75 Years Ago, The Pearl Harbor Attack Sent Shock Waves Through the Japanese American Community

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese navy launched a surprise military attack against the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor located on the island of O’ahu. The attack not only brought America into World War II, but raised suspicions of citizens and immigrants of Japanese descent. The full repercussions of the attack would not be known for months to come, but the immediate aftermath brought catastrophic changes for Japanese Americans who had built lives in Hawai’i and on the West Coast. 

Nearly half of the civilians killed on Pearl Harbor day were Japanese American: a group of fishermen who had the misfortune to have been out at sea during the attack and approximately thirty-five on the ground who were killed by shrapnel and anti-aircraft shell fragments..

en-denshopd-i207-00003-1

King and McCully Streets where fire caused by an incendiary bomb caused some of the heaviest civilian damage, Dec. 7, 1941, Oahu, Hawaii. Courtesy of the Hawaii War Records Depository, University of Hawaii at Manoa Library.

Other Hawai’i residents were impacted almost immediately. The Hawaii Territorial Guard, mobilized the morning of December 7 was largely made up of Nisei from the University of Hawai’i ROTC. Pressed into duty in very uncertain conditions then just six weeks later, drummed out of the service because they were Japanese and became the nucleus of the Varsity Victory Volunteers.

In Hawai’i as on the mainland, within hours of the Pearl Harbor attack, without presenting any charges (and often with no warrants), the army, FBI, and local police moved quickly to round up aliens and other individuals—mainly leaders of the Japanese community—who previously had been investigated and were suspected of being disloyal or dangerous in a war situation. These individuals were usually told they would be gone a few hours, but many of them were detained for the entire war.

The day of the attack, radio stations were broadcasting orders to the residents of O’ahu: “Do not use your telephone. The island is under enemy attack. Stay off the streets. Keep calm…In the event of an air raid, stay under cover.” Governor Joseph Poindexter came on the radio to proclaim a state of emergency, and, at 11:41 a.m., the army ordered all commercial radio stations off the air, fearing that Japanese planes could navigate by their signals during another attack. Later that day, the stations returned to the air to announce that Hawai’i was now under martial law, a state that lasted, with some modifications, for nearly three years.  

WATCH: Grace Sugita Hawley who witnessed the attack, remembers, “I saw the airplanes with the Japanese pilots…I was so scared, I ran into the house. And, so, that’s when our lives changed.”

For mainland Japanese Americans, it would be months before FDR would sign Executive Order 9066 resulting in the removal and mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. But the changes in attitudes and atmosphere were immediate. Japanese Americans recall a sudden awareness that teachers, friends, and neighbors now viewed them with fear and suspicion. “Contraband” radios and cameras were confiscated and a curfew was quickly put into place. 

ddr-densho-36-31-mezzanine-1d991a6405-a

Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were ordered by government officials to surrender their cameras and radios, ostensibly to prevent their use in treasonable activities. Courtesy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History & Industry.

Young Lucy Fukui captured the prevailing mood in a school essay she later wrote at Minidoka concentration camp: “A painful memory lingers in the heart of many Niseis — a memory of those dark somber days of 1941, after the unexpected attack on Pearl Harbor.”

WATCH: Akiko Kurose says she suddenly became very aware of her Japanese ancestry and the threat others perceived in that identity. “When I went back to school that following morning, December 8th, one of the teachers said, “You people bombed Pearl Harbor,” she recalls. 

WATCH: Tsuguo “Ike” Ikeda remembers having to attend a special assembly at school on the morning after the attack. “In reflecting back, I just felt that I wasn’t a citizen in this country. And that really made me angry and sad that I was deceived, you know, I wasn’t feeling like a citizen. The Bill of Rights was incidental cause I was seen as a “Jap,” just the same as the enemy.”

Some mainland Japanese Americans who were seen as being especially suspect were arrested immediately and without due process. For nearly a decade prior to the outbreak of war, various federal agencies had been conducting surveillance in Japanese American communities in anticipation of a possible war with Japan. The general consensus of those agencies was that the Japanese American community as a whole posed little threat to the U.S. should war with Japan take place.

They also put together custodial detention lists, commonly called the ABC Listsof those who would be arrested should war come. These lists allowed the government to begin rounding up what were now “enemy aliens” within hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. For the most part, those apprehended were male immigrant community leaders who were suspect for the positions they held—heads of a Japanese Association branch or priests at Buddhist temples, for instance—rather than for anything they had specifically done.

Activist Yuri Kochiyama’s father was one of those arrested by the FBI on December 8. Though he had just returned home from the hospital and was sick in bed, he was forced to dress and then taken away without a word of explanation to his family.

WATCH: “Suddenly for the first time, I felt something different,” said Yuri Kochiyama, “People won’t think of us as American even if we are.”


After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Terminal Island, a Japanese fishing village in the Port of Los Angeles, was seen as a major threat for its population of mostly Japanese immigrants and its proximity to a U.S. Navy shipyard. The FBI initiated widespread arrest of Issei leaders and fishermen, and navy soldiers searched their homes for contraband like radios, cameras, pictures of Japan, even kitchen knives. These Issei after all were in Category A—”known dangerous”—of the FBI’s ABC Lists because the U.S. government presumed the Issei, who were aliens ineligible for citizenship by law, would be more closely aligned to their mother country than the nation of their residence. 

terminal-island

Main Street empty in preparation for a curfew and blackout, Dec 8, 1941, Terminal Island, California. Courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News negatives collection, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

In the months following the Pearl Harbor attack, propaganda, fear, and bigotry created a climate in which all West coast Japanese Americans were viewed with suspicion. Seventy four days later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 would send 120,000–two-thirds of whom were citizens–to concentration camps for the duration of the war.

By Densho staff with excerpts from Densho Encyclopedia entries:

December 7, 1941 by Kelli Y. Nakamura
Martial Law in Hawaii by Jane L. Scheiber and Harry N. Scheiber
Terminal Island, California by Lilian Takahashi Hoffecker

[Header photo: Oahu’s Lunalilo School after the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941. Courtesy of the Hawaii War Records Depository, University of Hawaii at Manoa Library.]

Single Comment
  1. What I Learned Today » Blog Archive » U.S. concentration camps in WWII

Leave a Reply