What Is Wrong With Our Country: Internment Camps

I started this current series to discuss what is wrong with our country and what we need to do to fix it. While I have discussed some of the topics that I will be including in this series, they have been included in other articles. In this series I will concentrate on a single topic. This will also mean that some of the articles may be slightly shorter than my readers have grown accustomed to, however they will still be written with the same attention to detail. This series will have no set number of articles and will continue to grow as I come across additional subjects.

In his speech to Congress, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was “a date which will live in infamy.” The attack launched the United States fully into the two theaters of World War II – Europe and the Pacific. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the United States had been involved in a non-combat role, through the Lend-Lease Program that supplied England, China, Russia, and other anti-fascist countries of Europe with munitions.

The attack on Pearl Harbor also launched a rash of fear about national security, especially on the West Coast. Japanese internment camps were established during World War II by President Franklin D. Roosevelt through his Executive Order 9066. From 1942 to 1945, it was the policy of the U.S. government that people of Japanese descent, including U.S. citizens, would be incarcerated in isolated camps. Enacted in reaction to the Pearl Harbor attacks and the ensuing war, the incarceration of Japanese Americans is considered one of the most atrocious violations of American civil rights in the 20th century.

Executive Order 9066

On February 19, 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 with the stated intention of preventing espionage on American shores.

Military zones were created in CaliforniaWashington and Oregon—states with a large population of Japanese Americans. Then Roosevelt’s executive order forcibly removed Americans of Japanese ancestry from their homes. Executive Order 9066 affected the lives about 120,000 people—the majority of whom were American citizens.

Canada soon followed suit, forcibly removing 21,000 of its residents of Japanese descent from its west coast. Mexico enacted its own version, and eventually 2,264 more people of Japanese descent were forcibly removed from Peru, Brazil, Chile and Argentina to the United States.


Additional Background Information

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had identified German, Italian, and Japanese aliens who were suspected of being potential enemy agents; and they were kept under surveillance. Following the attack at Pearl Harbor, government suspicion arose not only around aliens who came from enemy nations, but around all persons of Japanese descent, whether foreign born (issei) or American citizens (nisei). During congressional committee hearings, representatives of the Department of Justice raised logistical, constitutional, and ethical objections. Regardless, the task was turned over to the U.S. Army as a security matter.

The entire West Coast was deemed a military area and was divided into military zones. Executive Order 9066 authorized military commanders to exclude civilians from military areas. Although the language of the order did not specify any ethnic group, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command proceeded to announce curfews that included only Japanese Americans. Next, he encouraged voluntary evacuation by Japanese Americans from a limited number of areas; about seven percent of the total Japanese American population in these areas complied.

On March 29, 1942, under the authority of the executive order, DeWitt issued Public Proclamation No. 4, which began the forced evacuation and detention of Japanese-American West Coast residents on a 48-hour notice. Only a few days prior to the proclamation, on March 21, Congress had passed Public Law 503, which made violation of Executive Order 9066 a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Because of the perception of “public danger,” all Japanese Americans within varied distances from the Pacific coast were targeted. Unless they were able to dispose of or make arrangements for care of their property within a few days, their homes, farms, businesses, and most of their private belongings were lost forever.

From the end of March to August, approximately 112,000 persons were sent to “assembly centers” – often racetracks or fairgrounds – where they waited and were tagged to indicate the location of a long-term “relocation center” that would be their home for the rest of the war. Nearly 70,000 of the evacuees were American citizens. There were no charges of disloyalty against any of these citizens, nor was there any vehicle by which they could appeal their loss of property and personal liberty.

“Relocation centers” were situated many miles inland, often in remote and desolate locales. Sites included Tule Lake, California; Minidoka, Idaho; Manzanar, California; Topaz, Utah; Jerome, Arkansas; Heart Mountain, Wyoming; Poston, Arizona; Granada, Colorado; and Rohwer, Arkansas. (Incarceration rates were significantly lower in the territory of Hawaii, where Japanese Americans made up over one-third of the population and their labor was needed to sustain the economy. However, martial law had been declared in Hawaii immediately following the Pearl Harbor attack, and the Army issued hundreds of military orders, some applicable only to persons of Japanese ancestry.)

In the “relocation centers” (also called “internment camps”), four or five families, with their sparse collections of clothing and possessions, shared tar-papered army-style barracks. Most lived in these conditions for nearly three years or more until the end of the war. Gradually some insulation was added to the barracks and lightweight partitions were added to make them a little more comfortable and somewhat private. Life took on some familiar routines of socializing and school. However, eating in common facilities, using shared restrooms, and having limited opportunities for work interrupted other social and cultural patterns. Persons who resisted were sent to a special camp at Tule Lake, California, where dissidents were housed.

In 1943 and 1944, the government assembled a combat unit of Japanese Americans for the European theater. It became the 442d Regimental Combat Team and gained fame as the most highly decorated of World War II. Their military record bespoke their patriotism.

As the war drew to a close, “internment camps” were slowly evacuated. While some persons of Japanese ancestry returned to their hometowns, others sought new surroundings. For example, the Japanese-American community of Tacoma, Washington, had been sent to three different centers; only 30 percent returned to Tacoma after the war. Japanese Americans from Fresno had gone to Manzanar; 80 percent returned to their hometown.

The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II sparked constitutional and political debate. During this period, three Japanese-American citizens challenged the constitutionality of the forced relocation and curfew orders through legal actions: Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu, and Mitsuye Endo. Hirabayashi and Korematsu received negative judgments; but Mitsuye Endo, after a lengthy battle through lesser courts, was determined to be “loyal” and allowed to leave the Topaz, Utah, facility.

Justice Murphy of the Supreme Court expressed the following opinion in Ex parte Mitsuye Endo:

I join in the opinion of the Court, but I am of the view that detention in Relocation Centers of persons of Japanese ancestry regardless of loyalty is not only unauthorized by Congress or the Executive but is another example of the unconstitutional resort to racism inherent in the entire evacuation program. As stated more fully in my dissenting opinion in Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 , 65 S.Ct. 193, racial discrimination of this nature bears no reasonable relation to military necessity and is utterly foreign to the ideals and traditions of the American people.

Anti-Japanese American Activity 

Weeks before the order, the Navy removed citizens of Japanese descent from Terminal Island near the Port of Los Angeles.

On December 7, 1941, just hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the FBI rounded-up 1,291 Japanese American community and religious leaders, arresting them without evidence and freezing their assets.

In January, the arrestees were transferred to prison camps in MontanaNew Mexico and North Dakota, many unable to inform their families and most remaining for the duration of the war.

Concurrently, the FBI searched the private homes of thousands of Japanese American residents on the West Coast, seizing items considered contraband.

One-third of Hawaii’s population was of Japanese descent. In a panic, some politicians called for their mass incarceration. Japanese-owned fishing boats were impounded.

Some Japanese American residents were arrested and 1,500 people—one percent of the Japanese population in Hawaii—were sent to prison camps on the U.S. mainland.

John DeWitt

Lt. General John L. DeWitt, leader of the Western Defense Command, believed that the civilian population needed to be taken control of to prevent a repeat of Pearl Harbor.

To argue his case, DeWitt prepared a report filled with known falsehoods, such as examples of sabotage that were later revealed to be the result of cattle damaging power lines.

DeWitt suggested the creation of the military zones and Japanese detainment to Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Attorney General Francis Biddle. His original plan included Italians and Germans, though the idea of rounding-up Americans of European descent was not as popular.

At Congressional hearings in February 1942, a majority of the testimonies, including those from California Governor Culbert L. Olson and State Attorney General Earl Warren, declared that all Japanese should be removed.

Biddle pleaded with the president that mass incarceration of citizens was not required, preferring smaller, more targeted security measures. Regardless, Roosevelt signed the order.

War Relocation Authority

After much organizational chaos, about 15,000 Japanese Americans willingly moved out of prohibited areas. Inland state citizens were not keen for new Japanese American residents, and they were met with racist resistance.

Ten state governors voiced opposition, fearing the Japanese Americans might never leave, and demanded they be locked up if the states were forced to accept them.

A civilian organization called the War Relocation Authority was set up in March 1942 to administer the plan, with Milton S. Eisenhower from the Department of Agriculture to lead it. Eisenhower only lasted until June 1942, resigning in protest over what he characterized as incarcerating innocent citizens.

Relocation to ‘Assembly Centers’

Army-directed removals began on March 24. People had six days notice to dispose of their belongings other than what they could carry.

Anyone who was at least 1/16th Japanese was evacuated, including 17,000 children under age 10, as well as several thousand elderly and disabled residents.

Japanese Americans reported to “Assembly Centers” near their homes. From there they were transported to a “Relocation Center” where they might live for months before transfer to a permanent “Wartime Residence.”

Assembly Centers were located in remote areas, often reconfigured fairgrounds and racetracks featuring buildings not meant for human habitation, like horse stalls or cow sheds, that had been converted for that purpose. In Portland, Oregon, 3,000 people stayed in the livestock pavilion of the Pacific International Livestock Exposition Facilities.

The Santa Anita Assembly Center, just several miles northeast of Los Angeles, was a de-facto city with 18,000 incarcerated, 8,500 of whom lived in stables. Food shortages and substandard sanitation were prevalent in these facilities.

Life in ‘Assembly Centers’

Assembly Centers offered work to prisoners with the policy that they should not be paid more than an Army private. Jobs ranged from doctors to teachers to laborers and mechanics. A couple were the sites of camouflage net factories, which provided work.

Over 1,000 incarcerated Japanese Americans were sent to other states to do seasonal farm work. Over 4,000 of the incarcerated population were allowed to leave to attend college.

Conditions in ‘Relocation Centers’

There were a total of 10 prison camps, called “Relocation Centers.” Typically the camps included some form of barracks with communal eating areas. Several families were housed together. Residents who were labeled as dissidents were forced to a special prison camp in Tule Lake, California.

Two prison camps in Arizona were located on Native American reservations, despite the protests of tribal councils, who were overruled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Each Relocation Center was its own “town,” and included schools, post offices and work facilities, as well as farmland for growing food and keeping livestock. Each prison camp “town” was completely surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers.

Net factories offered work at several Relocation Centers. One housed a naval ship model factory. There were also factories in different Relocation Centers that manufactured items for use in other prison camps, including garments, mattresses and cabinets. Several housed agricultural processing plants.

Violence in Prison Camps

Violence occasionally occurred in the prison camps. In Lordsburg, New Mexico, prisoners were delivered by trains and forced to march two miles at night to the camp. On July 27, 1942, during a night march, two Japanese Americans, Toshio Kobata and Hirota Isomura, were shot and killed by a sentry who claimed they were attempting to escape. Japanese Americans testified later that the two elderly men were disabled and had been struggling during the march to Lordsburg. The sentry was found not guilty by the army court martial board.

On August 4, 1942, a riot broke out in the Santa Anita Assembly Center, the result of anger about insufficient rations and overcrowding. At California’s Manzanar War Relocation Center, tensions resulted in the beating of Fred Tayama, a Japanese American Citizen’s League (JACL) leader, by six men. JACL members were believed to be supporters of the prison camp’s administration. 

Fearing a riot, police tear-gassed crowds that had gathered at the police station to demand the release of Harry Ueno. Ueno had been arrested for allegedly assaulting Tayama. James Ito was killed instantly and several others were wounded. Among those injured was Jim Kanegawa, 21, who died of complications five days later.

At the Topaz Relocation Center, 63-year-old prisoner James Hatsuki Wakasa was shot and killed by military police after walking near the perimeter fence. Two months later, a couple was shot at for strolling near the fence.

In October 1943, the Army deployed tanks and soldiers to Tule Lake Segregation Center in northern California to crack down on protests. Japanese American prisoners at Tule Lake had been striking over food shortages and unsafe conditions that had led to an accidental death in October 1943. At the same camp, on May 24, 1943, James Okamoto, a 30-year-old prisoner who drove a construction truck, was shot and killed by a guard.  

Fred Korematsu

In 1942, 23-year-old Japanese-American Fred Korematsu was arrested for refusing to relocate to a Japanese prison camp. His case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where his attorneys argued in Korematsu v. United States that Executive Order 9066 violated the Fifth Amendment

Korematsu lost the case, but he went on to become a civil rights activist and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. With the creation of California’s Fred Korematsu Day, the United States saw its first U.S. holiday named for an Asian American. But it took another Supreme Court decision to halt the incarceration of Japanese Americans   

Mitsuye Endo

The prison camps ended in 1945 following the Supreme Court decision, Ex parte Mitsuye Endo. In this case, justices ruled unanimously that the War Relocation Authority “has no authority to subject citizens who are concededly loyal to its leave procedure.”

The case was brought on behalf of Mitsuye Endo, the daughter of Japanese immigrants from Sacramento, California. After filing a habeas corpus petition, the government offered to free her, but Endo refused, wanting her case to address the entire issue of Japanese incarceration.

One year later, the Supreme Court made the decision, but gave President Truman the chance to begin camp closures before the announcement. One day after Truman made his announcement, the Supreme Court revealed its decision.

The U.S. forced them into internment camps. Here’s how Japanese Americans started over.

The hardships didn’t end with their incarceration. Japanese Americans lost their homes and livelihoods during the war. Here’s how they fought for—and won—reparations for those losses.

When the Tomihiro family left Minidoka War Relocation Center in south-central Idaho in 1945, they didn’t head home to Portland, Oregon, where they’d lived for decades. “Home” didn’t exist anymore—they had lost everything during the internment of people of Japanese ancestry in World War II. Before the war, the family had owned a half-block of houses and stores and a hotel. Now, they had nothing.

Their new apartment in Chicago was “really miserable, dark and dank, and roach- and rodent-infested,” Chiye Tomihiro recalled during a public hearing in Chicago about the harsh toll of internment in 1981. “We did not even have a sink.” Her mother, who got work as a seamstress, washed the family’s dishes in a hand basin in the hall; her father, once a powerful businessman, was never able to find steady employment again. Chiye eventually became her family’s sole breadwinner, an excruciating reversal of roles that pained her proud family.

The Tomihiros were just one family among the tens of thousands who were detained for years by their own government. Beginning in 1942, the U.S. forced Japanese Americans into internment camps in far-flung parts of the country, depriving them of their freedom and livelihoods. After the war, they were forced to start over—and began to demand compensation for their suffering.

‘Enemy aliens’

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt paved the way for internment with Executive Order 9066, which gave military leaders the authority to create wide-reaching military zones and exclude “any or all persons” from them. Fearing a land invasion by Japan, the government put the entire West Coast and Hawaii under military authority, paving the way for the “evacuation” of about 120,000 people of Japanese descent, 70,000 of them U.S. citizens, who were now dubbed “enemy aliens.” They could bring along only what they could carry, and lived in isolated, bare-bones internment camps monitored by military guards.

By 1943, it had become clear that a Japanese invasion was unlikely, and the War Department in Washington found it increasingly difficult to justify detaining thousands of people indefinitely, even as anti-Japanese sentiment raged throughout the country. The War Department began offering some detainees leave opportunities to pursue higher education or work in seasonal agricultural jobs. Then, officials dangled the possibility of indefinite leave to those willing to declare their loyalty to the United States. Almost 35,000 Japanese Americans left the camps in 1944, but tens of thousands remained.

Finally, amid growing pressure and legal challenges to shut down the camps, Roosevelt suspended Executive Order 9066—after he won re-election in November 1944. In a cabinet meeting on December 17, the administration announced it would end exclusion as of January 1, 1945. The next day, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in the Ex Parte Mitsuye Endo case, ruling that the government could not detain loyal U.S. citizens. Though it took nearly a year to close down all the camps, Japanese Americans were now free to return home.

Going home

In the years after internment, the word “home” had a very different meaning for the former detainees. Many didn’t have a home to return to at all—many had been forced to sell their property, belongings, and businesses at steep discounts in the rushed days before their incarceration; some lost them during the war. Others returned to find their homes had been vandalized, destroyed, or foreclosed upon.

Alien land laws that forbade Asian Americans from owning certain land and redlining, a practice that prevented minority groups from getting loans to buy homes in certain neighborhoods, made economic recovery difficult. Internees instead settled in cities that had been reshaped dramatically by the war, making housing and good jobs scarce. People found themselves living in trailers, cheap hostels, and even repurposed military barracks.

“When the Japanese arrived in the United States they were at the bottom of the economic ladder,” the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians wrote in its 1983 report on Japanese internment. “The impact of evacuation is made more poignant by the fact that it cut short the life and strength of the immigrants, frequently destroying the fruit of years of effort.”

Economic hardship wasn’t the only peril the released internees faced. Stoked by decades of intolerance and Japan’s enemy status during the war, anti-Japanese sentiment was further fanned by the announcement internment would end. White citizens formed anti-Japanese clubs—and joined existing organizations like the Japanese Exclusion League—to lobby against Japanese Americans’ return to their communities.

The U.S. government inflamed anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II with propaganda like this poster containing racial slurs and depicting Japanese brutality against U.S. prisoners of war.ART VIA EVERETT COLLECTION INC, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

“Somebody should be arrested for even thinking of bringing the J— back,” Seattle janitor Leonard Goldsmith told the Seattle Daily Times, employing a common slur used to describe Japanese Americans. “We don’t want them, and since they know that, they shouldn’t want to come back. If they do, there will be trouble.”

Some returning detainees were met with threats. In Hood River, Oregon, white farmers falsely claimed Japanese Americans had engaged in a conspiracy to corner the orchard business before the war, and returning internees were met with boycotts, racial slurs, and physical attacks. Hood River’s American Legion post even removed the names of 16 Japanese American servicemen from its honor roll.

Many Japanese Americans who once held white-collar jobs or owned businesses could only get post-war jobs doing menial labor or domestic service—a blow not only to pride, but to a traditional patriarchal structure of most Japanese American families, which prized fathers as breadwinners and valued financial status and community leadership. For many, it was too painful to revisit what had been taken away during internment.

Recovery and redress

Though the Japanese American community inched toward economic recovery, “this appearance of normalcy was achieved by ‘forgetting’ the evacuation experience,” sociologist Tetsuden Kashima, who was incarcerated at the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah as a child, wrote in 1980. As families struggled to regain footing, they prioritized assimilation over pride and maintained a code of silence about their experiences. A generation gap developed between the older Issei, or Japanese-born immigrants; the Nisei, or second generation, who grew up in the United States; and the Sansei, a third generation who were interned as small children or born “after camp.”

Only in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s did the tide turn as Japanese Americans began demanding answers about their families’ mass detention. Though the U.S. government had paid out about $38 million to Japanese Americans who claimed losses from the “evacuation” after the war starting in 1948, the payments represented only a fraction of the actual losses from internment. The successes of the Civil Rights Movement energized the Sansei, who began to pressure Congress to pay former internees and apologize for their incarceration.


The last Japanese internment camp closed in March 1946. President Gerald Ford officially repealed Executive Order 9066 in 1976.

In 1980, Congress created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, a bipartisan commission that conducted intensive historical research and public hearings across the country with more than 750 witnesses. Three years later, the commission issued a landmark report calling out internment as “a grave injustice” and recommended internees be individually compensated.

After years of public controversy and Congressional foot dragging, the U.S. adopted the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted $20,000 in financial redress and a presidential apology to every surviving U.S. citizen or legal resident who had been incarcerated. By then, though, many of the older generation had already died, making it a bitter victory for Japanese Americans.

The anti-Asian sentiment that enabled internment still lives on: Between March 2020 and February 2021, Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit organization that tracks incidents of discrimination and harassment against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States, received almost 3,800 reports of hate incidents. Nearly 80 years after internment, Japanese Americans still must fend off threats to their civil rights, and even their lives.

Today, there are about 1.5 million people of Japanese ancestry in the United States, and the generations that came after internment watched their elders both survive and rebuild.

“The journey from silence to redress has shown that some forms of resilience evolve over decades,” psychologists Donna K. Nagata and Yuzuru J. Takeshita wrote in 1998. Japanese Americans are still affected by internment and its legacies—but resilience and strength are also part of their heritage. 

One of the most stunning ironies in this episode of denied civil liberties was articulated by an internee who, when told that Japanese Americans were put in those camps for their own protection, countered “If we were put there for our protection, why were the guns at the guard towers pointed inward, instead of outward?”


history.com, “Japanese Internment Camps.” By HISTORY.COM EDITORS; archives.gov, “Japanese-American Incarceration During World War II.”; momomedia.com, “List of Detention Camps, Temporary Detention Centers, and Department of Justice Internment Camps.”; nationalgeographic.com, “The U.S. forced them into internment camps. Here’s how Japanese Americans started over.” By Erin Blakemore;



Permanent detention camps that held internees from March, 1942 until their closing in 1945 and 1946.

Fresno, California First inmate arrival May 6, 1942. Last inmate departure October 30, 1942. Peak population 5120.

Manzanar, California First inmate arrival March 21, 1942. Peak population (before June 1, 1942) 9666. Before it was leased from the City of Los Angeles, Manzanar was once ranch and farm land until it reverted to desert conditions. Manzanar was transfered from the WCCA to WRA on June 1, 1942, and converted into a “relocation camp.”

Marysville, California First inmate arrival May 8, 1942. Last inmate departure June 29, 1942. Peak population 2451.

Mayer, Arizona First inmate arrival May 7, 1942. Last inmate departure June 2, 1942. Peak population 245. Mayer was a camp abaondoned by the Civilian Conservation Corp.

Merced, California First inmate arrival May 6, 1942. Last inmate departure September 15, 1942. Peak population 4508.

Pinedale, California First inmate arrival May 7, 1942. Last inmate departure July 23, 1942. Peak population 4792. Pinedale was the previous site of a mill.

Pomona, California First inmate arrival May 7, 1942. Last inmate departure August 24, 1942. Peak population 5434.

Portland, Oregon First inmate arrival May 2, 1942. Last inmate departure September 10, 1942. Peak population 3676. Portland used the Pacific International Live Stock Exposition Facilities to hold detainees.

Puyallup, Washington First inmate arrival April 28, 1942. Last inmate departure September 12, 1942. Peak population 7390.5

Sacramento, California First inmate arrival May 6, 1942. Last inmate departure June 26, 1942. Peak population 4739. Sacramento used a former migrant camp.

Salinas, California First inmate arrival April 27, 1942. Last inmate departure July 4, 1942. Peak population 3594.

Santa Anita, California First inmate arrival March 27, 1942. Last inmate departure October 27, 1942. Peak population 18,719.

Stockton, California First inmate arrival May 10, 1942. Last inmate departure October 17, 1942. Peak population 4271.

Tanforan, San Bruno, California First inmate arrival April 28, 1942. Last inmate departure October 13, 1942. Peak population 7816. Tanforan is now a large shopping mall by the same name.

Tulare, California First inmate arrival April 20, 1942. Last inmate departure September 4, 1942. Peak population 4978.

Turlock, Byron, California First inmate arrival April 30, 1942. Last inmate departure August 12, 1942. Peak population 3662.


27 U.S. Department of Justice Camps (most at Crystal City, Texas, but also Seagoville, Texas; Kooskia, Idaho; Santa Fe, NM; and Ft. Missoula, Montana) were used to incarcerate 2,260 “dangerous persons” of Japanese ancestry taken from 12 Latin American countries by the US State and Justice Departments. Approximately 1,800 were Japanese Peruvians. The U.S. government wanted them as bargaining chips for potential hostage exchanges with Japan, and actually did use. After the war, 1400 were prevented from returning to their former country, Peru. Over 900 Japanese Peruvians were deported to Japan. 300 fought it in the courts and were allowed to settle in Seabrook, NJ. Efforts to bring justice to the Japanese Peruvians are still active.

What Is Wrong With Our Country?