Just a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed Executive Order 9066 which authorized the internment of tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and resident aliens from Japan. With just a single word, more than a hundred thousand people had their lives affected by this horrible act. This act was instigated by the long-standing racism towards Japanese-Americans and the Bombing of Pearl Harbor was the final straw. As a result, internment camps were created and the careers of so many Japanese-Americans were destroyed. Many lost their businesses, homes, and even their loved ones because of this irrational act by the government. Four years later after the war ended, President Ronald Reagan issued a formal apology and a donation of 20,000 dollars to those who survived the internment camps, but it wasn’t enough. Many Japanese-Americans faced impoverishment and lingering prejudice from their “fellow Americans”. In today’s world, the United States of America honors all who sacrificed their lives for the war, including the Holocaust victims and the heroes of World War II, but they forgot about the fight for freedom from the Japanese-Americans. Society should remember them so that the mistake of abolishing them will never happen again. The eminent struggle of Japanese-Americans in World War II was portrayed through racism by the construction of internment camps, national propaganda, and the suspicion of America towards Japanese-Americans.
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The history of World War II is a prominent point in understanding the racism of Japanese-Americans. The war lasted from 1939 to 1945 and was a battle between the Allies and the Axis. It was made the deadliest conflict in human history and had up to 85 million casualties. After World War I, Germany was in political and economic instability after the Versailles Treaty which made them bankrupt. Adolf Hitler, a young imposing leader, and his Nazi Party took over the politics of Germany and fueled them for a better future. After being appointed the Chancellor, he became obsessed with power and became the supreme leader a year later. His objective was to rule the world and sought out across Europe. After an invasion against Poland, France and Britain declared war on Germany beginning the mark of World War II. After an agreement with Stalin, Germany and the Soviet Union divided control over the nation and split up to conquer other parts of Europe. However, Britain followed up with a heated battle at sea against the navy of Germany. Germany was able to sink more than a 100 vessels of Britain and won the fight. While Germany continued its dominant conquest across Europe, Italy teamed up with Hitler and also declared war against France and Britain. German forces entered Paris and took control of one half of France while the other half was run by Marshal Philippe Petain and his government. Hitler decided to convert his attention against Britain. After the German troops overran Yugoslavia and Greece, the Axis power was joined by Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Hitler finally revealed his main reason of taking over this land: to exterminate the Jews. According to history.com, “Over the next three years more than 4 million jews would perish in the death camps established in occupied Poland” (history.com 1). Hitler then turned on the Soviet Union with “Operation Barbarossa”. They made it to Moscow with their advanced air technology, but Hitler’s domination was delayed until the following October. While the war was going on in Europe, the United States did not want any part of the war. However, Japan had a different say in that. On December 7, 1941, 360 Japanese aircrafts attacked the major U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, claiming the lives of more than 2,300 troops (history.com 5). The attack at Pearl Harbor instigated the public opinion in favor of entering the war by only one vote, the United States declared war on Japan. Followed instantly, Germany and the other Axis Powers declared war on the United States. Although the Japanese won many battles, the U.S. Pacific Fleet won the Battle of Midway which turned the war around. Another successful battle came from the Allies against the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal from August 1942 to February 1943. The Allied naval forces started to counterattack the Japanese on the Japanese Islands in the Pacific. This strategy was successful and it brought the Allied forces closer to the Japanese land. As the Americans had their own issues to deal with in Japan, the British forces defeated the Italians and Germans in North Africa in the same year. The leader of Italy, Mussolini, was defeated when the Allied powers took over Sicily. They would soon be finished in 1945 where the Allied fighters won. One of the bloodiest battles in World War II, the Battle of Stalingrad, was ended by a Soviet attack in November 1942. The cold winter and the sound of starvation brought the German soldiers to a defeat, and they surrendered on January 31, 1943. June 6, 1944 was the biggest turning point of the war when the Allied powers began making a power move against the Axis landing around 160,000 soldiers on the beaches of Normandy, France. According to history.com, this “D-Day” spelled the end of Hitler’s army and removed all the power that they had in the easy (history.com 5). The Allied forces finally invaded Germany where the Nazis surrendered on May 8, 1945. They found that Hitler commited suicide on April 30 in his very own bunker. Many people celebrated the end of World War II and commemorated the bloody war that would never be forgotten. However, many people don’t acknowledge the war of racism that the Japanese-Americans faced on America’s very own soil.
On February 19, 1942, soon after the attack of Pearl Harbor by Japanese powers, President Franklin D. Roosevelt executed Executive Order 9066 with the goal of discovering undercover espionage by the Japanese. Instead, it created the first ever Holocaust of Japanese Americans in American history. Any person that looked remotely Japanese or had any ancestry involving Japan were took forcefully and relocated to internment camps. More than 117,000 people had their lives taken away by the American government (archives.gov 1). It started a chain in North America as Canada and a part of South America relocated their Japanese residents to the United States. Many Japanese community and religious leaders were arrested without consent and had their rights violated. The actions that the United States took against the situation was irrational and breached the foundations of this country. The “prisoners” were transported to camps in Montana, New Mexico, and North Dakota and had no access to contact with their families and friends. While that was happening, the FBI was granted permission by the government to search the homes of the Japanese residents and find any evidence that led to them being a spy. Their boats were impounded and their businesses were shut down by the FBI. By the end of the raids, more than 1,500 people of Japanese descent were sent to the U.S. mainland and put in camps (history.com 1). A main factor of the detainment of the Japanese-Americans was Lt. General John L. Dewitt, leader of the Western Defense Command. He believed that the Japanese population was the reason for Pearl Harbor and decided to file a report with lies such as sabotages, but were proven to be false. His plan was to create military zones and internment camps that would hold the Japanese until the end of the war. His ideas were approved by the testimonies of Congress that all Japanese should be removed. Attorney General Francis Biddle was the only person who protested against the order, but Roosevelt signed it anyway. According to history.com, more than 15,000 Japanese Americans were forced out of prohibited areas and were met with the racist forces of the state citizens. They were forced to dispose any belongings that they couldn’t carry and were evacuated to assembly centers. Even if a person was 1/16th Japanese, they were still detained and taken away. From the centers, they were taken to a relocation center where they would spend months before being transferred to a wartime residence. Many of the centers were inhabitable situations such as racetracks and old farms that had been converted to living situations. An example of this was the Santa Anita Assembly Center, one where 8,500 people were crammed together in a small building. Needs such as food and standard hygiene were non-existent as the government didn’t have funds to provide for the people. Life in the center could be compared to a prison. The Japanese-Americans were offered work in exchange for small wages. Compared to the regular life the people once had, their experience at the assembly center was one of horror. As for relocation centers, there were only ten of them where the government forced families into small rooms. Each relocation center was its own town, featuring schools, post offices and work facilities, as well as farmland for growing food and keeping livestock, all surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers (history.com 8). These conditions were learned of by the diary of Yonekazu Satoda. He was 22 when he and his family were forced to relocate to the Jerome Relocation Center. He kept a diary of his experiences at the camp similarly to Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who recounted her days in confinement. “Today was supposed to be my graduation day at Cal,” Mr. Satoda noted on May 13, 1942, the second day of a confinement that lasted almost three years. (Brown 1). His diary focuses on the injustice that detainees faced at the camp and the unlivable conditions that they had to deal with. His diary is now shown in a display at Yale, honoring his contributions to the history of the internment camps. Violence was also a common thing that happened in these camps. Many people tried to flee and escape by climbing over the fences, but were shot by guards. A riot broke out in the Santa Anita facility in result of no food and cramped living situations. The police took over dramatic actions and tear-gassed the people. Riots like these were common and happened all over the United States. As though it seemed like the torture would never be over, three angels stepped into the dark with the names of Mitsuye Endo, Harry Ueno, and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga.
Many heroes in World War II are honored everywhere in America, but they seemed to have left these people out. Mitsuye Endo was only 21 when she made her strides in ending the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. After the California State Personnel Board stated that all Japanese-American state employees be fired, Mitsuye was let go by the California Department of Motor Vehicles. She challenged her firing, but was sent with her family to the Sacramento Assembly Center and then to the Tule Lake internment camp. An ACLU lawyer, James C. Purcell, saw the injustice that people like Mitsuye were facing in these camps and was determined to file a lawsuit against the government. He chose Mitsuye to represent the Japanese in this case since she was a U.S. citizen, her brother was in the army, and had never been in the country of Japan. She 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” (lowellmilkencenter.org 1). On July 12, 1942, Mitsuye and her team sought out to end the Japanese-American internment in federal district court in San Francisco. Even though the court heard her case, they did not issue a ruling and denied it without reasoning. A few months later, the War Relocation Authorities offered release Mitsuye if she didn’t pursue the case. Instead of taking a definite escape, the brave Japanese-American declined and stayed in the camp until her case was heard. The appeal was sent to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but was immediately sent to the Supreme Court. The court unanimously ruled in favor of Mitsuye’s case with their reason being “the government cannot detain a citizen without charge when the government itself concedes she is loyal to the United States” (lowellmilkencenter.org 1). The Public Proclamation No. 21 was issued stating that all Japanese-Americans could return back to the West Coast in January 1945. Without the just and unselfish actions of Endo, the abolishment of the internment camps would have taken much longer than it already has. Second, a hero among the Japanese residents was Harry Ueno. Ueno was in his mid- 30s when he and his family were ordered to leave his city for Manzanar, one of the ten relocation centers in the war. Despite the horrifying conditions of the camp, Ueno was determined to make the camp more attractive. He brought happiness and joy to the detainees and even built an 80-foot ornamental pond near the mess hall. He formed the Mess Hall Workers Union which fought for the rights of proper food and utensils for the center. Along with a few other internees, he protested against Manzanar officials and fought for better rights. Since he lived in Japan for 16 years, the U.S. authorities saw him as a likely spy and jailed him for no reason. He was brought back to the center after many camp residents demanded his return knowing that he did nothing wrong. He became a part of the Manzanar Riot where the police striked against 11 internees and killing two of Ueno’s own men. “I just can’t forget the night they shot the people. I just can’t forget,” Ueno said in 1991, when as an octogenarian he made a pilgrimage to Manzanar. “I have to pray for their well-being. I have to tell people so it won’t happen again” (Oliver 4). He was deemed a troublemaker by the officials and was sent to jail again in Bishop. After spending time in several camps, he was reunited with his family and was given 15 dollars and a railroad ticket to San Jose. Shattered by his experience in the internment camps, he considered moving back to Japan but decided to stay so he could support his family. His occupation became running a 10-acre farm in Sunnyvale and grew crops. After the redress appropriations bill that provided 20,000 dollars and an apology, Jodie Lindberg, one of Ueno’s granddaughters, told the San Jose Mercury News that “her grandfather was pleased by the apology but felt that no amount of money could make up for what he had lost” (Oliver 6). His sacrifice and contributions will always be remembered by his fellow Japanese-Americans. Last, but certainly not least, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga was put into the Manzanar concentration camp in 1943. She was an 18 year-old mother of a newborn in the Mojave Desert. With the frequent dust storms, she struggled to wash her baby’s diapers because of the dust and had to be quick. She faced the lack of food, water, and privacy, but most importantly, her loss of liberty. According to Bannai, Herzig-Yoshinaga was a singular hero in documenting the ugly truth that racism was at the heart of the incarceration, an activist and an inspiration to all who knew her (Bannai 1). Government officials took Herzig-Yoshinaga away when she was a senior at Los Angeles High School. She recalls messages from her fellow classmates and her principal stating that she would never receive her diploma because her people bombed Pearl Harbor. Fearing that her boyfriend and her would be separated, they married and were sent to Manzanar. Learning that her father was ill, she and her baby traveled to Jerome but the husband couldn’t join them. Her father passed 10 days after they arrived on Christmas day (Bannai 3). After the banishment of the camps, the only thing that was on Herzig-Yoshinaga’s mind was surviving. She started getting involved in anti-war protests before moving to Washington. After examining records from the National Archives, she was hired to become a researcher for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Her most famous act was when she found the original report of General DeWitt. It stated the false records to the Supreme Court justifying his actions for detaining the Japanese Americans. She found out that the real reason for removal was that one could never separate the loyal from the disloyal (Bannai 5). Herzig-Yoshinaga continued to work endlessly to find the true facts of the internment of Japanese-Americans and was a contributing factor on the fact that the internment was based on racism. In the aftermath of the camps, Japanese-Americans still faced racial prejudice in their homeland. Their properties were seized by the government and their businesses were ceased also. As many would complain about the recent experiences that they faced, the Japanese-Americans covered their sense of loss and betrayal with the Japanese phrase Shikata ga nai—It can’t be helped (Frail 2). With this mentality, they were able to continue on with their lives and face the struggles of racism head on.
As society lives on today, the Japanese-Americans that experienced such turmoil in the internment camps are not honored for their sacrifice in World War II and continue to have their legacy in shadows. Many Japanese-Americans living today have to deal with the same racism that their grandfathers or great-grandfathers had to face during the war, and together, have raised awareness about these issues. Heroes like Mitsuye, Ueno, and Herzig-Yoshinaga are still not honored for their efforts in the abolishment and exposure of the internment camps in World War II. While the world honors the horrors of the Holocaust in Germany and the remembrance of the world’s mistakes, America should use the same efforts in honoring the Japanese-Americans. With the horrifying history that the Japanese-Americans faced 80 years ago, there is no amount of money or apologies that can fix the mistakes of the United States government and its very own people.
- Bannai, Lorraine, et al. “Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga: The Activist Who Discovered the Truth About WWII Internment.” POLITICO Magazine, 30 Dec. 2018,
- Brown, Patricia Leigh. “Life in a Japanese-American Internment Camp, via the Diary of a Young Man.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Dec. 2015.
- Editors, History.com. “World War II.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 29 Oct. 2009.
- Editors, History.com. “Japanese Internment Camps.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 29 Oct. 2009.
- “Japanese Relocation During World War II.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, 10 Apr. 2017.
- “Mitsuye Endo: The Face of Liberty and Justice | About the Hero.” Lowell Milken Center, 28 July 2018.
- Oliver, Myrna. “Harry Ueno, 97; Hero to Japanese Americans in Internment Camps.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 21 Dec. 2004,
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