Seventy-five years ago, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans on the West Coast of the U.S. all shared a concern about possible further Japanese attacks there. The military command began to take measures to secure strategic military facilities, harbors and bases as civilians continued to live their daily lives with perhaps a sharpened sense of potential peril. After all, they were in closest geographical proximity to the Japanese enemy.
Among these West Coast residents were several hundred thousand residents of Japanese descent. Some were fishermen, others farmers and still others owners of a variety of businesses up and down the coast. For them, life in the winter of 1942 continued as for other Americans: busy but with a wary ear to news of possible Japanese military activity.
For some Japanese Americans, war news came from a different direction. One young boy, now in his eighties, recalls that one day, with no warning, armed FBI agents showed up at his home to take his father away without any explanation. They did not tell the family where or why they were taking him. He was the family’s bread-winner. This happened to numerous other families whose fathers were deemed to be “potential threats” because they served as leaders in their communities.
In late February and onward through the spring, Japanese American families received notices and saw posters announcing that they would be sent away from the coast to undesignated “secure areas.” Later they received specific times by which they had to be ready to leave their homes taking only what they could carry. Each family was given tags with their family Identification number to attach to their persons and their bags. Imagine how hard it would be to store or get rid of your possessions, your house, your business in just a few weeks’ time. And how to decide what to take when you don’t know where you are going or for how long.
During the spring of 1942, under the authorization of Executive Order 9066, signed by
President Franklin Roosevelt, and the War Relocation Authority, more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent, some 80,000 of whom were natural born US citizens, were herded first into relocation centers, such as the stables at Santa Anita Racetrack, and then on to one of the ten incarceration centers mostly located in the most desolate parts of the western United States. This happened without any due process of or evidence of disloyalty to the U.S. In the camps they were expected to put their lives together under armed military supervision for they knew not how long. Conditions in the camps were generally harsh. When the prisoners arrived, the camps were not yet completed and they had to help finish building the tar paper barracks where they were to live. There was little privacy: walls were thin and the communal bathroom buildings had no stall partitions. Meals, which by overwhelming opinion were awful (think spam and cold potatoes), were served in mess halls. The authorities had not thought what to do with them except to imprison them in camps. They had to create their own schools for the children and create their own activities such as gardening, baseball teams and making art from scraps and found objects.
After the war, investigations by government committees found that no Japanese Americans had offered aid to the enemy or committed any crimes. Many of those of military age joined the armed forces fighting in Europe in the 442nd, one of the most decorated units in the Army. Others were instrumental in the Military Intelligence Service serving as battlefield interpreters and translators.
Learn more about this part of U.S. history at the Library. Mark your calendars now for Wednesday, May 17 at 7 p.m. at the Main Library in Burlington when Gordon Yoshikawa talks about his experience living in a Japanese internment camp as a young child.
There is a large body of literature, non-fiction and fiction, that recounts the experiences of Japanese Americans during the time of their incarceration by the U.S. Government. Below are some of these books that can be checked out at Boone County Public Library.
Children and Teen Books:
- Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee (illustrator)
- Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say
- Uprooted by Albert Marrin
- Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston
- Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban
- The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
- Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese American Family Caught between Two Worlds by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto
- The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946 by Delphine Hirasuna
- Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II by Richard Cahan
- Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience by Lawson Fusao Inada
- Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II by Richard Reeves
Written by Betsy Sato
Betsy Sato is retired from teaching Japanese and Chinese history and being an administrator at what is now UC International at the University of Cincinnati. Currently she serves as Governor of the Midwest District of the Japanese American Citizens League. She lives in Union and practices tai chi.