Japanese Internment Camps During Wwii Essay Contests

Activity: Working in small groups, students should read one or more of these New York Times articles from the time period. Their goal? To figure out what they can find in 1940s news coverage that explains why the American government forced people from their homes into internment camps simply because of their ethnicity, and why the rest of the country let it happen.

Students should look for the following:

• explicit or implied reasons given within the articles to justify the roundups
• clues within the writing itself (such as the words used to describe Japanese-Americans, language that reveals bias or an outdated perspective, or sensationalism) that provide insight about contemporary attitudes
• the type of sources for the article (for example, does the article rely exclusively on government sources? Does it include any Japanese-American voices?)

Here’s one example to share with the class:

Headline: “West Coast Widens Martial Law Call” (PDF)
Date: Feb. 12, 1942
Newspaper: The New York Times
Explicit reason provided in the article: Raids on Japanese communities yielded large quantities of contraband that “fifth columnists” might find useful.
Clues within the writing: The subheadline is startling: “FBI Raids Net 38 Japanese, Guns, Radios, Ammunition and Signal Devices.” It suggests that the Japanese-Americans involved might indeed be guilty of planning an act of treachery. But information at the end of the article explains that the contraband items were seized from a sporting goods store “operated by an alien Japanese.” In this way, even ordinary activities and businesses can appear threatening if they are said to involve Japanese-Americans.
Sourcing: Only government sources (including the Los Angeles mayor, the California attorney general and an Army lieutenant general) were provided.

Other Times articles:

Dec. 8, 1941: “Japanese Seizure Ordered by Biddle”
Dec. 8, 1941: “West Coast Acts for War Defense”
Jan. 4, 1942: “Only 2,971 Enemy Aliens Are Held; Rest of the 1,100,000 Being Watched Here Are Unmolested”
Jan. 29, 1942: “West Coast Moves to Oust Japanese / Los Angeles ‘Permits’ Nipponese on City Payroll to Take Leaves of Absence”
Feb. 5, 1942: “California Aliens Face Changed Way / Great Areas of the State to Be Affected by Restrictions or Forced Removals”
Feb. 3, 1942: “Japanese Seized in Raid on Coast / Federal Agents Arrest 200 or More Aliens in Swoop on Island at Los Angeles”
Feb. 17, 1942: “Air Bombs Seized in 25 Coast Raids / Japanese Uniforms and Secret Papers Also Taken, 12 Arrests in Sacramento Area”
Dec. 5, 1943: “Four Japanese Held by FBI in Chicago / Three Had Been Decorated by Tokyo for Activities Here”

Students can also compare reporting in The Times with accounts and editorials in newspapers on the West Coast, where most Japanese-Americans lived and anti-Japanese hysteria was particularly acute. Is there a noticeable difference in tone? Explain.

West Coast newspapers:

Articles in The San Francisco News (scroll down to find dozens of articles from the spring of 1942)
Excerpts from Los Angeles Times editorials (contained within a recent editorial)

Primary Sources: Photographs

Background: Dorothea Lange, a photographer best known from her photographs of migrant farmers during the Great Depression, also documented the internment of Japanese-Americans.

Maurice Berger wrote in Lens:

At first glance, Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Japanese-Americans, taken in the early 1940s, appear to show ordinary activities. People wait patiently in lines. Children play. A woman makes artificial flowers. Storefront signs proudly proclaim, “I am an American.”

But these quiet images document something sinister: the racially motivated relocation and internment during World War II of more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry who lived on the West Coast, more than 60 percent of whom were American citizens.

Activity: Look at images taken by Ms. Lange in this slide show (at the top of this page) as well as these photos. What do they reveal about the forced evacuation and internment of Japanese-Americans and about life in the camps?

Then imagine you are a museum curator with room for only five images to tell the story of internment. Which five images would you choose from the slide show? For each image, explain why.

Primary Sources: First-Person Video Interviews

Background: Bob Fuchigami was sent to the Amache internment camp in Colorado with 10 family members when he was 12 years old. In this video, he returns to the camp at 85 to tell the story of his imprisonment.

And, in another video, Hiroshi Kashiwagi shares his memories of life at the Tule Lake internment camp.

Activity: While students watch one or both of these videos, invite them to consider the following: What can you learn about what internment was like for these people and their families? How did it affect their lives? What is the legacy of internment for them, and the nation, today?

Op-Eds That Connect the Past to the Present

Background: The actor George Takei, who was 5 years old when he and his family began their internment at Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center in Arkansas, cautions America in his Op-Ed “Internment, America’s Great Mistake” to protect American values from “cynically manufactured fear and the deliberate targeting of a vulnerable minority.” He writes:

It has been the lifelong mission of many to ensure we remember the internment. Our oft-repeated plea is simple: We must understand and honor the past in order to learn from and not repeat it. But in the 75 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the internment of Japanese-Americans, never have we been more anxious that this mission might fail.

It is imperative, in today’s toxic political environment, to acknowledge a hard truth: The horror of the internment lay in the racial animus the government itself propagated. It whipped up hatred and fear toward an entire group of people based solely on our ancestry.

And Karen Korematsu, whose father’s struggle against internment ended up being litigated before the Supreme Court, writes in her February 2017 Op-Ed, “When Lies Overruled Rights,” that Americans should “come together to reject discrimination based on religion, race or national origin, and to oppose the mass deportation of people who look or pray differently from the majority of Americans.”

Activity: Read these Opinion pieces and consider the arguments being made. Then, write your own Op-Ed using the history of Japanese internment to argue a position on an important issue today. Do you see any echoes of history in today’s current events?

Ideas for Further Research

Research life at the camps using 1940s reporting

Background: Newspaper reporting from the 1940s can provide a window into what life was like at internment camps. Anne O’Hare McCormick, a Times reporter, visited the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona. She wrote in a January 1944 article (PDF):

Most of all the settlement looks like an oasis in an endless desert of sand, sage, mesquite and giant cacti. Around the double cluster of barracks that serve as houses, schools, workshops, mess halls, cooperative stores, offices and hospitals are nearly 17,000 acres of vegetable gardens, wheat, alfalfa and rice fields and pasture lands startlingly neat and green in a framework of shallow irrigation ditches.

And a March 1943 Times article reported on white women performing “spartan” duty (PDF), working as teachers, nurses and secretaries at Tule Lake. But The Times did not publish many articles detailing what life was like in the camps.

Providing valuable perspective, by including voices often left out of the history books, are the newspapers published by Japanese-Americans imprisoned in the camps, such as The Heart Mountain Sentinel, The Tulean Dispatch from Tule Lake, The Denson Tribune of the Jerome camp in Arkansas, The Minidoka Irrigator from the Minidoka camp in Idaho and The Manzanar Free Press produced at Manzanar. (After opening each link, scroll down to view the headlines.)

Activity: Compare the reporting in The Times and other mainstream newspapers from 1942 to 1945 with the articles in papers published by Japanese internees. Think about how these on-the-scene reports add to an understanding about life in the internment camps. Consider these questions:

1. What can we learn from reading about life at the camps in newspaper articles published from 1942 to 1945?
2. What are the ways the news stories in the camp newspapers, published by Japanese internees, differ from reporting in The Times and other mainstream newspapers?
3. How can we evaluate the reliability of these various accounts?

Japanese-American soldiers

Background: While thousands were sent to internment camps, American-born Japanese were eventually deemed eligible to serve in World War II and thus prove their loyalty to the United States as well as provide needed troops for its war effort. The 442d Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit comprised only of Japanese-Americans troops, became one of the most highly decorated regiments in U.S. military history, as the Times reported:

The 442d suffered huge casualties; Capt. Daniel K. Inouye, now a United States senator from Hawaii, lost his right arm in battle. The team became famous for its rescue of the Texan “Lost Battalion,” saving more than 200 men who had been surrounded by German troops.

Yet after serving in the Army, many Japanese-American soldiers who returned to America faced discrimination. Senator Daniel Inouye, who died in 2012, recounted for a PBS documentary how after returning from battle in Europe and seeking a haircut while in uniform, he was told, “We don’t cut Jap hair.”

In 2000 President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to 22 Asian-Americans; 20 were Japanese-Americans. When George T. Sakato died in 2015, he was the last to die of seven Japan-Americans who had lived to receive this honor. In 2011 Congress granted several Japanese-American veterans Congressional Gold Medals.

Activity: Consider whether serving in the military would have been easy or hard to do when the rest of your family was kept in an internment camp. Then write a frank one-page letter home to your family as a Japanese-American soldier.

Legal challenges to the camps

Background: After Fred T. Korematsu in 1942 defied his military evacuation order, the American Civil Liberties Union branch in Northern California took up his case. But he lost his appeal and the Supreme Court ruled against him in 1944. Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui also separately defied their curfew orders and refused to report for internment, resulting in legal challenges that the Supreme Court rejected.

The 1942 legal challenge by Mitsuye Endo (PDF) that also landed in the Supreme Court is credited by some as leading to President Roosevelt’s 1944 suspension of Executive Order 9066, as a law professor detailed a 2016 Sacramento Bee opinion piece.

In 1981, after the historian Peter Irons requested legal documents from Fred Korematsu’s 1940s Supreme Court case, he found a memo indicating that “a government lawyer had accused the solicitor general of lying to the Supreme Court about the danger posed by Japanese-Americans.” Mr. Irons convinced Mr. Korematsu to challenge the ruling. Karen Korematsu, Mr. Korematsu’s daughter, later wrote in The Times:

Evidence was discovered proving that the wartime government suppressed, altered and destroyed material evidence while arguing my father’s, Yasui’s and Hirabayashi’s cases before the Supreme Court. The government’s claims that people of Japanese descent had engaged in espionage and that mass incarceration was necessary to protect the country were not only false, but had even been refuted by the government’s own agencies, including the Office of Naval Intelligence, the F.B.I. and the Federal Communications Commission.

In 1983 a judge overturned Mr. Korematsu’s conviction, “based on newly obtained information revealing that the government had knowingly exaggerated the threat of sabotage and espionage posed by ethnic Japanese on the West Coast.” And in 1998, President Clinton gave Mr. Korematsu the Medal of Freedom.

Activity: Choose any of these court cases related to Japanese internment to research further. What is the background of the case? What were the legal issues involved? What did the court decide? What is the significance of that decision?

Investigating the camps and reparations

Background: In the 1980s Congress initiated an investigation of the internment camps. The hearings of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, some 40 years after the war, produced a report in 1983, concluding that the relocation and internment of Japanese-American citizens and resident aliens in World War II amounted to a “grave injustice.” Five years later, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted reparations to Japanese-Americans who had been interned by the United States government during the war.

To locate potential recipients of the reparations, the Justice Department created the Office of Redress Administration; but the process of tracking down eligible people was laborious and time-consuming, and former internees were dying. In September 1989 the Senate tried to speed up the process, yet more wrangling resulted, with the checks not to be sent until funds were made available in late in 1990. By 1992, only 50,000 people had been paid.

Activity: Students should read about the conclusions of the 1983 report and discuss the following: What are the most striking points? Did Congress and the president make the right decision in issuing apologies and paying reparations?

Now imagine having President Roosevelt’s ear at a reception in 1942 for 10 minutes. What should he be told about the role that Japanese internment camps have played in American history?

Remembering the camps

Background: In 2006 Congress sent President George W. Bush legislation (which he signed) to preserve the internment camps. Two camps are now National Park Service sites: the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Minidoka Internment National Monument (created by President Clinton’s 2001 order).

Activity: Students can do this exercise on their own: Consider whether an internment camp would be the type of place you’d like to visit and list your reasons. Whatever your response, do research online about a camp and in your own words create a one-page summary of a tour that could be given there. Or create a museum gallery for the historic site.

Alternately, write an Op-Ed about whether more or less should be done to preserve these sites for the future.

Invoking the internment example

Background: It’s possible to find echoes of the Japanese internment controversy in national security debates at other moments of United States history since World War II. Even though the official government attitude toward Japanese internment gradually changed, not all Americans are in agreement. Explore the following recent incidents when political leaders and activists raised the Japanese internment experience as a chapter to repeat or to avoid:

1. The aftermath of 9/11: After the Sept. 11 attacks, Japanese-Americans voiced concern about bigotry against American Muslims and Sikhs. In 2004, an advisory panel criticized the Census Bureau’s move to give the Department of Homeland Security data that identified populations of Arab-Americans; critics compared the bureau’s 21st-century actions to its World War II activities locating Japanese-American communities. (A 2000 Times article highlighted research concluding that the Census Bureau, despite its denials, had indeed been highly involved in the roundup and internment of Japanese-Americans.)

In 2007 Holly Yasui filed a legal brief to aid Muslim immigrants who sought to overturn a Brooklyn judge’s ruling allowing for the detention of noncitizens; Ms. Yasui’s father, Minoru Yasui, had once challenged a Supreme Court ruling on World War II restrictions.

2. Refugees from Syria’s civil war: In November 2015, a Roanoke, Va., mayor caused a firestorm, explaining his opposition to welcoming Syrian refugees to the U.S., saying the internment of Japanese-Americans had been justified. Then he recanted. For some former Japanese internees, the debate over Syria’s refugees has evoked painful memories.

3. Restrictions on immigration by Muslims: On Dec. 9, 2015, The Times reported on an MSNBC interview of Donald J. Trump, then a presidential candidate:

Mr. Trump cited Roosevelt’s classification of thousands of Japanese, Germans and Italians living in the United States during the war as “enemy aliens.” He said he was not endorsing something as drastic as the camps where American citizens of Japanese descent were interned. Instead, he referred to three proclamations by which Roosevelt authorized government detention of immigrants, and which led to the internment of thousands of noncitizen Japanese, Germans and Italians.

A few days later Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s granddaughter roundly rejected Mr. Trump’s ideas, as did Representative Doris Matsui, who had been interned in a camp. A 16-year-old student wrote a contest-winning essay for The Learning Network connecting the internment of ethnic Japanese with excluding Muslims from immigrating to America.

Shortly after his election in November 2016, Mr. Trump reaffirmed his intention to restrict immigration by Muslims. A Trump supporter, Carl Higbie, evoked the “precedent” of the Japanese internment camps in citing the need to prevent homeland terrorism in a Fox News appearance.

Promptly following his inauguration, President Trump issued a series of executive orders to limit immigration or travel to the United States by people from seven countries with largely Muslim populations. Legal challenges followed, but in September Mr. Trump responded by imposing a more sweeping ban; a judge halted it in October. Earlier this week the Supreme Court permitted the travel ban to go forward even while legal challenges continue.

Activity: Students can select one of the above examples from the past two decades when political leaders or activists have invoked the legacy of the Japanese internment and determine the following: What are the relevant lessons from the Japanese internment experience that should inform this situation? Explain.

Additional Resources

Digital Public Library of America | Teaching Guide: Exploring Japanese American Internment During World War II and Japanese American Internment During World War II Primary Source Set

Densho | Teaching WWII Japanese American Incarceration With Primary Sources

Digital History | Explorations: Japanese-American Internment

FDR Presidential Library and Museum | Japanese American Internment

Continue reading the main story

Although World War II is covered in most school curricula, the story of American citizens who were stripped of their civil liberties here, on American soil, during that war is often omitted. Yet what happened to first-generation Japanese immigrants, or Issei, and second-generation Japanese Americans, or Nisei, during World War II, is critically important to understanding the intensity of feelings prompted by the attack on Pearl Harbor and to assessing the impact of that war on our nation.

The day after the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, the US government froze assets of the Issei, and the FBI began to follow community leaders with strong Japanese ties. As American citizens, Issei and Nisei had enjoyed the rights of any US citizen; now their own government imposed strict curfews on them and raided their homes for “contraband”—anything that showed special connection to their former homeland.

Within two months President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the War Relocation Authority to force 110,000 Japanese and their American-born children into relocation camps. Internees relinquished their communities, homes, and livelihoods for cramped barracks in isolated interior areas of Arizona, Utah, California, Wyoming, Arkansas, Idaho, and Colorado. Officially, the government declared that the forced relocation was necessary for Japanese Americans’ safety. Unofficially, however, these citizens had become the enemy—and America had to be protected from them. There was widespread agreement that the Issei and Nisei needed to be removed from the coast where collusion with the Japanese was easy and, it was believed, likely.

Some Japanese American families saw the writing on the wall and voluntarily left the West Coast before being forced to leave. Others tried to exist as normally as possible until they were given directives to pack up their lives and go. They were given a week to tie up loose ends, close businesses, and pull children out of schools before congregating at assigned assembly centers. They could take nothing with them other than what they could carry themselves, and these belongings would have to sustain many of them for the better part of four years since internment didn’t officially end until 1946.

Relocation wreaked havoc on traditional family and gender roles. Japanese men felt emasculated by the low wages they received for menial tasks in the camps, and women felt shamed in barrack commodes that left them exposed when they dressed and relieved themselves. Rather than sit for quiet family meals, fathers started eating with other men, while mothers fed their infants alone. Accommodations were so crowded that teenagers left for more privacy, further disintegrating the traditional Japanese family.

The PBS website for the internment documentary Children of the Camps provides wonderful first-hand accounts of children and adult internees, and Valerie Matsumoto’s oral testimonials of daily life in the camps collectively paint the horrors of internment but also the sometimes positive changes that resulted from detainment. Matsumoto’s accounts from the Nisei generation reveal feelings of disillusionment, but they also reveal a surprising expansion of intellectual and professional horizons. Girls, for example, took advantage of loosening family bonds to make inroads into higher education and careers that they likely would not have explored before internment. Matsumoto follows several Nisei women through the war years and beyond to show the drastic redirection their lives took, for better or worse, as a consequence of being interned.

My own students often greet these accounts of internment with disbelief. Surely American citizens could not be detained against their will and interned as the result of official policy. Surely this wasn’t official policy, they protest. Surely other Americans didn’t know this was going on. It is crucial, therefore, to help students understand the social and cultural milieu in which other Americans would be complicit with these acts. The attack on Pearl Harbor had unleashed a wave of aggression against Japanese Americans that had been sublimated but, in the wake of the attack, now found an outlet. Workers and businessmen who long competed with the Japanese for wages and profits were eager supporters of the removal policy. Anti-Japanese sentiment quickly became widespread among those who did not stand to profit immediately from the confiscation of property and the removal of business and labor competition. From Dr. Seuss cartoons to the covers of mainstream magazines, Japanese Americans were caricatured and referred to by the derogatory term “Japs.” A prejudice that had manifested itself in the Immigration Act of 1924 and other racially discriminatory measures again reared its head in the internment camps.

After the war, the US government proved slow to apologize for these extreme wartime policies. It is only in the last two decades that apologies and reparations have been provided. But, perhaps how the experience has been preserved in our historical memory is more important than these apologies or reparations.

In 1992, the Civil Liberties Act authorized the National Japanese-American Memorial to be built on federal land, and the Japanese American community began raising funds and conceptualizing the narrative that the memorial would present to the public. What the memorial tells us—and what it remains silent about—suggests the complexity of confronting the past and honoring it in the present.

Initially, planners intended to honor Japanese Americans who served in the military during World War II. Then it was agreed that the memorial should also represent the internment experience and Japanese patriotism and valor more broadly construed. But the memorial planners quickly discovered that there was no universal way to define these heroic qualities, no way to represent them outside of a specific historical context, even though they were crucial in shaping a positive sense of Japanese Americans for visitors to the projected memorial.

The memorial committee decided to quote excerpts of a creed written by Mike Masaoka, a member of the Japanese American Citizens League who served as the organization’s executive secretary until enlisting for military duty in 1943. In his creed, Masaoka wrote of his pride in being a citizen of a country who “boasted of her history” and “gloried in her heritage.” He minimized the discrimination he experienced before the war and insisted he would continue to be a firm believer in “American sportsmanship” and “fair play.” He would always defend America against her enemies, obey her laws, and respect her flag. He openly linked his own success to America’s political supremacy in the world. But if the creed gave voice to Japanese-American patriotism, it could not preserve the historical memory of detention and relocation, for it had been written in 1940, before the policy of internment began.

Planners agreed that Japanese American men who served in the military—members of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion, and members of the Military Intelligence Service—should be represented in the memorial. To lend stature to the project they also included quotations by Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan, whose words, probably out of context, seemed appropriate for such a structure. In addition, they agreed to include quotes by Congressman Norman Mineta, a man whose family was detained in a Wyoming camp, and Senator Daniel Inouye, who served in the 442nd. The successful public careers of these men seemed to prove that, despite overt discrimination against them, Japanese Americans could succeed in the traditional sense and live the “American Dream.”

But, in the end, the story told and the memories preserved by the memorial remain incomplete. Was military and political service the only way Japanese Americans could exhibit patriotism or valor? What about the ordinary Japanese American men and women who managed to keep their families intact while detained in the camps? Was theirs a story of heroism that deserved to be remembered and told? Should the men and women who actively resisted discrimination by dodging the draft, sabotaging War Relocation efforts, or secretly running businesses that had been declared illegal also be memorialized? In the end, the burden of a more complete account of the Japanese American experience during the war rests on the shoulders of historians and teachers.


Julie Des Jardins is associate professor of history at Baruch College, City University of New York, and the author of Women and the Historical Enterprise in America: Gender, Race, and the Politics of Memory, 1880–1945 (2003)and The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science (2010).

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