The Sorry History of Japanese Concentration Camps in America


In February 1942, President Roosevelt ordered the incarceration of 110,000 Japanese–Americans living in California, Oregon and Washington. These people were either native born U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, and the majority were not old enough to vote. Nevertheless, Roosevelt determined they represented a security threat and ordered them to be relocated to ten camps in remote places throughout the interior of the country. Roosevelt’s Executive Order deemed this relocation a “military necessity” that required suspending constitutional protections.

Japanese boys at an internment camp in the United States during World War II.

Japanese boys at an internment camp in the United States during World War II.

However, in January 1942 the Office of Naval Intelligence estimated only 3,500 Japanese Americans were a potential threat, and advised Roosevelt against imprisoning the entire community. It was later revealed that the government knew that no Japanese–American had committed espionage in any form before the relocation order was given. In spite of this evidence and against the advice of his intelligence services, Roosevelt still ordered the relocation. According to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, this decision was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

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The consequences of this wartime hysteria for the prisoners was severe. They had to abandon their homes and livelihood and endure substandard housing and nutrition, and sometimes be separated from family members. This imprisonment had lifelong psychological and physical negative health consequences. Later studies found former internees were twice as likely to have cardiovascular disease and die prematurely than people who were not imprisoned. Additionally, many former prisoners experienced psychological trauma for the rest of their lives, and some even passed it onto their children who had not been born yet. This trauma manifested itself in low self-esteem, pressure to assimilate, and loss of Japanese culture and heritage.

Japs Keep Moving

Even after the government’s blatant racism the Army called for Japanese–American volunteers, and recruitment exceeded all expectations. Many recruits felt a desire to prove their love for America. This sentiment is epitomized by Daniel Inouye who at 18 said he was “angered to realize that my government felt that I was disloyal and part of the enemy, [an]enemy alien. And I wanted to be able to demonstrate, not only to my government, but to my neighbors that I was a good American.”

In Hawaii, where there was no relocation, 10,000 recruits showed up when the Army was only expecting 1,500, while another 2,100 joined from the mainland camps. These recruits fought as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Simply saying “fight” severely under-represents their achievements though. By the end of the war, the 442nd– known as the Purple Heart Battalion– was the most highly decorated unit in U.S. military history. The RCT earned 18,143 individual citations for bravery, including twenty Medals of Honor and 9,486 Purple Hearts. Over 600 gave their life for the country that treated them as second class citizens.

Japanese Internment Camps

Japanese Internment Camps

The earliest point the government recognized its unconstitutional miscarriage of justice was in December 1944. Mitsuye Endo sued the government over her imprisonment, and the Supreme Court ruled in her favor. Justice Frank Murphy wrote the “detention in Relocation Centers of persons of Japanese ancestry regardless of loyalty is not only unauthorized by the Congress or the Executive, but it is another example of the unconstitutional resort to racism in the entire evacuation program.” The ruling revoked Roosevelt’s 1942 order, and the prisoners were free to leave the camps. Unfortunately many homes and businesses were sold to profiteers, meaning those families had to start over. The government provided a $20,000 check to each person who was imprisoned and an apology in 1988.


About Author

Chris Russell studied history and journalism at the University of Massachusetts--Amherst. The work of history I am most proud of is my senior thesis, which can be reached by following this link:

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