Japanese-American concentration camps

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Japanese-American exclusion and internment order.
The colorful pseudoscience
Race & Racialism
Icon race.svg
Hating thy neighbour
Divide and conquer
We cannot test the degree of a man’s affection for his fellows or his devotion to his country by the birthplace of his grandfathers. All Americans had their origins beyond the border of the United States.
Ralph Lawrence CarrWikipedia, rare outspoken 1940s critic of internment[1]

The Japanese-American concentration camps existed from February 1942 to March 1946, during which the United States government forcibly moved 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry to ten concentration camps in the western United States. It was arguably the largest xenophobic, white supremacist, racist assault of the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and it occurred in unison with xenophobic assault against German and Italian civilians via forced relocation to concentration camps for those peoples during the same time interval, although the most egregious acts of terror clearly occurred within Japanese concentration camps, perhaps for a particular reason.

Very few served as outspoken opponents of internment. Vocal congressional opposition was embodied in one member, persistent right-wing activist Robert A. Taft, decrying civil liberty violations; professed anti-discrimination organizations including the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), ACLU, and NAACP did not share his opposition.[2] Republican Colorado governor Ralph Lawrence Carr,Wikipedia a noted conservative critic of New Deal programs as statist, disregarded political opportunism in principled denunciations of internment and advocacy of tolerance.[1]


During the Pearl Harbor attacks (7 December 1941), a number of Japanese aircraft were damaged or shot down. One of them managed to land on the island of Niihau,Wikipedia in part due to poor intelligence which had led the Japanese to believe it uninhabited. The locals remained unaware of what had just happened due to poor WiFi reception a lack of communications with the rest of the world. The pilot managed to convince three Japanese Americans to join him and to commit various acts that were technically treason, such as seizing hostages and taking up arms, before a struggle ensued and a group of Native Hawaiians managed to kill the pilot. This single incident may have convinced a number of people about the lack of "trustworthiness" of Japanese Americans. General John L. DeWitt, the man in charge of the concentration camp policy and one of its leading supporters, made sweeping racist comments about Japanese people, arguing that even third-generation citizens still "held inborn racial loyalty" to Japan, and that "the very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken."[3]

Ostensibly, bondage in the concentration camps aimed to "remove the threat of Japanese espionage agents operating on the west coast of the United States." However, most historians have raised questions about the effectiveness of such a program, preferring to call the incarceration a racist swipe against Japanese Americans. Sixty-two percent of people in the concentration camps were US citizens, the rest being resident immigrants on American soil. The vast majority of Japanese Americans and their immigrant parents in Hawai'i were not imprisoned because the government had already declared martial law in the Territory of Hawaiʻi, and this allowed it to significantly reduce the supposed risk of espionage and sabotage by residents of Japanese ancestry.[4] Also, Japanese Americans comprised over 35% of the territory's population, with 157,905 of Hawaiʻi's 423,330 inhabitants at the time of the 1940 census,[5] making them the largest ethnic group at that time; detaining so many people would have posed an enormous logistical challenge. However, a total of five concentration camps operated in the territory of Hawaiʻi, referred to as the "Hawaiian Island Detention Camps".[6][7] Several hundred prisoners had German and Italian ancestry, although incarceration of those groups was extremely limited compared to Japanese people; for them, it was restricted to citizens of their respective countries or to members of avowed pro-fascist organizations such as the German-American Bund.

One unstated purpose of the concentration camps was economic. Japanese Americans had often become very successful farmers who owned large quantities of productive land, land that the government snatched up by after imprisoning its owners in concentration camps (where it was sold legitimately, property was often still sold extremely cheaply because of the surge in sellers and because they had only a brief period to sell[8]). As a result, many white farmers' associations supported the concentration camps not just as a "patriotic" measure but also as a way of being white supremacist chickenshits removing economic competition.

As a matter of fact, one 1992 Washington Post op-ed makes the case that "the government's action was partially initiated by California corporate agribusiness interests hoping to satisfy their own lust for land while ridding themselves of competition from the state's most productive family farms." It cites the leader of one large agribusiness group, who at the time nakedly admitted to this, stating: "We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do. It's a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work and they stayed to take over."[9] At the end of the day, over $72 million worth of land was seized through civil-asset forfeiture and sold to white farmers at firesale prices. Untold value in furniture, automobiles, farm equipment, and other valuable items owned by Japanese Americans was also either sold off for pennies in the dollar, seized by the Army, or stolen while homes lay empty. Concentration camps constituted a massive seizure and redistribution of the wealth of the Japanese-American community.[3][10]

The Canadian government held more than 22,000 citizens with Japanese ancestry captive during World War II, for much the same reasons of anti-Asian xenophobia, mainly against those living in British Columbia.[11] "Native" Peruvians expressed extreme animosity toward their Japanese citizens and expatriates, and Peru refused to accept the post-war return of Japanese Peruvians from the US. Although a small number asserting special circumstances, such as marriage to a non-Japanese Peruvian,[12] did return, the majority remained trapped. Their home country refused to take them back (a political stance Peru would maintain until 1950).[13] They were generally Spanish speakers in the mostly Anglo U.S., and in the postwar U.S., the Department of State started expatriating them to Japan. ACLU lawyer Wayne M. Collins filed injunctions on behalf of the remaining internees,[14][15] helping them obtain "parole" relocation to the labor-starved Seabrook Farm in New Jersey.[16] He started a legal battle that would not be resolved until 1953, when, after working as undocumented immigrants for almost ten years, those Japanese Peruvians remaining in the U.S. were finally offered citizenship.[17] Some other Latin American countries of the Pacific Coast also imprisoned ethnic Japanese or sent them to the United States to be held captive in concentration camps.[18] Brazil also restricted its Japanese-Brazilian population.[19]


The prevailing attitude in the United States is that the camps were unjustified,[citation NOT needed] a result of "wartime hysteria." This viewpoint is affirmed by Article I, Section 9 (guaranteeing the writ of habeas corpus), and the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution (which states that no person shall "be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law").

Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which included formal apologies and monetary reparations from the United States government to concentration camp survivors (or their family members). George H. W. Bush signed an amendment to the Act in 1992 which continued reparations to ensure all were addressed — the program concluded in 1999. Recipients received formal letters with the president's signature (which might have been Bush or Bill Clinton depending on when they received it).

Another reason it was wrong[edit]

A Japanese grocery store in Oakland several days before its owners' were persecuted.

Perhaps the saddest irony of the whole thing was the fact that Japanese-American men of military age were permitted to and actually encouraged to enlist in the United States military. Partially they did it in order to get out of the camps, but many also felt the need to prove their loyalty to the United States.

In fact, the 442nd Infantry Regiment was almost entirely composed of Japanese-Americans; the 442nd was deployed to Europe, seeing combat in Italy, southern France, and Germany (even helping to liberate the Dachau concentration camp), and the unit was one of the most decorated units of any during the war, with soldiers earning, amongst other decorations, 7 Presidential Unit Citations, 21 Congressional Medals of Honor, and 9,486 Purple Hearts.[20] Late Hawai'i Senator Daniel Inouye was a member of this unit and lost his arm in a grenade explosion.[21]

Future Supreme Court justice Earl Warren was heavily involved in the concentration camps, and some scholars have suggested that his lingering guilt and remorse were a large part of what drove him to so vigorously defend liberties during his time on the bench.


Michelle Malkin wrote a lovely anthology of how to use logical fallacies pro-concentration camp book, called In Defense of Internment: The Case for "Racial Profiling" in World War II and the War on Terror. It talks about a few specific cases of "disloyalty" by Japanese-Americans, which is then used as justification for detaining all of them based on their ethnic heritage. It then jumps to the conclusion that we should do the same with Arab and Muslim people. Can we then assume that her next logical step would be to support throwing all white Americans in concentration camps, based on the disloyal actions of guys like Timothy McVeigh, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Ku Klux Klan, or John Hinckley?

Others point to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 as "justification" for the concentration camps, despite the law applying only to resident immigrants, which doesn't justify imprisoning several thousand Nisei American citizens.[note 1] They also cite Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the American Civil War. The latter is particularly funny to invoke because of the nature of the soldiers imprisoned.

On the other side of political interpretations, U.S. history teachers have also been known to compare these camps to the Nazi concentration camps in Germany and Poland at the same time, and neo-Nazis have also brought them up as red herrings in Holocaust denial. While it is certainly fair to analyze the abuses of civil liberties that occurred on both sides, the biggest difference is that no Japanese Holocausts occurred in North America, nor was that even the plan, as was the case with Germany. Another crucial difference is obviously the conditions. While concentration camp conditions at the beginning of the war were subpar (even by the US government's own admission), they were vastly different from the camps set up by the Nazis.

Conspiracy theorists also often bring up this episode in American history as "proof" that the government has the will to round up dissidents and ship them to "FEMA concentration camps."

In pop culture[edit]

Nonetheless, the era of Japanese concentration camps in the United States is often glossed over in public school textbooks and is rarely addressed by the popular mediums of film or television. George Takei, who himself was held in two different concentration camps when he was a small boy,[22] has been supportive of initiatives that put this black stain of our history front and center:

  • Allegiance is a musical about the concentration camps themselves, and how they affected a single family.[23] Three generations of this family are represented, from the immigrant grandfather, to the children too young to understand. Takei starred in several of the productions.
  • The Japanese American National Museum has a section devoted to the era of the camps (the building itself was a "processing center" for the concentration camps).
  • Snow Falling on Cedars (the novelWikipedia as well as the film)Wikipedia while taking place in 1954 includes a backstory which draws heavily on incarceration and the Japanese-American murder suspect's kendo skills as reported by his former WWII officer.
  • The Karate KidWikipedia (the original 1984 film). When Mr. MiyagiWikipedia gets drunk he mentions that his wife died in childbirth in a concentration camp while he was fighting for the U.S. in Europe. Especially poignant as the actor portraying Mr. Miyagi, Pat MoritaWikipedia had been an internee himself.
  • The Terror: Infamy. The second season of AMC's anthology horror series The Terror is set in a US Japanese concentration camp. It tells the story of an entity from Japanese folklore called a "Bakemono" preying on the internees.
  • Fort Minor: The Rising Tied. The thirteenth track on Mike Shinoda's debut solo album, released under the name The Rising Tide, delves into his family's experiences during World War II. The song poignantly describes their time in a Japanese internment camp and the discrimination they faced due to their Japanese heritage.

Other notable internees[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. That doesn't particularly make it any better, but we're dealing with hyperbolas here.


  1. 1.0 1.1 https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/article/ralph-carr
  2. Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom, p. 241.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Evans, Robert. "It Could Happen Again: My Time in a U.S. Internment Camp." Cracked.com, 8 July 2016 (recovered 8 July 2016).
  4. Jane L. Scheiber, Harry N. Scheiber. "Martial law in Hawaii," Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved July 15, 2014.
  5. Gibson, Campbell and Kay, Jung. Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and By Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990
  6. Gordon, Mike (November 27, 2005). "Wartime stain in history retraced in O'ahu's brush". The Honolulu Advertiser. Retrieved December 10, 2009. 
  7. Gordon, Mike (February 5, 2006). "Under Honouliuli brush, dark history". The Honolulu Advertiser. Retrieved December 10, 2009. 
  8. Emily Zentner (June 4, 2019). "What Happened To The Property Of Sacramento's Japanese American Community Interned During World War II?". CapRadio (see both audio and text versions).
  9. A. V. Krebs (February 2, 1992). "Bitter Harvest". The Washington Post.
  10. Miller, Richard Lawrence. "Confiscations from Japanese-Americans During World War II." Forfeiture Endangers American Rights, 2001 (recovered 8 July 2016).
  11. Internment Centres, National Association of Japanese Canadians
  12. Niiya, Brian. Japanese American History: An A to Z History from 1868 to the Present (1993) p191.
  13. Stephen Mak. "Japanese Latin Americans," Densho Encyclopedia (accessed March 5, 2014).
  14. The Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. "Japanese Latin Americans," c. 2003, accessed April 12, 2009.
  15. "Japanese Americans, the Civil Rights Movement and Beyond". Retrieved April 10, 2009. 
  16. Higashide, Seiichi. (2000).Adios to Tears, p. 179.
  17. Connell, Thomas. (2002). America's Japanese Hostages: The US Plan For A Japanese Free Hemisphere. Westport: Praeger-Greenwood.
  18. Stephen Mak. "Japanese Latin Americans", Densho Encyclopedia (accessed March 5, 2014).
  19. Agence France-Presse/Jiji Press, "Peru sorry for WWII internments", Japan Times, June 16, 2011, p. 2.
  20. The 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team
  21. Medal of Honor Recipients: Second Lieurenant Daniel K. Inouye, United States Army
  22. George Takei: Why I love a country that once betrayed me, TED
  23. Allegiance - A New Broadway Musical