Democracy and the Internment of Japanese Americans

by Takashi Yogi

15 Sept 2012

This talk is part of the series Searching for Democracy, so it would be appropriate to re-examine the meaning of democracy. This is such a familiar concept that we can fail to appreciate how revolutionary this idea was when our country came into being. How does a democracy work? I'm an engineer, so naturally I look at democracy in the same way that I examine a machine. Let's examine a machine, the heating system for a room. The heater is controlled by a thermostat on the wall. We set the temperature we want and the heater turns on when the temperature gets too low and turns off when the temperature gets too high. Engineers call this a feedback system. Democracy is a feedback system in which the people control the thermostat to set what is comfortable for them. In contrast, a monarchy is a system where the king sets the temperature and his poor subjects either freeze or roast, depending on his guesses. This is obviously an inferior setup, but monarchies persisted because the ruling classes did not trust having people govern themselves and kept the people powerless to prevent revolt.

Let's take a closer look at our democratic machine. Every citizen has a vote. Ideally we would all have an equal part in government, a government of the people. But in reality we don't govern directly, we operate as a republic, where elected representatives vote for us. So my voting power is small compared to the power of my senator, because my vote is 1 in 314 million while Barbara Boxer's vote is one in a hundred. The writers of our Constitution worked hard to ensure that governing power was distributed so that all people were fairly represented. Unfortunately, they did not include blacks and women. We have three branches of government: the executive, legislative, and the judicial. This was designed as a system of checks and balances so that no branch of government could dominate, and mistakes made by one branch could be corrected by another. We have the legislative branch divided into the House of Representatives and the Senate. Why? Because this setup gives fair representation for small states and large states. California has 38 million people and therefore 53 representatives. Wyoming has 618,000 people and one representative. But both California and Wyoming have 2 senators. All legislation must pass in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, so the interests of both California and Wyoming are fairly represented.

Decisions in our democracy are made by voting, either directly, through elected representatives, or through the electoral college for presidential elections. The majority vote wins. This rule of the majority is so common that we often forget that democracy should attempt to represent ALL the people, not just the majority. Fortunately the Constitution has protections for all people, even minorities, even individuals. These rights are guaranteed even when the majority wants to violate those rights. All three branches of government have the responsibility of guarding those rights. Let's look at some of those rights. The 1st amendment gives freedom of religion, speech and the press. The 4th amendment prohibits searches and seizures without specific warrants. The police cannot invade your home just to snoop around. The 5th amendment requires due process before any person can be deprived of life, liberty, or property. You can't be locked up just because someone doesn't like your looks or attitude. The 6th amendment ensures a fair trial by an impartial jury. The 14th amendment grants citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the US. It also states: “nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. This means that a state cannot mistreat any person, even if all the people in that state are in favor of the mistreatment. Note that the wording is any person, not just citizens.

Democracy was put to a test soon after Japan attacked the US on Dec 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Later sporadic submarine attacks on the California coast produced great fear. There was immediate suspicion of the Japanese Americans, and rumors of disloyalty and sabotage were published in the newspapers. Why were Japanese targeted when most Germans and Italians were not? To understand why, we need to look at the history of Japanese immigration. The roots of discrimination against the Japanese were planted soon after they began immigrating about 1885. They provided cheap labor to replace the Chinese, who had been barred from immigration after 1882. Opposition to the new immigrants soon began, with Democrats, Populists, and labor unions pushing for exclusion. The Asiatic Exclusion League was started in 1905, and grew to over 100,000 members by 1908. The Japanese were successful at farming, and leased land or acquired land in the name of their citizen children. This competition prompted the Alien Land Law in California in 1913 that attempted to block land purchases. Attempts were made to segregate Japanese schoolchildren. After 1918, the anti-Japanese movement was led mainly by the American Legion, Native Sons of the Golden West, California Federation of Labor, and the California Grange. The president of the Native Sons wrote, “California was given by God to a white people, and with God's strength we want to keep it as He gave it to us.” Japanese immigration was finally ended by federal law in 1924.

After Pearl Harbor, the seeds of racism that were sown decades before sprouted and grew rapidly. Posters appeared showing the “Japs” as rats with buck teeth and slanted eyes. Satirical hunting licenses appeared that declared open season on Japs. Newspaper editorials declared that they were different from white races and could not be trusted. An article in the San Francisco Examiner stated, “I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. I don't mean a nice part of the interior either. Herd 'em up, pack 'em off, and give 'em the inside room in the badlands. Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.” The hysteria grew, fed by rumors. Flashlights were confiscated from the Japanese to prevent them from being used to signal offshore submarines. One military official declared, “The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.”

On Feb 19, 1942, president Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that authorized the exclusion of people from designated critical areas. Congress followed with a law that made it a crime to resist an exclusion order. In March, Japanese were ordered to leave their homes to be moved to internment camps located in various desolate areas in California, Arizona, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas. They could take only what they could carry by hand. Pets had to be left behind. About 40,000 were registered aliens, prohibited from obtaining citizenship. About 70,000 were citizens by virtue of their American birth. No charges had been filed against them, and their constitutional rights of due process were ignored. They were given less than a week's notice to move. They had to dispose of possessions and property to greedy bargain hunters. A woman was forced to sell her twenty-room hotel for $500.

The book Farewell to Manzanar tells the story of the author's mother desperately trying to sell a set of china.

[Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, p. 10-11]

Each family was given tags with an identification number and they were transported to temporary assembly centers such as the Santa Anita racetrack, where they were put in stables. Then they were moved to internment camps such as the one at Manzanar, in the desert east of the Sierras, with bitterly cold winters and scorching summers. Manzanar was surrounded by barbed wire and sentry towers with armed guards. It held over 10,000 people, crowded into flimsy, uninsulated tarpaper shacks. Jeanne's family had twelve people in two 16 X 20 foot rooms, with cracks in the floors and walls. There were communal dining, bathing, and toilet facilities. Faced with this bleak existence, the people started immediately to make the best life they could. They created schools, churches, parks, sports, musical groups, stores, and a newspaper. They started farms to raise animals and to grow most of their own food, with extra food to export. All these efforts to create a normal life could not erase the fact that they were prisoners, ostracized from their homes as disloyal criminals.

In February 1943 the government required all internees over 17 years old to answer two loyalty questions:

  1. Are you willing to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?

  2. Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?

These questions created much conflict in the camps. People were put in a predicament of uncertainty in answering the loaded questions, which had unknown consequences. Debates raged within the camps. How could the government that had mistreated them ask them to risk their lives in combat while their families remained locked up? What would happen if the aliens who were ineligible for citizenship renounced all connection to Japan? Would they become people without a country? Did renouncing allegiance to Japan become a confession of previous loyalty? Would answering “yes” confirm that the internment was justified? Families became divided, friendships ended, and suspicions were rampant. About 5000 people who answered “no” to both questions were considered disloyal and were moved to a camp at Tule Lake, CA. Most of these were loyal, but were protesting their treatment. Some had given up on getting justice from the United States. Conditions at Tule Lake were much more severe than at Manzanar and officials left the internees to fight each other, creating a nightmare of anger and fear.

Young men and women who answered “yes” to the questions were allowed to enlist in the army and some were later drafted. A segregated group of Japanese Americans formed the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and were sent to fight in Italy and France. They were joined by Japanese Americans from Hawaii who constituted the 100th Battalion. Together they fought heroically to overcome the Italian and German forces. They were assigned to rescue the lost battalion, a Texas unit, which was surrounded by German forces. They succeed after suffering heavy casualties; out of 130 men, only 8 returned without injuries. From Sept 1943 until the end of the war they had over 9000 casualties and over 600 killed. They earned over 18,000 citations for bravery, more than any other group. The citations included 7 Presidential Distinguished Unit Citations, 47 Distinguished Service Crosses, 350 Silver Stars, 810 Bronze Stars, and over 9000 Purple Hearts. President Truman presented the Presidential Unit Banner in 1946 and said, “You fought not only the enemy, but prejudice – and you won.”

Another group of Japanese Americans volunteered for the Military Intelligence Service which contributed vital information in the Pacific War by translating intercepted Japanese documents. Ironically, most of them had previously studied in Japan before the war, and were therefore highly suspected of disloyalty. They soon proved their worth and were provided constant guards to ensure that they were not mistaken for the enemy. In all, 33,000 Japanese Americans served in the war in Europe and the Pacific. Their sacrifices were solemn proof of their loyalty. They fought for their country while their families were interned. In 2011 they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest honor.

Internment finally ended in December 1944, but many people had no home to return to. Others found that their property had been confiscated. There was widespread opposition to the return of the Japanese Americans. The California Grange advocated sending them all back to Japan. So the Japanese had to start all over again in the face of hatred and prejudice. Signs saying , “No Japs Allowed” appeared. Even veterans faced discrimination. Daniel Inouye, now a senator, lost his right arm while serving in the 442nd group. When he returned, he walked into a barber shop in his full uniform. The barber said, “We don't serve Japs.” Another soldier told this story:

Coming home, I was boarding a bus on Olympic Boulevard. A lady sitting in the front row of the bus, saw me and said, "Damn Jap." Here I was a proud American soldier, just coming back with my new uniform and new paratrooper boots, with all my campaign medals and awards, proudly displayed on my chest, and this? The bus driver upon hearing this remark, stopped the bus and said, "Lady, apologize to this American soldier or get off my bus"—She got off the bus.
Embarrassed by the situation, I turned around to thank the bus driver. He said that's okay, buddy, everything is going to be okay from now on out. Encouraged by his comment, I thanked him and as I was turning away, I noticed a discharge pin on his lapel.

In August 1946, The Houston Press ran a story about Sergeant George Otsuka, who had helped rescue the Lost Battalion, a Texas outfit, and was now being told to "keep away" from a farm he planned to purchase. Public response to the story was strong, and Sergeant Otsuka had no further trouble moving to his farm.

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston describes how she felt coming back into white society after 4 years at Manzanar. She was asked to read aloud for her first day in class. [Manzanar p 113-114]

The Japanese Americans were accused of sabotage and collaboration with the enemy. Later investigation showed that there was no evidence of this on the West Coast. All the reported incidents were the product of rumors and people's hysterical imagination. People imagined that Japanese Americans were setting signal fires and sending flashlight signals to submarines. Some noted that there were instances of Japanese farms being located next to military installations, despite the fact that the farms were there before the military. The FBI investigations produced no proof of sabotage. The FCC investigated reported radio signals and found they were bogus. All these fabrications were accepted without question by the public and used to justify the internment.

After the war, many Japanese Americans wanted to erase the memory of the nightmare of internment. They refused to talk about the humiliation of being accused of disloyalty and being powerless to protest. After decades of silence, the second and third generation of Japanese opened the subject, much to the discomfort of most of the older generation. Eventually they got legislation in 1980 to establish a commission to investigate the internment. The commission conducted research and interviews and produced a report in 1982. In 1988 President Reagan signed a bill formally apologizing for the internment and offering restitution of $20,000 to each of the survivors as a token compensation for loss of property.

The Supreme Court, the highest court in the judicial branch of government, in 1943-1944 made rulings supporting the internment by upholding the convictions of three people who contested the internment. These convictions were finally overturned in 1987 after evidence was presented that false information was supplied to the Supreme Court and contrary information was suppressed. However, the Supreme Court ruling still stands, and could be used to justify racial discrimination in times of stress. After 9/11, the Patriot Act brought new ways to deprive people of their civil rights under the excuse that it is necessary to prevent terrorism. Torture and assassination have been considered as justified. 167 suspected Muslims are being held indefinitely in a military prison in Guantanamo Cuba without charges and due process. People are being deported on trivial charges, such as the woman in Sacramento facing deportation after being arrested for selling tamales. Racial profiling is being used against minorities. So these issues are still relevant. The Constitution is like a fine machine that is well-designed to protect our liberty and civil rights. Did the Constitution protect the Japanese Americans in 1942? Does it protect Muslims today? It is our responsibility to keep the machinery of democracy oiled and repaired, and to ensure that the machine is operated correctly, as it was intended. Our responsibility is more than merely voting and watching the news on TV. Since we are the government, we need to be informed and take an active part in maintaining democracy. The challenge is to learn from the past and create a democracy that truly provides “liberty and justice for all.”

I was not directly affected by the internment because our family was in Okinawa during the war and survived the last big battle of the war. My relatives were in Hawaii, and were spared from internment because the 158,000 Japanese there constituted about a third of the population and it was impractical to move them. My uncle served in the 442nd Regimental Combat team and was wounded. I have experienced subtle forms of racial discrimination and am interested in learning how people create barriers between races. I believe that the first step toward racism is to label people as subhuman, as faceless objects, as animals. This allows mistreatment because “they” are separate from “us”. The alternative is to welcome diversity and take advantage of diversity of race and culture to enrich our lives.


Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. !982 Washington DC

Daniels, Roger. The Politics of Prejudice. UC Press 1962

tenBroek, Jacobus, et al. Prejudice, War, and the Constitution. UC Press 1954

Irons, Peter. Justice at War - The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases. Oxford University Press 1984

Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki, and James D., Farewell to Manzanar, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1973

Alonso, Karen, Korematsu vs. United States, Enslow Publishers, 1998

Armor, John, and Peter Wright, Manzanar, with photographs by Ansel Adams and commentary by John Hersey, Vintage Books, 1989

Lydon, Sandy, The Japanese in the Monterey Bay Region, Capitola Book Co., 1997