A DARK CHAPTER

One of Pearl Harbor’s most immediate aftereffects was the internment of Japanese Americans in the US

By Melissa Erickson / More Content Now

The internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor is a dark chapter in American history, but one that we can learn from as the country again struggles with religious and ethnic tensions.

“Remember and learn,” said George Takei, the actor best known as Mr. Sulu from the original “Star Trek” who spent four years as an internee with his family.

Earlier this year, politicians called for bans on Muslims or Syrians from entering the U.S., placing the security of the nation over the rights of individuals who are targeted simply because of the way they look, said historian Franklin Odo, founding director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Program and former acting chief of the Asian division at the Library of Congress. Citing the post-Pearl Harbor internment of American citizens, politicians said things like, “If we need to lock them up, we’ve done it before,” and “If the government did this in the past, it must have been a good idea,” Odo said.

“Politicians are particularly adept at gauging and exploiting the fears of the populace, and so it is in some ways no surprise that we are seeing the ugly specter of racial and religious profiling arise again,” Takei said. “There are striking similarities because, frankly, the same fears are as easily stoked today as in World War II. Human nature does not change so quickly. The important thing to understand today is not that these similarities exist, but rather that we as a people learn from our history. Our people’s democracy can do great things but, at the same time, fallible humans can make disastrous mistakes.”

Mess line at noon at the Manzanar Relocation Center, California, 1943.
“The philosopher George Santayana wrote, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ I don’t believe that history repeats itself, but there are discernible patterns that emerge over time. If we perceive and comprehend them, we have an opportunity to sidestep tragic and deplorable mistakes. Learning about a dark chapter of our nation’s past should not bring despair, but rather clarity and light.” – Pamela Rotner Sakamoto, author of “Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese American Family Caught Between Two Worlds,” the true story of a family that found itself on opposite sides during World War II

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Understanding how the United States worked itself into a panic that led to sequestering Japanese and Americans born to Japanese immigrants after the bombing of Pearl Harbor requires a long look back at America’s history of anti-Asian racism, Odo said. More than a century before World War II, Chinese people came to America to work in the gold fields and to build railroads. Welcomed as a source of labor, the country stopped short of letting them become citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first time in American history that an ethnic or racial group was restricted from immigrating in an effort to maintain the country’s white racial purity.

“That racism carried over to the Japanese,” the next group of Asians to make their way to America, Odo said. Asians were seen as “so foreign, so other, that they could not assimilate,” Odo said.

America needed cheap labor and the Japanese provided that, especially in the Hawaiian islands where they were recruited to work on the sugar plantations. By 1900, most of the workforce on the plantations was Japanese, Odo said.

By Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese accounted for close to 40 percent of the total population of the Hawaiian islands, Odo said. President Franklin D. Roosevelt is warmly remembered today, but “he was a racist,” Odo said. “We know from his writings. He had friends in Japan, and that was where he thought Japanese-Americans should go — back to Japan,” Odo said.

Before social media and television, our idea of what kind of people the Japanese were came from newspapers, magazines, the radio and dime novels where they were depicted as “evil and cruel,” Odo said.

“The press was flagrantly anti-Japanese and actively stirred up anti-Japanese sentiment by waving the threat of a Yellow Peril,” the sentiment that Asians were a physical and economic threat to the West, said Rotner Sakamoto.

As a nation, Japan had been building up as a military power in the Pacific. Japan defeated China in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895 and Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Odo said.

“When Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and the Sino-Japanese War erupted in 1937, anti-Japanese emotions flared further. Japanese aggression abroad was perceived as ominous at home. By the time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the soil had been tilled for an extreme reaction towards ethnic Japanese in the United States,” said Rotner Sakamoto.

“Before World War II there was more than 40 years of thinking Japan is rising in power. The Japanese were seen as inferior but the country could be a possible military rival in the Pacific. The thought was that Japan could never launch a successful attack on America,” Odo said.

Needless to say, the surprise military strike that devastated the naval base at Pearl Harbor changed people’s minds.

“The Pearl Harbor attack was successful, and it was a big shock and a major blow to America’s sense of security,” Odo said. The following day, the United States declared war on Japan and joined World War II.

About these photos: In 1943, Ansel Adams, America’s most well-known photographer, documented the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California and the Japanese-Americans interned there during World War II. When offering the collection to the Library of Congress in 1965, Adams said in a letter, “The purpose of my work was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and dispair [sic] by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment.... All in all, I think this Manzanar Collection is an important historical document, and I trust it can be put to good use.”

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“Since they couldn’t tell the good from the bad, who is loyal to America and who is loyal to Japan, they had to lock them all up.” – historian Franklin Odo

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It was hard, almost impossible, for people to believe Japan could have carried out the attack, Odo said.

“There must have been a ‘fifth column,’ Japanese immigrants who told the planes where to go, spies who created an unfair playing field,” he said.

This profound suspicion led to a hysteria, especially on the West Coast, and cries for the Japanese to be locked up. The stigma was stoked by inflammatory news stories, pressure groups and even the United States government, Odo said.

“After the fact, it became known that there were many nefarious forces urging internment of Japanese-Americans. Some were driven by political ambition — something that today holds particular currency,” Takei said.

Earl Warren, who would later become governor of California and chief justice of the Supreme Court, was then an up-and-coming politician and the attorney general of California. Warren “saw that the ‘lock up the Japanese’ movement was raging in California. He knew better but he decided to seize the leadership of this movement. He built his platform on anti-Japanese hysteria and made the statement that the fact that no acts of espionage or sabotage had been committed by Japanese Americans was ominous because the ‘Japanese are inscrutable.’ He said that it would be ‘prudent’ to lock up the Japanese before they did anything. We were damned either way,” Takei said. “I like to believe that, later in life, Chief Justice Warren regretted what he had done to all of us, and spent his tenure on the Supreme Court repenting for the sins of his early political career.”

People thought that Japanese immigrants and Americans born to Japanese immigrants (called “Nisei”) had aided the Japanese military and would do it again.

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“The internment camps around the country were all located in places no one else would ever choose to live: the wastelands of Wyoming, the searing deserts of Arizona and, where we’d been sent, the fetid swamplands of Arkansas. We went from a comfortable middle class home in Los Angeles to a single, tar-paper-lined barrack in Arkansas, with no running water and no privacy at all. We ate in a mess hall and were fed horrific fare, including things like cow brains, which no child in America was accustomed to eating.” – actor and activist George Takei

Standing on the step at the entrance of a dwelling are Louise Tami Nakamura, holding the hand of Mrs. Naguchi, and Joyce Yuki Nakamura.

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which called for the internment of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast with the exclusion of Hawaii.

“It’s baffling” that Japanese Americans living in Hawaii “where the attack happened and America was most vulnerable” were excluded, said Odo, who was 2 years old at the time and living in Honolulu. “If I had lived in California or Oregon, I would have had to go,” he said. Japanese Americans were such a large part of the workforce in Hawaii “it became impossible to lock them up,” Odo said.

“Order 9066 was posted on telephone poles with instructions to take only what you can carry and report when notified to a location to be taken away,” said Mary Murakami of Bethesda, Maryland, who was born in Los Angeles and was living with her family in San Francisco’s Japantown in 1942. Murakami spent her junior high and high school years interned.

While the Japanese were reporting to be interned, government-ordered curfews were set up.

“My father and sister could not go to work. My brother could not attend high school and myself no junior high school. My family sold everything,” Murakami said.

It was a time of great fear. There were rumors that children would be taken away from parents.

“My parents shared our family history with us and had a family picture taken just in case,” Murakami said.

The internment shared shocking similarities with what was happening all over Europe.

“The strongest memory I have is of the day armed soldiers marched up our driveway, carrying rifles with bayonets and pounded upon our door, ordering us out. I remember my mother’s tears as we were forced to leave our home, with only what we could carry with us,” Takei said. “My siblings and I were all Americans, born and raised in Los Angeles. My mother was born in Sacramento and my father was a San Franciscan, yet we were being sent from our home for the crime of looking like the people who had bombed Pearl Harbor.”

Things happened fast and “120,000 people are a lot to put away,” Odo said. The first temporary camps were set up in large open spaces such as fairgrounds, race tracks and stadiums.

“For weeks we had to live in a horse stable at the local racetrack while the camps were still under construction. My parents tried valiantly to shield us from the horror of what was happening, and for that they are my heroes,” Takei said. “I think often of my father, who felt the greatest anguish and pain of that imprisonment as the unspoken protector of our family. He felt so powerless to help what was happening to his family, to all he had worked so hard for throughout his life. It was truly a devastating blow.”

Murakami’s family reported to the Tanforan Race Track near San Francisco where a “lucky family had a room in temporary barracks in inner track, while others lived in horse stalls. There was no schooling for the children and the food was terrible,” she said.

Line crew at work in Manzanar.
When a permanent camp was ready in October 1942 her family was taken in old train cars with shades drawn to Topaz Permanent Camp in Topaz, Utah.

“We lived in black-tarred barracks surrounded by barbed wires and guard towers. It was a hard life for three years for everyone, especially our parents. Our family lost everything. There were very basic schools, food and accommodations,” Murakami said.

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Lawsuits were filed beginning in 1942 first against the race-based curfews and later against the internment, but the courts ruled that the denial of civil rights based on race and national origin were legal, Odo said.

Plaintiff Mitsuye Endo was chosen as “the perfect person” to challenge Executive Order 9066 because she was an Americanized, assimilated Nisei who spoke only English and no Japanese and had a brother in the United States Army, Odo said. On Dec. 18, 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government could not continue to detain a citizen who was “concededly loyal” to the United States. 

Japanese Americans could begin returning to the West Coast, but “they had nowhere to go. They had lost their homes, their farms. Many were terrified to leave the camps. They faced racial discrimination. They couldn’t find jobs,” Odo said.

“When the war ended, the gates of the camps were opened wide. Just like that. We were left impoverished. Each internee was handed nothing more than a one-way ticket to wherever in the U.S. they wanted to go and $25 — to rebuild a life with only that,” Takei said.

While Japan certainly had spies in the United States, “there was zero proof” that any of the people interned had committed treason, Odo said. Not a single act of espionage was ever found to have been committed.

“Yes, internment was politically motivated, definitely. There were no spies among us. Seventy-five percent of us were born in the United States,” Murakami said.

After a long campaign, in 1988 President Ronald Reagan offered an official apology and $20,000 in redress to the internees who were still living. “But by then many who had suffered the most had already passed away,” Takei said.

“About half of them, 60,000 were still alive,” Odo said.

“So much time had passed. The money did not help us because we were established middle class so we donated the bulk of it to the start of the Japanese American Memorial in Washington D.C. to Patriotism, which is located a few blocks from the Capitol. The letter was uplifting to know that only in a democracy can we receive that letter,” Murakami said.


Two color guards and color bearers of the Japanese-American 442nd Combat team stand at attention while their citations are read somewhere in France during World War II on Nov. 12, 1944 . They are standing on the ground where many of their comrades fell. (AP Photo/U.S. Army Signal Corps)

The 442nd: Fighting for their freedom

By Melissa Erickson / More Content Now

While many of their families were interned during World War II, thousands of Japanese-American men proved their loyalty to the United States by serving in combat, most famously as part of the 442nd Regiment of the U.S. Army. The 442nd is the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare.

As part of the 442nd, “the 100th Infantry Battalion was a segregated Nisei (Americans born of Japanese immigrant parents) unit which preceded the 442nd to the Italian front,” said Terry Shima of Gaithersburg, Maryland. Born in Hawaii, Shima was drafted into the U.S. Army on Oct. 12, 1944, as a replacement for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He arrived in Italy on VE Day, May 8, 1945, and joined the 442nd at the Garda Airport in northern Italy assigned to its public relations office.

“What people should know about the 442nd and the men who served in the Military Intelligence Service is that they served to help win the war and to prove their loyalty — the only ethnic group that fought in World War II for this reason,” Shima said. “Many of these men volunteered while they were confined to internment camps.”

From aliens to heroes

About 14,000 men served in the 442nd unit and its 100th battalion, earning 9,486 Purple Hearts and 21 Medals of Honor. The Nisei unit fought in Italy, France and Germany. Their motto was “Go For Broke,” which is Hawaiian Pidgin English and means “risk your total holdings, throw in your total resources, total commitment in one roll of the dice,” Shima said. “The Nisei had something to prove, their loyalty. They were willing to risk everything, their lives, to achieve their goal.

“When World War II broke out, the draft classification of Japanese Americans was changed from 1-A (eligible for military duty) to 4-C (alien, unfit for military duty). We were offended and insulted that our government viewed us as alien, which was tantamount to being disowned by our government. We were taught that defending your nation in time of war is the responsibility of every citizen. Nisei, individually and in groups, petitioned the government to allow them to serve in combat to prove their loyalty,” said Shima, whose brother served in the 100 Battalion.

In response to these petitions and for other reasons, Washington waived the ban on enlistments and issued the call for volunteers for the 442nd unit.

“When the 442nd completed training and arrived in Italy in June 1944, the 100th had been there for nine months fighting up the boot of Italy. The 100th sustained such huge casualties that the press labeled them the ‘Purple Heart Battalion.’ The 100th merged into the 442nd becoming, in effect, the 1st Battalion of the 442nd. They were allowed to keep the 100th unit designation in recognition of their combat performance,” Shima said.

Creating leaders

The late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye is perhaps the most well-known of the 442nd and was a WWII Medal of Honor recipient. Inouye served from 2010 to 2012 as president pro tempore of the Senate, a position that put him third in line for the presidency. “Only 70 years ago this same Nisei was assigned draft classification 4-C, alien, unfit for military duty,” Shima said.

The effect of the Nisei performance in World War II was significant for future generations of Americans, Shima said: “I believe the combat performance record of the 442nd and the combat performance record of the Tuskegee Airmen, to whom Truman used almost the same words (you fought the enemy abroad and prejudice at home) helped create the climate for post-World War II reforms beginning with the desegregation of the armed forces. These reforms leveled the playing field for minorities to compete for any job and rank.”


Pictures, letters and mementoes on top of a phonograph in the Yonemitsu home, Manzanar Relocation Center. While many of their families were interned during World War II, thousands of Japanese-American men proved their loyalty to the United States by serving in combat.

Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service

Much less celebrated than the Japanese- American combat soldiers of the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, those who served in the Military Intelligence Service were no less critical to winning the war.

In November 1941 as the potential for armed conflict grew between Japan and the United States, the U.S. Army recruited a select group of thousands of Japanese Americans who could speak the language of the enemy, said historian Franklin Odo, founding director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Program and former acting chief of the Asian division at the Library of Congress. They were trained at the Presidio in San Francisco and in camps in Minnesota.

During the war against Japan, soldier-linguists of the Military Intelligence Service served in every battle and campaign. They were able to translate captured documents to show troop movements, monitor enemy transmissions and interrogate prisoners of war, Odo said. They also served as cultural ambassadors who were able to convince Japanese troops to surrender or give up prisoners of war, he said.

“They were really valuable because the Japanese didn’t encode their messages, believing that Americans couldn’t figure out the complex Japanese language,” Odo said.

During the war their work was a closely guarded secret and continued to be classified for decades afterward, keeping them out of history’s spotlight, Odo said.

Their job was extremely dangerous, often serving on the front lines where they needed to avoid friendly fire by Americans who had trouble distinguishing them from Japanese troops. If captured by Japanese troops they faced execution as traitors.

One of their greatest contributions was decoding the intelligence that led to the death of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the strategist and architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Odo said. After code breakers identified his flight plans, American Army fliers were able to shoot his plane out of the sky in April 1943. After Yamamoto’s death, the Japanese never won another naval battle.

By September 1945, they had translated 18,000 captured enemy documents, printed 16,000 propaganda leaflets and interrogated more than 10,000 Japanese prisoners of war.

After the war, Military Intelligence Service members played crucial roles in the occupation of Japan and as interpreters in war crimes trials.

– By Melissa Erickson