Executive Order 9066 and the Japanese American Incarceration

This photo, taken by Dorothea Lange in March, 1942 shows a sign put up by a
Japanese American store owner in Oakland, CA after the attack on Pearl
Harbor. The store was closed shortly afterwards as the owner was sent to a
War Relocation Authority concentration camp for the duration of WWII. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Executive Order 9066

Just two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order granted the Secretary of War the ability to “prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded…” While the order did not specifically mention any particular group or location, virtually the entire West Coast was quickly designated a military area, resulting in the forced removal of nearly all Japanese American communities in the west to concentration camps across the western and midwestern United States. More than 120,000 Japanese Americans would be incarcerated during the war, including 75,000 who were American citizens born inside the country.

Executive Order 9066 was the culmination of an atmosphere of wartime hysteria and longtime racial prejudice against Japanese communities in the U.S. Beginning in the late 1800’s, thousands of Japanese laborers came to the U.S. looking for employment. Shortly after arriving, they became the target of severe discrimination, much of which was enshrined in federal rulings and laws prohibiting Asian immigrants from becoming citizens, such as the Supreme Court case Ozawa v. United States (1922) and the Immigration Act of 1924. Even prior to the war, federal agencies had been conducting surveillance in Japanese American communities, monitoring both Issei (Japanese immigrants born in Japan and excluded from naturalization) and Nisei (Japanese Americans born to Issei parents who were citizens by birthright). Despite a lack of evidence of any threat, many Americans remained distrustful of Japanese American communities.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, military, political, and economic advisors increased the pressure on Roosevelt to address Americans’ fears of further Japanese attack or sabotage from Japanese Americans within the country. The Department of Justice opposed moving innocent civilians, citing the Constitution, but the War Department favored incarceration. John McCloy, the Assistant Secretary of War, famously remarked, “If it is a question of safety of the country, or the Constitution of the United States, why, the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.” Facing tremendous pressure, Roosevelt signed the order. Executive Order 9066 and other war-time orders were also applied to resident aliens of German and Italian decent, though on a much smaller scale. While these groups certainly suffered violations of their civil rights, the measures against Japanese Americans were much more sweeping, destroying entire communities and livelihoods, and targeting U.S. citizens and resident aliens alike because of their ethnic background.

Forced Removal

Shortly after EO 9066 was signed, Japanese Americans began to be forcibly removed from the exclusion zones. In March of 1942, Executive Order 9102 created the War Relocation Authority, a civilian agency tasked with handling the process of incarcerating Japanese Americans. Despite being called “evacuees,” Japanese Americans were clearly being targeted as an ethnic minority, and had no choice but to move, facing arrest if they returned home. The U.S. Army began carrying out orders to gather Japanese Americans, often with little notice. They were allowed to take only what they could carry. As a result of this forced removal, most Japanese Americans lost their entire livelihoods – their businesses were shuttered, houses and farms sold, and left-behind possessions destroyed or taken.

Posters placed throughout cities along the West Cost instructred Japanese Americans to report for “evacuation.” Photo by Dorothea Lange, San Francisco April 1942. (Photo: Library of Congress)

The exiled Japanese Americans were sent first to “assembly centers” guarded by military police, where they were processed. After a short stay, they were then sent by bus or train to one of ten “relocation centers” spread across the western and midwestern United States. Despite the official name, these facilities fit the general definition of concentration camps, where the incarcerated Japanese Americans lived in crude tarpaper barracks surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards.

Life Behind Barbed Wire

Between 1942 and 1945, ten camps opened to hold the 120,000+ incarcerated Japanese Americans. The camps were located in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas, often on parcels of barren or swampy land. Dust storms and cold weather made life difficult in the hastily constructed facilities. Inmates lived in cramped blocks of uninsulated barracks with communal bathrooms, dining halls, and laundry rooms. Hot water and electricity could be scarce. Multiple families were often crammed into each barrack, limiting privacy and disrupting the typical familial structure of life outside the camps.

“The only thing that was in the ‘apartments’ when we got there were army metal beds with the springs on it, and a potbellied stove in the middle of the room. That was the only thing. No chest of drawers, no nothing, no curtains on the windows. It was the barest of the bare. “
– Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, who was incarcerated at Manzanar War Relocation Center

The War Relocation Authority tried to operate the camps as if they were small isolated towns. Schools and churches were established, as well as limited local government groups. Even in the harsh conditions, people in the camps worked to establish a sense of community. Children and adults alike participated in recreational activities, such as baseball games and community bands. Traditional Japanese gardens were created to improve the landscape, and victory gardens helped supplement dining hall rations. Inmates also took on many of the jobs required to run the camps.

Yet despite all these efforts, the harsh reality of the situation was not lost on the inmates. Armed guards regularly patrolled the barbed wire fences around the camp, with orders to shoot anyone trying to escape, which lead to a small number of inmates being shot and killed. Japanese Americans in the camps suffered for up to three years in this difficult and tense atmosphere.

Japanese American families were put on trains or buses with only the possessions they could carry. (Photo: National Archives)
Many of the camps run by the War Relocation Authority were located in desolate, barren landscapes. This photo shows Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California, after a summer dust storm. Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1942. (Photo: National Archives)

Loyalty and Legal Challenges

After both peaceful protest and unrest in the camps in 1942, the War Relocation Authority began issuing a questionnaire to determine who in the camps was “loyal” in early 1943. Those who were deemed loyal were eventually allowed to enlist in the military or leave the camps to pursue education or job opportunities in the eastern part of the country. Those whose loyalty was questioned were primarily sent to a high security camp at Tule Lake in California.

Many young Japanese American men from the camps, despite the incarceration of their families, decided to enlist in the military, some hoping to prove their loyalty to U.S. ideals. Most became members of the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which fought fiercely in Europe and became the most decorated unit in American military history.

442nd RCT squad leader Sergeant Goichi Suehiro in France, November 1944. (Photo: US Army)
Japanese Americans Children Pledging Allegiance in 1942
Taken in 1942, this photo shows children at a San Francisco elementary school reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Shortly afterwards, Japanese American children and their families were ordered into camps by the WRA. Photo by Dorothea Lange. (Photo: National Archives)

During the war, the Supreme Court heard a number of cases challenging the legality of the Japanese American incarceration. One well known challenge was the case of Korematsu v. United States. In this case, U.S. citizen Fred Korematsu, son of Issei parents, had violated an exclusion order requiring him to be “relocated” with the rest of his family. Korematsu was eventually arrested, given a sentence of five years’ probation by a federal district court, and sent to Topaz Internment Camp in Utah.

On December 18, 1944, the Supreme Court upheld Korematsu’s sentence in a 6-3 decision. Justice Hugo L. Black wrote for the majority: “Compulsory exclusion of large groups of citizens from their homes, except under circumstances of direst emergency and peril, is inconsistent with our basic governmental institutions. But when, under conditions of modern warfare, our shores are threatened by hostile forces, the power to protect must be commensurate with the threatened danger.” The dissent, written by Justice Robert H. Jackson read: “Korematsu was born on our soil, of parents born in Japan. The Constitution makes him a citizen of the United States by nativity, and a citizen of California by residence. No claim is made that he is not loyal to this country. There is no suggestion that, apart from the matter involved here, he is not law-abiding and well disposed. Korematsu, however, has been convicted of an act not commonly a crime. It consists merely of being present in the state whereof he is a citizen, near the place where he was born, and where all his life he has lived.”

However, on the same day as the Korematsu decision, the court also ruled in Ex parte Endo that the government could not detain a U.S. citizen whose loyalty was recognized by the U.S. government. Mitsuye Endo, born in Sacramento, California in 1920 was sent with her family to the camp at Tule Lake, and later moved to the camp at Topaz, Utah. She agreed to be part of a case against the incarceration brought to court by lawyer James C. Purcell. After the ruling, later that day, the government announced that all relocation centers would be closed by the end of 1945. With the war’s end in the summer of 1945, all of the camps quickly shut down, except for Tule Lake, which remained open until March, 1946.

Japanese Americans were finally free to return to the West Coast, though many of them had lost all of their possessions and properties. Despite a less than welcoming reception, they slowly started to rebuild new lives and communities.

The decision in Ex parte Endo brought a rapid end to the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Years after the war, Endo said “I agreed to do it at that moment, because they said it’s for the good of everybody, and so I said, well if that’s it, I’ll go ahead and do it.”

“Righting a Wrong”

In the years after the war, perception of the Japanese American incarceration gradually began to shift, with many coming to recognize the incarceration as a dark mistake caused by wartime hysteria. The cited heroism of Nisei soldiers aided in the overturning of racist legislation from the early 1900’s and lifting of bans on the naturalization of Issei residents.

In 1948, President Harry Truman signed the Evacuation Claims Act, which gave the formerly incarcerated Americans the ability to submit claims for lost property. In the decades following the war, as the larger civil rights movement grew, so too did a movement called the “Redress Movement, ” which advocated for reparations and an apology from the government.

The Redress Movement was led by both former inmates and the children and grandchildren of incarcerated Japanese Americans. Groups like the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the National Council for Japanese American Redress and the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations all pushed for governmental change.

In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford officially repealed Executive Order 9066. In his statement, Ford said “I call upon the American people to affirm with me this American Promise—that we have learned from the tragedy of that long-ago experience forever to treasure liberty and justice for each individual American, and resolve that this kind of action shall never again be repeated.”

President Gerald Ford signing Proclamation 4417
President Gerald Ford signs Proclamation 4417, officially rescinding Executive Order 9066 in 1976 at the White House. (Photo: National Archives)

In 1980, the JACL and two Japanese American senators from Hawaii, Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga, successfully pushed a bill through Congress to create an investigative commision, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. President Jimmy Carter signed the bill into law that same year.

Some 42 years after the final camp had closed, in 1988, both President Ronald Reagan and Congress officially apologized on behalf of the United States government for the incarceration of Japanese Americans, and authorized reparations for the formerly incarcerated or their descendants under the Civil Liberties Act. Payment of reparations was completed in 1993, with 82,219 disbursals.

  Ronald Reagan signing Japanese reparations bill
In 1988, Congress and President Ronald Reagan offered formal apologies to Japanese Americans for the WWII incarceration. (Photo: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

To this day, the effects of the Japanese American incarceration of WWII can still be felt, both in the Japanese American community and in our nation at large. Knowledge of the history of this tragic event offers Americans an opportunity for thought-provoking and difficult discussion about civil rights, national security, democracy, and what it means to be an American. By exploring this history, we can confront the wrongs in our past, while better understanding the issues we face as a nation today.

“There is a saying in Japanese culture, ‘kodomo no tame ni, ‘ which means, ‘for the sake of the children. ‘ And for us running this campaign, that had much to do with it. It’s the legacy we’re handing down to them and to the nation to say that, ‘You can make this mistake, but you also have to correct it — and by correcting it, hopefully not repeat it again’ . ”
– John Tateishi, National Executive Director of the Japanese American Citizens League

* The above text was adapted from the Wright Museum’s 2022 lobby display, which marked 80 years since Executive Order 9066. Minor edits were made for clarity.

Additional Resources:

The following resources are suggested for those interested in learning more about the Japanese American incarceration of World War II.

Densho Digital Repository:

Densho is a nonprofit organization started in 1996, with the initial goal of documenting oral histories from Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II. This evolved into a mission to educate, preserve, collaborate and inspire action for equity. Densho uses digital technology to preserve and make accessible primary source materials on the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. Densho Homepage (Click Here)

Dr. David Sakura – “A Family’s Journey”

A presentation given by Dr. David Sakura, a third-generation Japanese American, who shared his family’s very personal story of internment at Camp Minidoka during WWII. Presentation filmed at Timberlane Regional High School, May 12, 2022. Video (Click Here)

Classroom Materials – Library of Congress

A set of primary source materials and teacher’s guide. LOC Website (Click Here)