Japanese Internment

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Japanese Americans had experienced discrimination and prejudice for decades, but nothing could have prepared them for the scale and intensity of the anti-Japanese feelings that swept the Pacific states following the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941.

The first substantial immigration to the United States from an Asian country was from China, starting soon after the California Gold Rush. The government of Japan, however, even after Admiral Perry opened Japan to foreign trade, maintained severe restrictions on the ability of its citizens to emigrate until 1868. By that time, anti-Chinese sentiment had developed and after Japanese were initially welcomed as an alternative. Japanese immigration increased after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

As the numbers of Japanese grew, anti-Chinese sentiment was gradually replaced by anti-Japanese. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the San Francisco school board took the opportunity created by the destruction of many schools to require Japanese students to attend segregated classes. This created much hostile comment in the Japanese press. President Roosevelt wanted the policy reversed, but the school board refused and pressure for a federal ban on Japanese immigration, comparable to the Chinese Exclusion Act, grew on the West Coast.

The Japanese government did not want either the continued humiliation of seeing its people segregated in education or to have its nation publicly banned from immigrating. A compromise was reached in the Gentlemen`s Agreement of 1907, through which the Japanese government made action by the American government unnecessary by denying passports to workers who might want to move to the United States. At the same time, school segregation in San Francisco was ended.

This situation remained until the Immigration Act of 1924. The first naturalization act in 1790 had excluded Japanese from naturalization by inference, since it was then limited to free whites. The act of 1870 made the exclusion explicit, creating the situation where, in combination with the Fourteenth Amendment, American law permanently denied citizenship to Japanese immigrants on account of their place of birth, but extended it automatically to their children for the same reason.

The 1924 act went further, and banned immigration by persons who were ineligible for citizenship. This included anyone from Japan and was a unilateral abrogation of the Gentlemen`s Agreement, which worsened America`s relations with that country.

The importance of this in 1941 was that legal immigration from Japan had been ended substantially in 1907 and entirely in 1924, so that there were virtually no Japanese aliens on the West Coast who had not spent three decades in the country. Had they come from Germany or Italy, countries with which the United States was also at war, they would have long since had the opportunity to become citizens, but since 1870, this pathway had been closed.

It is normal, after a declaration of war, for a country to adopt preventive policies towards enemy aliens who might have been within its borders at that time. What was not normal in 1941 was the number of Japanese on the West Coast who were artificially kept in this category. This did not stop the government from immediately including them in its policies of surveillance and registration. At the same time, anti-Japanese sentiments began pushing for action against all those of Japanese ancestry.

Initially opposed to extending the scope beyond actual aliens, General De, who commanded the Presidio of San Francisco and had overall military authority within the West Coast area, requested in February 1942 expanded authority. Roosevelt authorized this with Executive Order 9906 on February 19. Under its terms, DeWitt quickly imposed first curfews and then additional restrictions, culminating in an order on May 2, 1942, that everyone with Japanese ancestry living with 100 miles of the Pacific Coast should report for transportation to detention centers. Forced to leave most of their possessions behind, the evacuees were obliged to sell their homes, farms, and businesses, often at depressed prices.

Japanese read evacuation orders

The argument was military necessity, due to the danger that this population posed in terms of potential espionage and sabotage. Hardly any examples had surfaced at the time. Remarkably, this very absence of hostile activity was presented as proof that they were plotting something for later. The evidence, repeated by General DeWitt in his final report on the successful operation, are extremely weak. It included: