Japanese Internment Camps: WWII, Reasons, Life, Conditions, and Deaths

| , | March 21, 2024

The story of Japanese internment camps in the United States represents a complex chapter marked by fear, prejudice, and a struggle for justice. Amid the global conflict, the U.S. government made the controversial decision to relocate and imprison thousands of Japanese Americans, casting a long shadow over the principles of liberty and justice.

This key moment, driven by wartime hysteria and racial discrimination, led to the uprooting of families, the loss of homes and businesses, and the creation of a stark reality behind barbed wire.

Events Leading Up to the Foundation of Japanese Internment Camps

The road to the establishment of Japanese internment camps was paved with a blend of international tensions and domestic fears. The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, by the Empire of Japan marked a turning point, thrusting the United States into World War II amidst a wave of panic and suspicion.

READ MORE: Pearl Harbor: A Day in Infamy

Overnight, Japanese Americans, many of whom were U.S. citizens or legal residents who had lived in the country for decades, were viewed with distrust and hostility. This fear was not born in a vacuum but was the culmination of years of anti-Japanese sentiment, exacerbated by economic competition and racial prejudices that had simmered on the American West Coast.

The swift move toward internment was further influenced by government and military leaders who argued that Japanese Americans could pose a security threat. Among them, General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command, played a key role in advocating for the exclusion and detention of Japanese Americans, claiming military necessity.

This atmosphere of fear and suspicion was codified with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. This order authorized the Secretary of War and military commanders to designate military areas from which any or all persons could be excluded, laying the groundwork for the relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps.

This decision, fueled by wartime paranoia and racial bias, led to one of the most contentious civil liberties issues of the 20th century, challenging the American ideals of justice and equality.

Executive Order 9066

Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, marked a decisive moment in American history, granting military commanders the authority to exclude any persons from designated military areas.

READ MORE: US History Timeline: The Dates of America’s Journey

Though the order did not specify Japanese Americans, it was implemented to target and relocate them from the West Coast, under the guise of national security. The swift enactment of this order reflected the heightened fear and prejudice against Japanese Americans following the Pearl Harbor attack, culminating in a policy that would affect the lives of thousands.

The implications of Executive Order 9066 were profound and immediate. It led to the creation of military zones and the forced removal of Japanese Americans to internment camps scattered across the interior of the U.S. Families were given mere days to dispose of their properties, businesses, and belongings, often at significant losses.

The order stripped them of their freedoms, rights, and dignity, casting a shadow over the principles of liberty and justice the nation purported to uphold. This chapter in American history serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of wartime hysteria and racial prejudice, highlighting the need for vigilance in protecting the rights and freedoms of all citizens, especially in times of crisis.

Anti-Japanese American Activity

In the years leading up to World War II, anti-Japanese sentiment had been brewing, particularly on the West Coast of the United States, where the majority of Japanese immigrants and their descendants lived. This animosity was deeply rooted in a mixture of racial prejudice, economic envy, and cultural misunderstanding.

READ MORE: WW2 Timeline and Dates

Japanese Americans, despite contributing to the agricultural and economic development of the region, faced discriminatory laws and societal exclusion. The tensions escalated with Japan’s growing military aggression in Asia, further fueling suspicion and xenophobia among the American public.

The attack on Pearl Harbor acted as a catalyst, transforming pre-existing biases into outright hostility. Politicians, media outlets, and influential community leaders began to advocate for the removal of Japanese Americans from the Pacific Coast, falsely accusing them of espionage and sabotage without evidence. This climate of fear and suspicion was not only endorsed but amplified by the federal government’s actions, including Executive Order 9066.

The ensuing anti-Japanese American activity was not merely a grassroots movement but a state-sanctioned policy that legitimized racism and set the stage for the mass incarceration of an entire ethnic group based solely on their ancestry. This period underscores the impact of wartime hysteria combined with racial prejudice, leading to one of the most significant violations of civil liberties in American history.

John DeWitt and His Role in the Internment of Japanese-Americans

Major General John L. DeWitt played a key role in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. As the commanding officer of the Western Defense Command, DeWitt was tasked with the defense of the Pacific Coast following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Citing concerns over espionage and sabotage, he became one of the most vocal proponents for the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. DeWitt’s influence was instrumental in shaping the narrative that Japanese Americans posed a national security threat, despite the lack of evidence to support such claims.

DeWitt’s reports and recommendations to the War Department emphasized the perceived impossibility of distinguishing loyal from disloyal Japanese Americans, arguing that, because of their race, they could not be trusted.

His stance was fortified by racial prejudices and a belief in the necessity of drastic measures to ensure national security. His advocacy was a critical factor leading to the issuance of Executive Order 9066 by President Roosevelt.

DeWitt subsequently oversaw the implementation of the order, orchestrating the forced removal and internment of over 110,000 Japanese Americans. His actions, driven by a mixture of wartime hysteria and racial bias, have been widely criticized by historians as unjust and unnecessary, reflecting a dark chapter in the history of civil liberties in the United States.

War Relocation Authority

The War Relocation Authority (WRA) was established on March 18, 1942, through Executive Order 9102, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Tasked with managing the forced relocation and internment of Japanese Americans, the WRA represented the bureaucratic machinery behind the internment process.

It was responsible for the logistics, administration, and oversight of the camps, ensuring the implementation of government policy. Under the direction of Milton S. Eisenhower, initially, and later Dillon S. Myer, the WRA navigated the complex logistics of uprooting over 120,000 individuals, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, from their homes and moving them to isolated internment camps across the interior of the United States.

The establishment of the WRA marked a critical phase in the internment process, transitioning from the chaotic initial roundup to a more structured, though still harsh, system of incarceration. The Authority attempted to mitigate the harsh conditions through education and employment opportunities within the camps, but these efforts did little to mask the reality of imprisonment.

The WRA’s role in overseeing the daily lives of internees, from providing basic necessities to enforcing camp rules, highlighted the extent of government involvement in this dark chapter of American history.

Despite its attempts to portray the camps in a positive light, the legacy of the WRA remains intertwined with the violation of civil liberties and the suffering of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Relocation to ‘Assembly Centers’

Before their final transfer to internment camps, Japanese Americans were initially relocated to temporary “assembly centers.” These were often hastily converted facilities such as racetracks, fairgrounds, and other public buildings, ill-equipped to house the thousands of people who were uprooted from their communities.

Families were given only days to settle their affairs before being evacuated, forcing them to sell their possessions at significant losses or leave them behind entirely. Upon arrival at these centers, they were met with overcrowded conditions, inadequate privacy, and insufficient sanitation facilities, a stark departure from their previous lives and an ominous introduction to their forthcoming internment experience.

The assembly centers served as a transitional phase in the internment process, where individuals were registered and assigned to one of the more permanent internment camps managed by the War Relocation Authority.

Life in these temporary quarters was marked by uncertainty and anxiety, as internees awaited their fate in the unknown conditions of the permanent camps. The use of assembly centers highlighted the logistical challenges and bureaucratic indifference faced by Japanese Americans during their relocation.

This phase of the internment process underscores the disruption of normal life and the rapid deprivation of rights and freedoms experienced by Japanese American families, setting the stage for their prolonged internment under challenging and unjust conditions.

Life in ‘Japanese Concentration Camps’

Life within the Japanese concentration camps was a stark departure from the freedoms of American society, defined by the physical and psychological barriers of barbed wire and guard towers.

READ MORE: Twisted Legacy: Uncovering Who Invented Barbed Wire and Why was Barbed Wire invented?

Despite being labeled as “relocation centers,” these facilities functioned as prisons, where internees faced a daily existence marked by a loss of privacy, autonomy, and dignity. Families, often accustomed to their own homes, were crammed into small, sparsely furnished barracks with little insulation against harsh weather conditions.

The communal facilities for eating, bathing, and using the restroom further eroded personal privacy and comfort.

Yet, within these confines, the Japanese American community strove to maintain a sense of normalcy and resilience. Schools were established for children, and adults engaged in various jobs within the camps to support the community and earn a small income.

READ MORE: Who Invented School? The Story Behind Monday Mornings

Internees organized cultural and recreational activities, such as art classes, sports competitions, and traditional Japanese festivals, to preserve their heritage and bolster spirits. However, these efforts could not fully mitigate the underlying strain and injustice of their situation.

The internment experience left lasting scars on the community, impacting generations with memories of discrimination, loss, and resilience in the face of adversity.

U.S. Propaganda Film Shows ‘Normal’ Life in WWII Japanese Internment Camps

During World War II, the U.S. government engaged in a propaganda campaign to shape public perception of the internment camps housing Japanese Americans. One notable effort was the production of films that depicted a sanitized and misleading portrayal of life inside these camps.

These films aimed to pacify criticism and concern among the American public and international community by showing internees not as prisoners but as beneficiaries of government benevolence.

Through carefully crafted scenes, the films showcased internees engaging in educational activities, farming, and leisure—painting a picture of a harmonious and productive life far removed from the reality of internment.

This strategic use of propaganda served multiple purposes: it sought to justify the government’s internment policy, alleviate growing unease about the treatment of Japanese Americans, and counter any negative impressions that could affect the United States’ international standing during the war.

However, these films starkly contrasted with the testimonies of internees and reports from civil rights advocates, who highlighted the overcrowded living conditions, inadequate facilities, and the psychological toll of imprisonment.

The propaganda films obscured the harsh realities of internment, the stripping away of rights, and the deep wounds inflicted upon thousands of Japanese American families.

Conditions in ‘Relocation Centers’

The conditions in the so-called “relocation centers” or internment camps where Japanese Americans were confined during World War II were far from the idyllic scenes portrayed by U.S. government propaganda.

The reality of life in these camps was characterized by hardship, uncertainty, and a stark departure from the principles of freedom and justice. Internees faced a variety of challenging living conditions, from extreme weather to insufficient food and medical care.

The barracks that served as living quarters were poorly constructed and offered little protection against the searing summers and freezing winters common in the remote areas where many camps were located.

Moreover, the camps were designed with a minimum level of infrastructure, leading to overcrowded living spaces, shared latrines with no privacy, and inadequate medical facilities. Despite the efforts of internees to improve their living conditions through community organization and personal initiative, the scarcity of resources and the constant surveillance by military guards underscored the oppressive nature of their confinement.

The psychological impact of internment, including stress, anxiety, and loss of identity, compounded the physical hardships. Stories of resilience, community support, and cultural preservation emerged from within the camps, but these could not negate the injustice of the internment experience.

Violence in Prison Camps

Within the confines of the internment camps, instances of violence were relatively rare but notably significant, marking the tension and desperation that sometimes boiled over among the internees.

The stress of imprisonment, the erosion of community and family structures, and the frustration with unjust incarceration occasionally led to conflicts both among the internees and between internees and camp guards.

One of the most notable incidents of violence occurred at the Manzanar internment camp in December 1942, known as the Manzanar Riot or Uprising, where tensions between the camp administration and the internees escalated into violence, resulting in the death of two Japanese Americans and injuries to several others.

These instances of violence were symptomatic of the broader issues within the camps: the struggle for leadership and representation among the internees, the inadequacy of the administration to address the internees’ concerns, and the underlying injustice of their situation. The presence of armed guards and the enforcement of strict regulations heightened the atmosphere of repression and control.

While the camps were not violent places on a day-to-day basis, these incidents of unrest underscored the inherent conflict of detaining loyal American citizens and residents without due process.

The violence that did erupt within the camps serves as a reminder of the profound impact of internment on the psyche and social dynamics of the Japanese American community, illustrating the complex interplay of resilience, despair, and resistance under the shadow of unjust incarceration.

Deaths

The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, while not characterized by the mass violence seen in other wartime atrocities, still led to loss of life under the harsh conditions and psychological strain of unjust incarceration.

Deaths in the internment camps occurred due to a variety of reasons, including inadequate medical care, the stress and despair of long-term confinement, and, in rare instances, violence. Elderly internees, children, and those with pre-existing health conditions were particularly vulnerable to the camps’ inadequate living conditions and limited access to healthcare.

The exact number of deaths across all the internment camps is difficult to ascertain, as records were not always meticulously kept or have been lost over time. However, each death within these camps represents a personal tragedy and a stark reminder of the human cost of policies born out of fear and prejudice.

Memorials and monuments have been erected in several former camp sites and cemeteries, serving as somber reminders of those who died as a result of their internment. These sites encourage reflection on the fragility of civil liberties in times of crisis and the importance of remembering the individuals and families affected by this chapter of American history.

10 Japanese Internment Camps

The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II led to the establishment of ten major camps across the United States, primarily located in remote areas far from the Pacific coast.

These camps were designed to house over 120,000 Japanese Americans forcibly removed from their homes in the wake of Executive Order 9066.

The locations of these camps were chosen based on their isolation and the government’s ability to control the internees, often placing them in harsh and unforgiving environments. Here is a brief overview of the ten major internment camps:

Manzanar War Relocation Center in California became one of the most well-known camps, symbolizing the hardships and resilience of the interned population.

Tule Lake Segregation Center in California, designated for those considered “disloyal,” was the largest of the camps and witnessed significant unrest and protest.

Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho, where internees worked in agriculture to support the war effort despite their confinement.

Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah, known for its harsh climate and the vibrant arts community that emerged among the internees.

Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in Wyoming, notable for its high school, which became the largest in the state due to the interned population.

Granada War Relocation Center (Amache) in Colorado, where internees faced some of the harshest living conditions.

Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas, one of the two camps located in the humid and mosquito-infested swamps of the Mississippi Delta.

Jerome War Relocation Center in Arkansas, the other camp in the Delta, marked by its brief operation period and challenging conditions.

Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona, distinguished by its leadership in agriculture and relatively better relations with the surrounding community.

Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona, the largest camp by area, located on an Indian reservation and suffering from extreme summer heat.

Each of these camps has its own history, marked by the resilience of the Japanese American community in the face of adversity. Today, they serve as poignant reminders of the need for vigilance against the erosion of civil liberties and the importance of remembering the lessons of the past.

Memorials and educational centers at some of these sites continue to educate the public about this dark chapter in American history, ensuring that the stories of those who were interned are not forgotten.

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