In the aftermath of Imperial Japan’s surprise attack upon the U.S. Military at Pearl harbor, fear and uncertainty gripped the United States. Americans of Japanese heritage were suspected of divided loyalties or worse. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 enabling the Secretary of War to declare “Military Zones” and ultimately authorizing the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans in “War Relocation Centers.”
The internment of Japanese Americans potentially applied to anyone who had a Japanese great grandparent or closer heritage, so that citizens of Chinese-Japanese heritage were affected; Koreans were affected as well, since Japan had governed Korea for almost 40 years by the time of Pearl harbor. (It is notable that almost none of the more than half-million Chinese-Americans in the US during the war years were affected by this “relocation” effort. China was a U.S. ally in the war with Japan.) Was this internment order inspired by racism and bigotry? In large part, no doubt. Simple greed was a major factor as well, profiteering knowing no limits of race. Many of the Japanese-Americans who were subject to internment had to sell their homes and possession on very short notice and at greatly undervalued prices. As noted, the action was not applied to people simply because they were from East Asia. The Japanese were specifically targeted.
Of the ten internment camps that were established in 1942 and 1943 in support of the relocation effort, Manzanar in California’s Owens Valley is the most well-known. This is due to three factors: it was the first of the “War Relocation Centers” (WRCs) to be opened, in March of 1942; it was the largest, and it has been preserved as a National Historic Park.
One of the aspects of these camps that is worth calling to mind is that while they were truly “Concentration Camps” in the original sense of the word, they were not in the same category as the concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Europe which gave that term such an especially evil and murderous reputation. In fact, the American Jewish Committee at one time strenuously objected to the use of the term “Concentration Camp” to refer to the WRCs, as the WRCs were demonstrably far different from Nazi camps. The WRCs featured stores, schools, hospitals, recreation facilities of sorts, and libraries. These were not comfortable facilities, and no one would wish to be imprisoned even in a palace, but they were not intentionally physically brutalizing.
These camps were Spartan, to say the least. The accommodations were meager and only just barely adequate, being built of boards and tarpaper, and having minimal heating, no cooling. At a place such as Manzanar, in the high desert, the cold could be fierce and the heat intense. The facilities, though, were basically the same as the barracks used by members of the armed forced at the time, and so were not intentionally harsh. There were no “permanent” buildings at these camps. Some structures were placed upon concrete slabs, and a few had masonry foundations, but none were of brick. The guard towers were wood-frame construction in all the camps. Costs were kept low.
I had the moving experience of meeting a former inmate of Manzanar a few years ago in California when I attended a memorial service for Ruth Colburn, the mother of a College classmate. She had served as head librarian at Manzanar from 1942 through 1945. In that capacity, she made many deep and lasting friendships, and she earned the respect and affection of many of the camp’s inmates, as reflected in the fact that one of the “alumni” of Manzanar, a gentleman in his early 80s, remembered that she had been a gracious and kind presence in a difficult and stressful circumstance. He had been a teenager at Manzanar, and had evidently taken full advantage of the library that was provided.
Growing up in California, I had the chance to know a few people of Japanese heritage who had been sent to these “War Relocation Centers.” Frank Kamada, a nurseryman, had been interned at Camp Jerome in Arkansas. Frank recalled such things as being “deloused” by being showered in Malathion insecticide, and having to play baseball with ball of string wrapped in medical adhesive tape copped from first aid kits. Frank also remembered being allowed outside the camp to work for and with local farmers, and teaching the Arkansan farmers techniques of soil conservation and improvement which originated in Japan. Frank spoke of this time without apparent bitterness or regret. “We were at war,” he once observed. Note that use of “we.” Frank was Nisei, a 2nd generation Japanese descendant. He identified as American, as did his parents. But they were all interned.
When my folks owned a flower shop in the early 1970s, we did a great deal of business with vendors in the “Japanese Market.” Los Angeles’ wholesale flower market – in those days second only to Amsterdam’s – occupied two city blocks on either side of Wall Street in downtown LA. On the south side was the American Exchange, on the north was the Japanese Market. Many of the folks who owned concessions or worked in the market were Nisei or Sansei (3rd generation) who had been in the camps or had family who had been interned. Sada Miyahara (who anually on 17 March donned vibrant green and wore a green plaid tam on his head, would proclaim, “I’m Irish: Me O’Hara!”) had been at Tule Lake WRC. He recalled his time there frankly, but, again, without any grudge.
I was then and remain to this day struck by how little resentment or bitterness was expressed by these people to whom so great an injustice had been done. No doubt some small number of those imprisoned were loyal to the Emperor, but even these could hardly have constituted a meaningful threat to the U.S. But one must bear in mind that the shock of war was profound and dramatic, and that the suddenness of the surprise attack that brought us into it alarmed people in a way that even the 9/11 terrorist attacks did not. This does not excuse the internments, but it does help to explain them.
I would not aim to lessen the grim and oppressive aspect of these camps. Their very existence is a proof enough of oppression and discrimination. But as my brother observed, “I was appalled then (and am now) to think that US citizens could be treated that way but I was also struck by the complete lack of rancor evident when these folks told about their wartime experiences. I doubt I would be as calm in retelling such a tale. All the same, it seems, in a small way, more humane and civilized to know that those camps were provided with libraries and trained librarians. Somebody was thinking. How nice to know that Ruth Colburn was one of the people who made our internment camps something far less odious than what the Germans and Japanese had to offer the world at the time.”
Executive Order 9066 was officially rescinded by President Gerald Ford on 19 February 1976. Under President Jimmy Carter, a commission was established to fully investigate and evaluate the motive and the impact of Executive Order 9066. Eventually, reparation payments were made to living internees and the Federal Government formally apologized for the internment. While money and conciliatory words cannot truly redress an old wrong, remembering and reflecting may help us to avoid repeating the episode in some future time of fright and trepidation. Executive Order 9066 remains a part of our American past that must not be forgotten.
Flower Mound, Texas
To do injustice is more disgraceful than to suffer it. — Plato