Educator Resources

Japanese-American Internment During World War II

In his speech to Congress, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was "a date which will live in infamy." The attack launched the United States fully into the two theaters of World War II. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the United States had been involved in the European war only, by supplying England and other anti-fascist countries of Europe with munitions.

The attack on Pearl Harbor also launched a rash of fear about national security, especially on the West Coast. In February 1942, just two months later, President Roosevelt, as commander-in-chief, issued Executive Order 9066 that resulted in the internment of Japanese Americans. The order authorized the Secretary of War and military commanders to evacuate all persons deemed a threat from the West Coast to internment camps, that the government called "relocation centers," further inland.

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had identified German, Italian, and Japanese aliens who were suspected of being potential enemy agents; and they were kept under surveillance. Following the attack at Pearl Harbor, government suspicion arose not only around aliens who came from enemy nations, but around all persons of Japanese descent, whether foreign born (issei) or American citizens (nisei). During congressional committee hearings, representatives of the Department of Justice raised logistical, constitutional, and ethical objections. Regardless, the task was turned over to the U.S. Army as a security matter.

The entire West Coast was deemed a military area and was divided into military zones. Executive Order 9066 authorized military commanders to exclude civilians from military areas. Although the language of the order did not specify any ethnic group, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command proceeded to announce curfews that included only Japanese Americans. Next, he encouraged voluntary evacuation by Japanese Americans from a limited number of areas; about seven percent of the total Japanese American population in these areas complied. On March 29, 1942, under the authority of the executive order, DeWitt issued Public Proclamation No. 4, which began the forced evacuation and detention of West Coast residents of Japanese-American ancestry on a 48-hour notice. Only a few days prior to the proclamation, on March 21, Congress had passed Public Law 503, which made violation of Executive Order 9066 a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Because of the perception of “public danger,” all Japanese within varied distances from the Pacific coast were targeted. Unless they were able to dispose of or make arrangements for care of their property within a few days, their homes, farms, businesses, and most of their private belongings were lost forever.

From the end of March to August, approximately 112,000 persons were sent to “assembly centers” – often racetracks or fairgrounds – where they waited and were tagged to indicate the location of a long-term “relocation center” that would be their home for the rest of the war. Nearly 70,000 of the evacuees were American citizens. There were no charges of disloyalty against any of these citizens, nor was there any vehicle by which they could appeal their loss of property and personal liberty.

"Relocation centers" were situated many miles inland, often in remote and desolate locales. Sites included Tule Lake, California; Minidoka, Idaho; Manzanar, California; Topaz, Utah; Jerome, Arkansas; Heart Mountain, Wyoming; Poston, Arizona; Granada, Colorado; and Rohwer, Arkansas. (Incarceration rates were significantly lower in the territory of Hawaii, where Japanese Americans made up over one third of the population and their labor was needed to sustain the economy. However, martial law had been declared in Hawaii immediately following the Pearl Harbor attack, and the Army issued hundreds of military orders, some applicable only to persons of Japanese ancestry.)

In the internment camps, four or five families, with their sparse collections of clothing and possessions, shared tar-papered army-style barracks. Most lived in these conditions for nearly three years or more until the end of the war. Gradually some insulation was added to the barracks and lightweight partitions were added to make them a little more comfortable and somewhat private. Life took on some familiar routines of socializing and school. However, eating in common facilities, using shared restrooms, and having limited opportunities for work interrupted other social and cultural patterns. Persons who resisted were sent to a special camp at Tule Lake, California, where dissidents were housed.

In 1943 and 1944 the government assembled a combat unit of Japanese Americans for the European theater. It became the 442d Regimental Combat Team and gained fame as the most highly decorated of World War II. Their military record bespoke their patriotism.

As the war drew to a close, internment camps were slowly evacuated. While some persons of Japanese ancestry returned to their hometowns, others sought new surroundings. For example, the Japanese-American community of Tacoma, Washington, had been sent to three different centers; only 30 percent returned to Tacoma after the war. Japanese Americans from Fresno had gone to Manzanar; 80 percent returned to their hometown.

The internment of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II sparked constitutional and political debate. During this period, three Japanese-American citizens challenged the constitutionality of the relocation and curfew orders through legal actions: Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu, and Mitsuye Endo. Hirabayashi and Korematsu received negative judgments; but Mitsuye Endo, after a lengthy battle through lesser courts, was determined to be "loyal" and allowed to leave the Topaz, Utah, facility.

Justice Murphy of the Supreme Court expressed the following opinion in Ex parte Mitsuye Endo:

I join in the opinion of the Court, but I am of the view that detention in Relocation Centers of persons of Japanese ancestry regardless of loyalty is not only unauthorized by Congress or the Executive but is another example of the unconstitutional resort to racism inherent in the entire evacuation program. As stated more fully in my dissenting opinion in Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 , 65 S.Ct. 193, racial discrimination of this nature bears no reasonable relation to military necessity and is utterly foreign to the ideals and traditions of the American people. 

In 1988, Congress passed, and President Reagan signed, Public Law 100-383 that acknowledged the injustice of internment, apologized for it, and provided a $20,000 cash payment to each person who was interned.

One of the most stunning ironies in this episode of American civil liberties was articulated by an internee who, when told that the Japanese were put in those camps for their own protection, countered "If we were put there for our protection, why were the guns at the guard towers pointed inward, instead of outward?"


The Documents

  1. "Conference with General De Witt" at Office of Commanding General, Headquarters Western Defense Command and Fourth Army; January 4, 1942.
    National Archives Identifier: 296057
    View Pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8
  2. Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942, Headquarters Western Defense Command and Fourth Army, Office of the Commanding General, Presidio of San Francisco, California; Chapters 1 and 2.
    National Archives Identifier: 296055
    View Pages:     Cover | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24
  3. Transcript of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin Roosevelt, February 19, 1942. Available from
  4. Posting of Exclusion Order at First and Front Streets in San Francisco, California, directing removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from the first section in San Francisco to be affected by the evacuation.
    National Archives Identifier: 536017
  5. Thank You Note in "Little Tokyo" in Los Angeles, California. Mr. and Mrs. K. Tseri have closed their drugstore in preparation for the forthcoming evacuation from their home and business.
    National Archives Identifier: 536001
  6. Merchandise Sale in San Francisco, California. Customers buy merchandise in a store operated by a proprietor of Japanese ancestry during a pre-evacuation sale. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration of the war.
    National Archives Identifier: 536042
  7. Children Pledge Allegiance to the Flag in San Francisco, California, at Raphael Weill Public School. Children in families of Japanese ancestry were evacuated with their parents and will be housed for the duration in War Relocation Authority centers where facilities will be provided for them to continue their education.
    National Archives Identifier: 536053
  8. Family in Front of Farmhouse in Mountain View, California. Members of the Shibuya family are pictured at their home before evacuation. The father and the mother were born in Japan and came to this country in 1904. At that time the father had $60 in cash and a basket of clothes. He later built a prosperous business of raising select varieties of chrysanthemums which he shipped to Eastern markets under his own trade name. Six children in the family were born in the United States.
    National Archives Identifier: 536037
  9. Manager of a Large Farm in Stockton, California. Henry T. Futamachi (left), superintendent of a 1,300-acre mechanized ranch, discusses agricultural problems with the ranch owner, John B. MacKinley. Before evacuation of persons of Japanese ancestry, Futamachi, 45, was paid $4,000 a year and bonuses. He came to this country 28 years ago with his father. Evacuees will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration of the war.
    National Archives Identifier: 536030
  10. Packing Up in San Francisco, California. Dave Tatsuno rereads notes he compiled while he was a student at the University of California where he was graduated in 1936. Tatsuno, with his two-year-old son at his side, is packing his possessions at 2625 Buchanan Street, prior to evacuation of residents of Japanese ancestry. Evacuees will be housed at War Relocation Authority centers for the duration. (This is the caption as it appeared on the photograph. According to the 1942 Polk Directory for San Francisco, the correct address is 1625 Buchanan.)
    National Archives Identifier: 536039
  11. Registration in San Francisco, California. Residents of Japanese ancestry file forms containing personal data, two days before evacuation, at a Wartime Civil Control Administration station.
    National Archives Identifier: 536056
  12. Waiting for Evacuation in San Francisco, California. With baggage stacked, residents of Japanese ancestry await a bus at the Wartime Civil Control Administration station, 2020 Van Ness Avenue, as part of the first group of 664 to be evacuated from San Francisco on April 6, 1942. Evacuees will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration.
    National Archives Identifier: 536065
  13. Wartime Civil Control Station in San Francisco, California. Japanese family heads and persons living alone form a line outside the station located in the Japanese American Citizens League Auditorium at 2031 Bush Street, to appear for "processing" in response to Civilian Exclusion Order Number 20.
    National Archives Identifier: 536422
  14. Sorting Baggage at Minidoka in Eden, Idaho. Baggage belonging to evacuees from the assembly center at Puyallup, Washington, is sorted and trucked to owners in their barrack apartments.
    National Archives Identifier: 538278
  15. Barracks Assigned at Minidoka in Eden, Idaho. Newly arrived evacuees from the assembly center at Puyallup, Washington, are registered and assigned barrack apartments at this War Relocation Authority center.
    National Archives Identifier: 538283
  16. The Hirano Family, left to right, George, Hisa, and Yasbei with picture of a United States serviceman. Colorado River Relocation Center, Poston, Arizona.
    National Archives Identifier: 535989
  17. High School Campus at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Classes are housed in tarpaper-covered, barrack-style buildings originally designed as living quarters for the evacuees.
    National Archives Identifier: 537153
  18. Poster Crew at Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Heart Mountain, Wyoming. The poster crew turns out fire and safety posters, announcements for public gatherings and dances, and some general instructions.
    National Archives Identifier: 538754
  19. Court Session at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. The court is composed of seven judges selected from the residents and appointed by the project director. They preside over infractions of center regulations and ordinary civil court cases.
    National Archives Identifier: 537166
  20. Coal Crew at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. It takes approximately four carloads of coal a day to provide heat for residents at this Wyoming relocation center during the cold winter months. Here a crew of men load trucks from the coal gondola for delivery to barracks.
    National Archives Identifier: 538770