under martial law itself and only interned a fraction of its Japanese residents. 

A group of Japanese Americans walking on a dirt road near the Manzanar Internment Camp in California. It was one of many across the United States where Japanese Americans were interned against their will.
A group of Japanese Americans walking on a dirt road near the Manzanar Incarceration Camp in California. Photo credit Library of Congress.

The architect of the program, Colonel Karl Bendetsen, said that anyone with “one drop of Japanese blood” qualified for incarceration*. Sound familiar? Anyone with knowledge on America’s brutal and disgusting history with slavery knows the one drop rule also circumscribed a living, breathing human being as a slave. Condemning them to the categorization of “property.” We cannot forget the U.S. and its merciless and racist past.

History showed that the Japanese American incarceration stemmed more from racism than any type of security threat potentially posed against the U.S. 62% of internees were American citizens. In recent years, the Japanese American community has continually stood up in solidarity with other marginalized groups in the U.S. 

That included protesting the Muslim Ban, the refugee kids in cages, and the general abysmal treatment of refugees at the U.S.-Mexican border, as well as the show of support for the Black Lives Matter movement

Those present-day situations echo the chapter in history when more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were forcefully relocated and incarcerated in concentration camps in the western part of the United States. 

Yes, these were indeed “concentration camps.” This term is technically correct because they were camps to confine an imprisoned population. However, regardless of the technicality, “concentration camps” have become synonymous with the Nazi death camps of the Holocaust. 

Although both the Jews and the Japanese were interned solely out of racist and prejudiced beliefs, I refuse to compare the experiences of Japanese internees with the victims of the Holocaust. Therefore, out of respect for the Jewish community, I will refrain from using the term “concentration camp” from hereafter.

Journey Through History: My Grandma’s Life in Camp

The Japanese were sent to desolate, dusty, and dirty desert areas in 10 incarceration camps spread across California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas. My grandma — Setsuko Speck née Kawashiri  — and our family, the Kawashiris, were sent to the Poston War Relocation Authority (WRA) concentration camp in Arizona. My grandma and her siblings were all American citizens — born and raised in the U.S. — who just happened to be ethnically Japanese. Based purely on that, they were incarcerated. 

Tom Kobayashi, a Japanese American interned by the U.S., sits for a portrait near an internment camp.
Tom Kobayashi, a Japanese American interned by the U.S., sits for a portrait near an incarceration camp. Photo credit Library of Congress

For more than two years, they and thousands of other Japanese Americans endured their unfair, incarcerated fate while the nation either celebrated the decision or turned a blind eye. It was wartime and they weren’t white; their imprisonment was justified as collateral damage for the greater good of the war. 

It wasn’t until 1944 when the Supreme Court handed down two decisions on the legality of the incarceration. Korematsu v. United States stated that the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast was constitutional. However, on the same day, the court also ruled unanimously that loyal citizens of the United States could not be detained without cause. These two rulings held that while the evacuation of American citizens for military necessity was legal, the subsequent incarceration was not. 

This began the proceedings for the Japanese Americans’ release and the first steps in acknowledging this blight in history. In 1988, the US government granted reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned during the war through the Civil Liberties Act.

The Kawashiri family pose with friends at the internment camp in Poston, Arizona.
The Kawashiri family pose with friends at the incarceration camp in Poston, Arizona. Photo courtesy of Malia Ogawa.

In October 1997, my grandma wrote up her experiences at Poston. She had retired around 1994 and received her reparation payment sometime in the 1990s. Receipt of the reparations deemed it a topic that was now out in the open and freely discussed.

In her essay, Setsuko Speck née Kawashiri recounted her departure for Poston occurring sometime after her eighth grade graduation in June 1942. She was 13.

This post is the first in a two part series. See part two here.

*A previous version of this article has been amended to updated terminology, changing from ‘internment camp’ to ‘incarceration camp’ to reflect learnings and resources provided by members of the Japanese American community in how using the term ‘internment’ is a euphemism for the actual brutalities of the experiences of Japanese Americans. Please visit Densho.org to learn more. The author would also like to acknowledge that the term ‘internment camp’ in the original article is something she grew up using within her family and is progressing in her own learning journey.

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