“I was wondering how will they ever put all of us in a place that small. What surprised me most was why did the soldiers have to stand guard with guns…and to tell you the truth the way some people stared at us, it chilled me a bit.”
My grandfather, then sixteen, reflecting in 1944 on his arrival at Amache (Granada) Relocation Camp two years earlier.
Often when we talk about it amongst ourselves, we call it camp. To others, the benign-sounding word could recall sleepaway summers, pitched tents, sing-alongs around a campfire. But when I ask other yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese Americans) if their grandparents were also in camp, what I mean is: was your family also forcibly removed from their homes, from their lives? Were they also labeled the enemy and locked up for years? We call it camp, but what we mean is incarceration. What we mean is that we are just one link in the long American tradition of locking up people of color for no other reason than we are here. The effects of such incarceration linger within us, years and years after the inhabitants are set “free.”
On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which commanded the forcible evacuation of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. As a result, 120,000 Japanese Americans (and some Canadians and Latin Americans of Japanese descent) were incarcerated (National Archives). He passed this order despite a report commissioned by Congress that showed that Japanese Americans posed no threat. The army general in charge of the West Coast summed up the general government feeling when he stated, “They are a dangerous element, whether loyal or not,” (Smithsonian).
In school— if you learned about this event at all— you probably learned about it under the name internment. But this is inaccurate, as the Japanese American-led organization Densho explains: “‘Internment’ refers to the legally permissible, though morally questionable, detention of ‘enemy aliens’ in time of war. There were approximately 8,000 Issei (“first generation”) arrested as enemy aliens and subjected to what could be described as “internment” in a separate set of camps… This term becomes a misleading, othering euphemism when applied to American citizens detained by their own government.” Today, we choose to call this event what it was: incarceration.
It was incarceration based (like much mass incarceration) not on facts or danger, but on racism and economics. After Japan’s government bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, anti-Japanese American rhetoric was pervasive. At the same time, lobbyists representing “competing economic interests or nativist groups” pressured the federal government to remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast (Our Documents/National Archives). Incarceration also functioned as a land grab, as many white farmers were resentful of Japanese American farmers’ increasing presence. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians estimated that Japanese Americans lost what in 2020 would be $3.38 billion in property and $7 billion in income as a result of incarceration (Personal Justice Denied via National Archives).
After the order was passed, Japanese Americans were given only a few days to evacuate, only allowed to pack what they could carry. “Many of the neighbors came to offer us ridiculously low prices for our possessions,” my grandfather recalls. Their refrigerator went for a dollar; the $700 car all the family had saved up for went for $100. They were taken to Merced, California, where they spent six months in one of fifteen euphemistically titled “assembly centers,” while the Army built permanent incarceration camps (Densho). In September, my grandfather and his family were evacuated again to Amache (Granada), a camp in the middle of the Colorado desert, where they would spend the next three years in a 20×25 barracks (Amache.org).
Not one Japanese American was ever found guilty of espionage or any other war crime.
In 1980, Congress organized a federal commission to investigate the impact of Executive Order 9066. Its 467-page report (fittingly titled Personal Justice Denied) called the camps a “grave injustice, motivated by racial prejudice, war hysteria, and the failure of political leadership” (Personal Justice Denied via National Archive). Later, the Sanseis (third-generation Japanese Americans) fought for reparations for their parents and grandparents (Densho). This decades-long battle, fraught with dissent even within our community, led to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, also called H.R. 442 in honor of the highly decorated Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team (Go For Broke). The act stipulated that the $20,000 in compensation would only be paid out to survivors themselves, not descendants of any incarcerees who had died, because the government did not want to set a precedent or framework for reparations for “the descendants of slaves, [Indigenous people] forced onto reservations, Mexicans who lost land, and other historical victims of racism,” (Densho).
Today there are many Japanese American activist groups that utilize our past to work in solidarity with other people of color. We try to use the legacy of Japanese American incarceration as an opening to speak to our elders and our community. Japanese American-led activist groups are using our history to mobilize our community to protest detention sites (Tsuru for Solidarity), combat anti-Blackness (Japanese Americans Citizens League on Facebook), and fight against mass incarceration (Nikkei Uprising on Facebook). At a recent protest at Cook County Jail, young Japanese Americans lay origami cranes to honor those killed by police and who died in prison now, and our ancestors who died inside the World War II camps (NPR).
Densho’s mission – “to preserve and share history of the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans to promote equity and justice today” – succinctly summarizes why it’s so important to remember these historical events: because the past links to the present and the future. Today, Japanese Americans as a group are no longer treated the same way we were back then (though anti-Asian sentiment during the coronavirus hearkens back to those tropes, as I write elsewhere). But incarceration and its related trauma have profoundly shaped our community and our culture.
Last week, my grandfather turned 92. He still can remember the names of all the people he knew at Amache. He remembers what cell block they lived in, what hometowns they left behind. It happened eighty years ago, and it still affects him — and us, his children and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren — to this day. The racist actions our government is taking today — the border camps, the mass incarceration, the police brutality — are going to reverberate in communities of color for decades to come.
During World War II, over 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated because of the American government’s racist, unfounded fears.
President Roosevelt signed this executive order despite Congress finding no evidence to support it.
No Japanese American was ever found guilty of espionage or any war crime.
After a long battle, Japanese American camp survivors received monetary reparations—yet our government still refuses to discuss reparations for slavery or for Indigenous people.