A Brief History of Japanese American Relocation During World War II


Calisthenics at Manzanar
exercising at Manzanar



Excerpts from Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites by J. Burton, M. Farrell, F. Lord, and R. Lord

On December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II when Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. At that time, nearly 113,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them American citizens, were living in California, Washington, and Oregon. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066 empowering the U.S. Army to designate areas from which "any or all persons may be excluded." No person of Japanese ancestry living in the United States was ever convicted of any serious act of espionage or sabotage during the war. Yet these innocent people were removed from their homes and placed in relocation centers, many for the duration of the war. In contrast, between 1942 and 1944, 18 Caucasians were tried for spying for Japan; at least ten were convicted in court.

To understand why the United States government decided to remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast in the largest single forced relocation in U.S. history, one must consider many factors. Prejudice, wartime hysteria, and politics all contributed to this decision.

West Coast Anti-Asian Prejudice

Anti-Asian prejudices, especially in California, began as anti-Chinese feelings. The cultural and economic forces that led to the anti-Japanese feelings are discussed in detail by Daniels, and summarized here. Chinese immigration to the U.S. began about the same time as the California gold rush of 1849. During the initial phases of the economic boom that accompanied the gold rush, Chinese labor was needed and welcomed. However, soon white workingmen began to consider the Chinese, who in 1870 comprised about 10 percent of California's population, as competitors. This economic competition increased after the completion of the trans-continental Union-Central Pacific Railroad in 1869, which had employed around 10,000 Chinese laborers. Chinese labor was cheap labor, and this economic grievance became an ideology of Asian inferiority similar to existing American racial prejudices. Discrimination became legislated at both the state and federal level, including a Chinese immigration exclusion bill passed in 1882 by the U.S. Congress.

The experiences of Chinese immigrants foreshadowed those of Japanese immigrants, who began arriving about the same time the Chinese exclusion bill was passed. Japanese immigrants were called Issei, from the combination of the Japanese words for "one" and "generation;" their children, the American-born second generation, are Nisei, and the third generation are Sansei. Nisei and Sansei who were educated in Japan are called Kibei. The Issei mostly came from the Japanese countryside, and they generally arrived, either in Hawaii or the mainland West Coast, with very little money. Approximately half became farmers, while others went to the coastal urban centers and worked in small commercial establishments, usually for themselves or for other Issei.

Anti-Japanese movements began shortly after Japanese immigration began, arising from existing anti-Asian prejudices. However, the anti-Japanese movement became widespread around 1905, due both to increasing immigration and the Japanese victory over Russia, the first defeat of a western nation by an Asian nation in modern times. Both the Issei and Japan began to be perceived as threats. Discrimination included the formation of anti-Japanese organizations, such as the Asiatic Exclusion League, attempts at school segregation (which eventually affected Nisei under the doctrine of "separate but equal"), and a growing number of violent attacks upon individuals and businesses.

The Japanese government subsequently protested this treatment of its citizens. To maintain the Japanese-American friendship President Theodore Roosevelt attempted to negotiate a compromise, convincing the San Francisco school board to revoke the segregationist order, restraining the California Legislature from passing more anti-Japanese legislation and working out what was known as the "Gentlemen's Agreement" with the Japanese government. In this, the Japanese government agreed to limit emigration to the continental United States to laborers who had already been to the United States before and to the parents, wives, and children of laborers already there.

In 1913, California passed the Alien Land Law which prohibited the ownership of agricultural land by "aliens ineligible to citizenship." In 1920, a stronger Alien Land Act prohibited leasing and sharecropping as well. Both laws were based on the presumption that Asians were aliens ineligible for citizenship, which in turn stemmed from a narrow interpretation of the naturalization statute. The statute had been rewritten after the Fourteenth Amendment to the constitution to permit naturalization of "white persons" and "aliens of African descent." This exclusionism, clearly the intent of Congress, was legitimized by the Supreme Court in 1921, when Takao Ozawa was denied citizenship. However, the Nisei were citizens by birth, and therefore parents would often transfer title to their children. The Immigration Act of 1924 prohibited all further Japanese immigration, with the side effect of making a very distinct generation gap between the Issei and Nisei.

Many of the anti-Japanese fears arose from economic factors combined with envy, since many of the Issei farmers had become very successful at raising fruits and vegetables in soil that most people had considered infertile. Other fears were military in nature; the Russo-Japanese War proved that the Japanese were a force to be reckoned with, and stimulated fears of Asian conquest — "the Yellow Peril." These factors, plus the perception of "otherness" and "Asian inscrutability" that typified American racial stereotypes, greatly influenced the events following Pearl Harbor.

In the Aftermath of Pearl Harbor

Beginning December 7, the Justice Department organized the arrests of 3,000 people whom it considered "dangerous" enemy aliens, half of whom were Japanese. Of the Japanese, those arrested included community leaders who were involved in Japanese organizations and religious groups. Evidence of actual subversive activities was not a prerequisite for arrest. At the same time, the bank accounts of all enemy aliens and all accounts in American branches of Japanese banks were frozen. These two actions paralyzed the Japanese American community by depriving it of both its leadership and financial assets.

In late January 1942 many of the Japanese arrested by the Justice Department were transferred to internment camps in Montana, New Mexico, and North Dakota. Often their families had no idea of their whereabouts for weeks. Some internees were reunited with their families later in relocation centers. However, many remained in Justice camps for the duration of the war.

After Pearl Harbor, the shock of a sneak attack on American soil caused widespread hysteria and paranoia. It certainly did not help matters when Frank Knox, Roosevelt's Secretary of the Navy, blamed Pearl Harbor on "the most effective fifth column work that's come out of this war, except in Norway." Knox apparently already realized that the local military's lack of preparedness far overshadowed any espionage in the success of the attack but did not want the country to lose faith in the Navy. This scapegoating opened the door to sensationalistic newspaper headlines about sabotage, fifth column activities, and imminent invasion. Such stories had no factual basis, but fed the growing suspicions about Japanese Americans (J.A.C.P. 1973). In fact, as far as Japanese attacks on the mainland were concerned, the military had already concluded that Japanese hit-and-run raids were possible, but that any large-scale invasion was beyond the capacity of the Japanese military, as was any invasion of Japan by the U.S. military.

"Military Necessity"

After the attack on Pearl Harbor martial law was declared in Hawaii and all civilians were subject to travel, security, and curfew restrictions imposed by the military. Japanese fishing boats were impounded and individuals considered potentially dangerous were arrested .

Politicians called for the mass incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii. But the military resisted: one-third of the Hawaiian population was of Japanese ancestry and the military didn't have enough soldiers to guard them or enough ships to send them to the mainland. More importantly, their labor was crucial to the civilian and military economy of the islands. In the end fewer than 1,500 (out of a population of 150,000) were confined and eventually removed to the mainland.

One of the key players in the confusion following Pearl Harbor was Lt. General John L. DeWitt, the commander of the Western Defense Command and the U.S. 4th Army. DeWitt had a history of prejudice against non-Caucasian Americans, even those already in the Army, and he was easily swayed by any rumor of sabotage or imminent Japanese invasion.

DeWitt was convinced that if he could control all civilian activity on the West Coast, he could prevent another Pearl Harbor-type disaster. J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI ridiculed the "hysteria and lack of judgment" of DeWitt's Military Intelligence Division, citing such incidents as the supposed powerline sabotage actually caused by cattle.

Nevertheless, in his Final Report (1943), DeWitt cites other reasons for the "military necessity" of evacuation, such as supposed signal lights and unidentified radio transmissions, none of which was ever verified. He also insisted on seizing weapons, ammunition, radios, and cameras without warrants. He called these "hidden caches of contraband," even though most of the weapons seized were from two legitimate sporting goods stores.

Initially, DeWitt did not embrace the broad-scale removal of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast. On December 19, 1941, General DeWitt recommended "that action be initiated at the earliest practicable date to collect all alien subjects fourteen years of age and over, of enemy nations and remove them" to the interior of the country and hold them "under restraint after removal". On December 26, he told Provost Marshall General Allen W. Gullion that "I'm very doubtful that it would be commonsense procedure to try and intern 117,000 Japanese in this theater ... An American citizen, after all, is an American citizen. And while they all may not be loyal, I think we can weed the disloyal out of the loyal and lock them up if necessary".

With encouragement from Colonel Karl Bendetson, the head of the Provost Marshall's Aliens Division, on January 21, DeWitt recommended to Secretary of War Henry Stimson the establishment of small "prohibited zones" around strategic areas from which enemy aliens and their native-born children would be removed, as well as some larger "restricted zones" where they would be kept under close surveillance. Stimson and Attorney General Francis Biddle agreed, although Biddle was determined not to do anything to violate Japanese Americans' constitutional rights.

However, on February 9, DeWitt asked for much larger prohibited zones in Washington and Oregon which included the entire cities of Portland, Seattle, and Tacoma. Biddle refused to go along, but President Roosevelt, convinced of the military necessity, agreed to bypass the Justice Department. Roosevelt gave the army "carte blanche" to do what they wanted, with the caveat to be as reasonable as possible.

Two days later, DeWitt submitted his final recommendations in which he called for the removal of all Japanese, native-born as well as alien, and "other subversive persons" from the entire area lying west of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains. DeWitt justified this broad-scale removal on "military necessity" stating "the Japanese race is an enemy race" and "the very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken" .

On February 17, Biddle made a last ditch effort to convince the President that evacuation was unnecessary. In addition, General Mark Clark of General Headquarters in Washington, D.C., was convinced that evacuation was counteractive to military necessity, as it would use far too many soldiers who could otherwise be fighting. He argued that "we will never have a perfect defense against sabotage except at the expense of other equally important efforts." Instead, he recommended protecting critical installations by using pass and permit systems and selective arrests as necessary.

Meanwhile, the Japanese American community, particularly the Nisei, were trying to establish their loyalty by becoming air raid wardens and joining the army (when they were allowed to). Since so many in the Issei leadership had been imprisoned during the initial arrests, the Nisei organizations, especially the JACL, gained influence in the Japanese American community. The JACL's policy of cooperation and appeasement was embraced by some Japanese Americans but vilified by others.

At first, there was no consistent treatment of Nisei who tried to enlist or who were drafted. Most Selective Service boards rejected them, classifying them as 4-F or 4-C (unsuitable for service because of race or ancestry), but they were accepted at others. The War Department prohibited further Nisei induction after March 31, 1942, "Except as may be specifically authorized in exceptional cases." The exceptions were bilingual Nisei and Kibei who served as language instructors and interpreters. All registrants of Japanese ancestry were officially classified as 4-C after September 14, 1942. 

While the military debated restrictions on Japanese Americans and limited their involvement in the war, public opinion on the West Coast was growing in support of confining all persons of Japanese ancestry. The anti-Japanese American sentiment in the media was typified by and editorial in the Los Angeles Times: "A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched — so a Japanese American, born of Japanese parents — grows up to be a Japanese, not an American".

Despite opposition by Biddle, the JACL, and General Mark Clark, on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the Secretary of War "to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. The Secretary of War is hereby authorized to provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary in the judgement of the Secretary of War or said Military Commander... ."

In mid-February Congressional committee hearings headed by California congressman John Tolan were held on the West Coast to assess the need for the evacuation of Japanese Americans. The overwhelming majority of the witnesses supported the removal of all Japanese, alien and citizen, from the coast. California Governor Culbert L. Olson and State Attorney General Earl Warren supported removal of all Japanese Americans from coastal areas, stating that it was impossible to tell which ones were loyal. As de factospokesmen for the Japanese community, JACL leaders argued against mass evacuation, but to prove their loyalty pledged their readiness to cooperate if it were deemed a military necessity.

Other events in California contributed to the tense atmosphere. On February 23 a Japanese submarine shelled the California coast. It caused no serious damage but raised fears of further enemy action along the U.S. coast. The following night the "Battle of Los Angeles" took place. In response to an unidentified radar echo, the military called for a blackout and fired over 1,400 anti-aircraft shells. Twenty Japanese Americans were arrested for supposedly signaling the invaders, but the radar echo turned out to be a loose weather balloon.

Even prior to the signing of Executive Order 9066, the U.S. Navy had begun the removal of Japanese Americans from near the Port of Los Angeles: on February 14, 1942, the Navy announced that all persons of Japanese ancestry had to leave Terminal Island by March 14. On February 24 the deadline was moved up to February 27. Practically all family heads (mostly fisherman) had already been arrested and removed by the FBI and the 500 families living there were allowed to move on their own anywhere they wanted. Most stayed in the Los Angeles area until they were again relocated by the U.S. Army.


Even after Executive Order 9066, no one was quite sure what was going to happen. Who would be "excluded," where would the "military areas" be, and where would people go after they had been "excluded"?

General DeWitt originally wanted to remove all Japanese, German, and Italian aliens. However, public opinion (with a few vocal dissenters) was in favor of relocating all Japanese Americans, citizen and alien alike, but opposed to any mass evacuation of German or Italian aliens, much less second generation Germans or Italians. Provost Marshall Gullion, who had always supported relocation of Japanese Americans, had only figured on males over the age of fourteen — about 46,000 from the West Coast a As the military negotiated possibilities, the Japanese American community continued to worry. Most followed the lead of the JACL and chose to cooperate with evacuation as a way to prove their loyalty. A few were vocally opposed to evacuation and later sought ways to prevent it, some with court cases that eventually reached the Supreme Court.

DeWitt issued several Public Proclamations about the evacuation, but these did little to clear up confusion; in fact, they created more. On March 2, Public Proclamation No. 1 divided Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona into two military areas, numbered 1 and 2. Military Area No. 1 was sub-divided into a "prohibited zone" along the coast and an adjacent "restricted zone." Ninety-eight smaller areas were also labeled prohibited, presumably strategic military sites. The announcement was aimed at "Japanese, German or Italian" aliens and "any person of Japanese ancestry," but it did not specifically order anyone to leave. However, an accompanying press release predicted that all people of Japanese ancestry would eventually be excluded from Military Area No. 1, but probably not from Military Area No. 2.

At this time, the government had not made any plans to help people move, and since most Issei assets had been frozen at the beginning of the war, most families lacked the resources to move. However, several thousand Japanese Americans voluntarily did try to relocate themselves. Over 9,000 persons voluntarily moved out of Military Area No. 1: of these, over half moved into the California portion of Military Area No. 2, where Public Proclamation No. 1 said no restrictions or prohibitions were contemplated. Later, of course, they would be forcefully evacuated from Military Area No. 2. Somewhat luckier were the Japanese Americans who moved farther into the interior of the country: 1,963 moved to Colorado, 1,519 moved to Utah, 305 moved to Idaho, 208 moved to eastern Washington, 115 moved to eastern Oregon, 105 moved to northern Arizona, 83 moved to Wyoming, 72 moved to Illinois, 69 moved to Nebraska, and 366 moved to other states. But many who did attempt to leave the West Coast discovered that the inland states were unwilling to accept them. The perception inland was that California was dumping its "undesirables," and many refugees were turned back at state borders, had difficulty buying gasoline, or were greeted with "No Japs Wanted" signs.

On March 11 the Army-controlled Wartime Civilian Control Administration (WCCA) was established to organize and carry out the evacuation of Military Area No. 1. Public Proclamation No. 2, on March 16, designated four more military areas in the states of Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Utah, and 933 more prohibited areas. Although DeWitt pictured eventually removing all Japanese Americans from these areas, these plans never materialized.

Public Law No. 503, approved on March 21, 1942, made violating restrictions in a military area a misdemeanor, liable up to a $5,000 fine or a year in jail. Public Proclamation No. 3, effective March 27, instituted an 8:00 pm to 6:00 am curfew in Military Area No. 1 and listed prohibited areas for all enemy aliens and "persons of Japanese ancestry." Public Proclamation No. 3 also required that "at all other times all such persons shall only be at their place of residence or employment or traveling between those places or within a distance of not more than five miles from their place of residence."

Voluntary evacuation ended March 29, when Public Proclamation No. 4 forbade all Japanese from leaving Military Area No. 1 until ordered. Further instructions established reception centers as transitory evacuation facilities and forbade moves except to an approved location outside Military Area No. 1.

The first evacuation under the auspices of the Army began March 24 on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, and was repeated all along the West Coast. In all, 108 "Civilian Exclusion Orders" were issued, each designed to affect around 1,000 people. After initial notification, residents were given six days in which to dispose of nearly all their possessions, packing only "that which can be carried by the family or the individual" including bedding, toilet articles, clothing and eating utensils. The government was willing to store or ship some possessions "at the sole risk of the owner," but many did not trust that option. Most families sold their property and possessions for ridiculously small sums, while others trusted friends and neighbors to look after their properties.

By June 2, 1942, all Japanese in Military Area No. 1, except for a few left behind in hospitals, were in army custody. The image of the Japanese Americans is that they passively accepted evacuation. There is a Japanese philosophy "shikataganai" — it can't be helped. So, indeed the vast majority of the Japanese Americans were resigned to following the orders that sent them into the assembly centers which for many was a way to prove their loyalty to the U.S.

But a few cases of active resistance to the evacuation occurred. Three weeks after he was supposed to evacuate, Kuji Kurokawa was found, too weak to move due to malnutrition, hiding in the basement of the home where he had been employed for 10 years. He decided that he would not register or be evacuated, "I am an American citizen," he explained. In another story, perhaps apocryphal, Hideo Murata, a U.S. Army World War I veteran, committed suicide at a local hotel rather than be evacuated.

Three Japanese-Americans challenged the government's actions in court. Minoru Yasui had volunteered for military service after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and was rejected because of his Japanese ancestry. An attorney, he deliberately violated the curfew law of his native Portland, Oregon, stating that citizens have the duty to challenge unconstitutional regulations. Gordon Hirabayashi, a student at the University of Washington, also deliberately violated the curfew for Japanese Americans and disregarded the evacuation orders, claiming that the government was violating the 5th amendment by restricting the freedom of innocent Japanese Americans. Fred Korematsu changed his name, altered his facial features, and went into hiding. He was later arrested for remaining in a restricted area. In court, Korematsu claimed the government could not imprison a group of people based solely on ancestry. All three lost their cases. Yasui spent several months in jail and was then sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center, Hirabayashi spent time in jail and several months at a Federal prison in Arizona, and Korematsu was sent to the Topaz Relocation Center.

According to one author, the only act of "sabotage" by a Japanese American was a product of the relocation process. When told to leave his home and go to an assembly center, one farmer asked for an extension to harvest his strawberry crop. His request was denied, so he plowed under the strawberry field. He was then arrested for sabotage, on the grounds that strawberries were a necessary commodity for the war effort. No one was allowed to delay evacuation in order to harvest their crops and subsequently Californians were faced with shortages of fruits and vegetables. Japanese Americans grew 95 percent of the state's strawberries and one-third of the state's truck crops.

Even though the justification for the evacuation was to thwart espionage and sabotage, newborn babies, young children, the elderly, the infirm, children from orphanages, and even children adopted by Caucasian parents were not exempt from removal. Anyone with 1/16th or more Japanese blood was included. In all, over 17,000 children under 10 years old, 2,000 persons over 65 years old, and 1,000 handicapped or infirm persons were evacuated.

Last updated: March 20, 2023