Compounding a long history of discrimination against Japanese immigrants to the US, Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor cast suspicion on America’s Japanese citizens and residents. By early 1942, fear of Japanese American collusion in Japan’s war effort prompted the US government to suspend the rights of its Japanese American citizens and relocate them to concentration camps. This decision, delivered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Executive Order 9066, aimed to remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast “exclusion area” where they had access to established channels of communication with Japan.
In all, the US War Relocation Authority evacuated more than 110,000 Japanese Americans from their homes and transplanted them, first to regional assembly centers, and then to ten relocation centers in remote outposts in the US interior. Of these 110,000, about two-thirds were American-born Nisei (second generation) and Sansei (third generation) and the rest Japanese-born Issei. In the camps, Japanese Americans lived in hastily-constructed barracks in extreme conditions, and struggled to overcome the stresses of internment and dislocation. Despite the suddenness and completeness of their removal from regular life, Japanese Americans resisted isolation by continuing to pursue education, religious worship, and family and community engagement in the camps. The US government subjected internees to loyalty questionnaires and offers to repatriate them to Japan in an effort to identify and contain subversive, disloyal Japanese Americans. Simultaneously, it recruited Nisei to enlist in the US Armed Forces.
By the end of 1944, two cases before the US Supreme Court had attempted to challenge the constitutionality of internment. Although the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of evacuation in wartime, they ruled the incarceration of Japanese Americans unconstitutional. As a result of these decisions and the coming end of World War II, the US government began to release internees and close camps, shuttering nine of ten camps by the end of 1945. Japanese Americans returned to lives that had been taken from them—abandoned businesses, damaged and appropriated property, and stolen assets. This primary source set uses documents and photographs to tell the story of Japanese American internment during World War II.
Additional resources for research
- Prisoners at Home: Everyday Life in Japanese Internment Camps online exhibit, Digital Public Library of America.
- Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives, Calisphere.
- A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
- Alan Taylor, “World War II: Internment of Japanese Americans.” The Atlantic.