Japanese American Responses to Incarceration

While the vast majority of Japanese Americans chose to obey the army’s exclusion orders, a few chose to challenge aspects of the exclusion. The cases of three such challengers—Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu, and Minoru Yasui—ended up going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with the Court ultimately upholding the legality of the racially based expulsion.

After unrest in the concentration camps in the fall of 1942, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) instituted an ill-conceived questionnaire in the early months of 1943 in an effort to separate the “loyal” from the “disloyal.” On the basis of answers to two key questions, the former were deemed eligible to enlist in the army or to leave the concentration camps to “resettle” in areas away from the West Coast, while the latter were segregated at the Tule Lake, California concentration camp.

When Japanese Americans’ eligibility for military service was restored in early 1943, thousands of Japanese Americans from Hawai’i, where there was no mass incarceration, flocked to enlist. By contrast, the number who chose to enlist out of the concentration camps was more modest, though many young men still chose to do so despite their family’s continued incarceration. Most became members of the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which fought in some of the toughest battles on the European front and became one of the most decorated units in the war. Others joined intelligence units in the Pacific as Japanese language specialists whose skills in interrogation and translation contributed greatly to Allied successes.

Though made to jump through many hoops by an overzealous security apparatus, thousands of mostly young Japanese Americans left the concentration camps in 1943 and ‘44 with the encouragement of the WRA. Prohibited from returning to the West Coast, they mostly headed east for college or for jobs and better opportunities. Substantial Japanese American populations formed in cities such as Chicago, Denver, and New York. The WRA—and even President Roosevelt—believed that the scattering of Japanese Americans around the country along with preventing the re-formation of ethnic communities would lessen prejudice against them.

In 1944, the army began drafting Nisei men from the concentration camps. While most reported for duty, some 300 resisted the draft, refusing to report until their community’s civil rights had been restored. The actions of these men proved to be deeply divisive among Japanese Americans, and the history of the draft resisters was largely suppressed in the community for some forty years.

At the end of 1944, the Supreme Court decided on a fourth relevant case, that of a young woman named Mitsuye Endo who challenged her continued incarceration despite her acknowledged loyalty. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Endo case led to Japanese Americans being allowed to return to the West Coast starting in January 1945.

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