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For many nisei (or second-generation Japanese Americans), December 7, 1941, was like a nightmare come true. On that Sunday morning, naval and air forces of the Japanese Empire attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The following day, the United States, the nisei's land of birth, officially declared war upon Japan, the nisei's land of ancestry. How would Americans at large perceive the nisei? Would Americans be able to distinguish between nisei and the Japanese enemy? For the nisei, these questions were very real. The situation was even more uncertain for many issei, whose inability to naturalize deprived them of any real political voice. What would be their fates?

Akiko K Click on this photo to watch a video clip of Akiko K. remembering the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

In the end, the U.S. media would often make no distinction between Japanese Americans and Japanese Imperial soldiers. One Los Angeles Times editorial noted:

A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched.... So, a Japanese American born of Japanese parents, nurtured upon Japanese traditions, living in a transplanted Japanese atmosphere and thoroughly inoculated with Japanese ...ideals, notwithstanding his nominal brand of accidental citizenship almost inevitably and with the rarest exceptions grows up to be a Japanese, and not an American....[1]

<i>Los Angeles Times</i> Article This Los Angeles Times article from February 1942 accuses Japanese Americans of disloyalty to the U.S. due to their race. Click here to see a larger version of the article.

This racial fear and prejudice combined with other forces--desire for economic gain, hysteria generated by yellow journalism, political opportunism, and a sincere concern for national safety--and resulted in a complex mixture of motives that impelled the U.S. government to forcibly remove from the West Coast more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. The Japanese Americans were sent to incarceration camps located in isolated regions of the United States. Some have referred to this episode as "one of America’s worst civil liberties disasters."

Yellow Peril and Yellow Journalism

Fear of Japanese American subversion stemmed in large part from notions of the "yellow peril," a term used to describe the dangers of the United States being "overwhelmed by waves of yellow [i.e., Asian] soldiers aided by alien enemies within the gates."[2] In 1881 and 1882, for example, California publicists produced works that described the successful invasion and conquest of the United States by hordes of Chinese. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act banned immigration to the United States from China. By the turn of the century, Japan appeared to be the new threat and U.S. stereotypes about the Chinese immigrants were often ascribed to the Japanese immigrants. For example, the notion that Chinese immigrants were supposedly "inassimilable" was often applied to the Japanese immigrants as well. Although Japan was an isolated and technologically unadvanced nation as late as the 1850s, by 1894 it had won its first modern naval battle against China. In 1905, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. This was the first Asian victory over a Western power in the modern era.

In the West, Japan's victory over Russia sparked fears of Asian world domination. Shortly after the Russo-Japanese War, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst adopted "yellow peril" notions and widely disseminated them through his newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner. In 1907, a two-part Sunday supplement entitled "Japan May Seize the Pacific Coast" noted that, "the Yellow Peril is here." Notions of the "yellow peril," however, were not confined to the pages of newspapers. Popular literature, too, contained similar motifs. Homer Lea's Valor of Ignorance, for example, published in 1909, prophesied a great war between the United States and Japan. These themes continued to be explored throughout the entire period leading up to Pearl Harbor.

<i>Seattle Times</i> Article Click here to read a Seattle Times article from 1907 about overt racism at a sawmill in Washington state.

Existing notions of racial and ethnic superiority, made popular during the early part of the 20th century, also may have fueled anti-Japanese sentiments in the United States.

Furthermore, by applying the dehumanizing term "Jap" to any ethnically Japanese person, the front pages of daily newspapers blurred the distinction between Japanese Americans and Japanese Imperial troops. For instance, one edition of the San Francisco Examiner, published around the time of forced removal, declared in a boldfaced headline, "OUSTER OF ALL JAPS IN CALIFORNIA NEAR!" That same front page contained an article on the battles that were being waged in Indonesia. The title of the latter article read "Thousands of Allies Face Japs in Java." Representations such as these perpetuated public confusion and the spread of misinformation.

In addition to these forms of propaganda, more practical concerns helped to create wide public support for the removal of Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast. Financially speaking, the mass removal and incarceration eliminated Japanese Americans as economic competitors, particularly in farming. Efforts to inhibit Japanese upward mobility had been made in the past. Anti-Japanese propagandists argued that Japanese farmers displaced white farmers. Not surprisingly, then, farming organizations joined with other groups to form a powerful coalition in support of the exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast.

Jimi Y In this video clip Jimi Y. remembers a Caucasian family friend whose company was eager to "eliminate competition" in the produce market. This meant putting Japanese farmers out of business in California.

What Happened?

The Differing Visions of the Department of Justice and the Military

How exactly did anti-Japanese sentiments on the West Coast turn into a federally approved mass removal and incarceration? While many locally-elected politicians supported the incarceration, within bureaucratic circles at the federal level, the push toward mass removal came not from civil leaders, but rather from military ones. This tension between civil and military bureaucrats is perhaps best evidenced in the clash between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Army over the presumed wisest course of action with respect to the West Coast "Japanese problem." Whereas the DOJ was content to leave people of Japanese descent on the West Coast undisturbed and advocated only a moderate crackdown on alien activity, the Army pressed for mass removal and incarceration.

In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the DOJ, under the direction of Attorney General Francis Biddle, directed the FBI to round up a predetermined number of "dangerous" enemy aliens, including Germans and Italians. This initial roundup involved several thousands persons, about half of whom were issei. These issei were mostly leaders of various Japanese organizations and Japanese religious groups, which the government perceived as potential threats to national security.

Mako N Click here to hear Mako N. tell the story of FBI agents arresting her father in February of 1942.

Two military figures played key roles in turning this relatively contained, civil internment of aliens into a mass military incarceration of all ethnic Japanese persons (both aliens and U.S. citizens). Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Command, believed that the mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans would prevent any "Pearl Harbors" from happening on the West Coast.

Provost Marshal General Allen W. Gullion was the top military police officer responsible for maintaining civil order in military-controlled areas. Gullion, a legal intellectual of sorts, was interested in the legalities pertaining to military control over civilian populations during times of war. He argued that the military could not legally interfere with civilian lives unless, as in the state of martial law, it was approved by civilian leaders. Although martial law was never declared on the West Coast, it was declared a "Theater of Operations" on December 11, 1941. Although this declaration was not made with Japanese Americans in mind, it ultimately provided the Army and the courts with the legitimization necessary to place civilians under military control.

On January 25, 1942, the Roberts Commission, a body that investigated the bombing of Pearl Harbor, issued its findings. The commission did not blame the resident Japanese population in Hawaii for the success of the attack, but neither did it go out of its way to exonerate them. The publication of the report was a sensation and stimulated many false rumors regarding Japanese fifth-column activity in Hawaii. A "fifth column" refers to people within national borders who engage in espionage or sabotage for an enemy country.

Despite their resolve to intern aliens, DeWitt and Gullion were military men, not publicly elected officials, which meant that they could not formulate the domestic policy necessary to carry out their plan. Moreover, since the DOJ, in particular Attorney General Biddle, did not support the idea of mass removal or any interference with civilians, the War Department began a lobbying effort among local politicians to gain the support they needed.

Father and Sons Click on this photo to see a close-up of Tom M. as a young man.
Tom M In this interview segment, Tom M. recalls the FBI picking him up as a young man.

Over the course of the next three weeks, DeWitt and Gullion approached various West Coast politicians to convince them of the need to remove Japanese Americans from their states. While members of the War Department argued with members of the DOJ over the perceived necessity of the removal, these local politicians continued to fan the flames of war hysteria.

On February 11, Secretary of War Stimson called President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Shortly thereafter, Stimson's assistant telephoned Gullion's assistant to inform him of the "good news":

we talked to the President and the President ... says go ahead and do anything you think necessary ... if it involves citizens, we will take care of them too. He says there will probably be some repercussions, but it has got to be dictated by military necessity, but as he puts it, "Be as reasonable as you can."[3]

Despite the objections of a handful of policymakers, including Attorney General Biddle, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. Citing the need to protect against espionage and sabotage, Executive Order 9066 granted the Army, through the Secretary of War, the authority that Gullion had so long sought. The words "Japanese" or "Japanese Americans" did not appear in the order, but it was they, and they alone, who felt its sting.[4] In the entire course of war, ten people were convicted of spying for Japan. All of them were Caucasian.

Executive Order 9066 Click on Executive Order 9066 to see a larger version of the document.

Japanese American Responses

The response of the Japanese American community to the mass removal and incarceration was mixed. While some viewed them as opportunities to contribute to the war effort and demonstrate loyalty to the United States, others objected to the process as a violation of civil rights. Many Japanese Americans fell into the first category, led by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), an influential Japanese American political organization. As an organization, the JACL believed in the integrity of the U.S. government, and thus encouraged the Japanese American community to fully cooperate with the mass removal and incarceration. Some of the JACL leaders acted as informants for federal intelligence agencies and turned over the names of Japanese (both alien and U.S. citizens) who they felt were potentially subversive.

Toru S In this video clip, Toru S. recalls the Japanese American Citizens League decision to encourage people of Japanese ancestry to comply with Executive Order 9066.

The Japanese Americans who objected were relatively weaker in voice. One notable individual who argued against acceptance and cooperation was James Omura, a journalist based in San Francisco. He testified before Congress that, "I am strongly opposed to mass evacuation of American-born Japanese. It is my honest belief that such an action would not solve the question of Nisei loyalty."[5] Omura's opposition sprang from his sense of its injustice and of the ignoble motives behind Executive Order 9066. Omura and other Japanese Americans who objected to the mass removal and incarceration also disagreed with the Japanese Americans who accepted the order, creating a divide in the Japanese American community itself.

Other Japanese Americans expressed their objections to Executive Order 9066 by deliberately violating one or more of the orders. These violations were attempts to test the legality of the orders in the courts. Four notable Japanese Americans had their cases taken to the Supreme Court. Minoru Yasui, an attorney from Portland, Oregon, violated a military curfew order which required that all persons of Japanese ancestry be indoors between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. Gordon Hirabayashi, a student at the University of Washington, challenged the orders by refusing to register himself with federal authorities. Fred Korematsu, a nisei welder from the Oakland, California area, was arrested for failing to report to Tanforan Assembly Center--one of 16 temporary camps that detained Japanese Americans before they were transferred to the incarceration camps. All three men were convicted for their violations and in each case, the Supreme Court upheld their convictions. The fourth legal case that tested the constitutionality of the mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans was brought under the name of Mitsuye Endo, an employee at the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Endo's attorneys argued that it was illegal for the government to detain her without trial while martial law was not declared. Although the Supreme Court, on December 18, 1944, ruled unanimously that Mitsuye Endo should be given her liberty, it failed to address the larger constitutional issues underlying the case. Thus, although the Endo case resulted in a technical "victory" for Japanese Americans, the legality of the incarceration remained unresolved.

Gordon Hirabayashi Click on this photo to listen to Gordon Hirabayashi talk about his decision to refuse the curfew and exclusion orders.

Despite the anti-Japanese hysteria that existed on the West Coast, not all policymakers were persuaded of the need to incarcerate Japanese Americans. Most of the debate regarding this issue existed between the military and the DOJ, the military being for incarceration and the DOJ being against it. Similarly, a debate existed within the Japanese American community itself between those who accepted the orders and those who did not. In the end, however, the objections were overruled, and the mass removal and incarceration began.

1. Quoted in Brian Niiya, Japanese American History (New York: Facts on File, 1993) p. 54.
2. Roger Daniels, Concentration Camps USA (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972) p. 29.
3. Daniels, Concentration Camps USA, p. 65.
4. Daniels, Concentration Camps USA, pp. 70-71.
5. Hearings Before the Committee Investigating National Defense Migration, Part 29, February 21 and 23, 1942 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1942) p. 11229.


  • In what ways do you think the media contributed to the orders to exclude Japanese Americans from the West Coast?
  • What were the differing visions of the Department of Justice and the military with respect to the Japanese Americans on the West Coast? How might the nature of these offices account for the differences?
  • In what ways did the Japanese American community respond to the exclusion orders? Why do you think Japanese American opponents of the mass removal were ineffective in their efforts?
  • What do you think were the merits and/or demerits of cooperating with federal authorities?
  • What do you think were the merits and/or demerits of resisting federal authorities?

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