Japanese American ‘relocation’ camps
After the attack by Imperial Japan
on Pearl Harbor
, which dragged the USA
, the US government decreed that all people of Japanese descent living within an “Exclusion Zone” along the Pacific coast states (Washington, Oregon, Alaska and, mostly, California) should be interned and sent to special camp facilities inland. The war hysteria and anti-Japanese sentiment in the USA was such that several newspapers called for such measures, and that in explicitly racist ways, likening the Japanese to “vipers” and calling the war in the Pacific
a war with “the Japanese race”. However, it has to be emphasized that of the 120,000 people affected, two thirds were US citizens, and the rest first-generation immigrants who were barred from naturalization, but who had mostly also been in the US for many years if not decades.
A special body, the “War Relocation Authority
) was formed to oversee these measures. While the camps were being constructed (often on Native American reservation land), the Japanese Americans were sent to temporary camps or “assembly centres” (reminiscent of the Nazis
’ ‘transit camps’ like Drancy
or Kazerne Dossin
). They were then distributed amongst the following ten
proper “War Relocation Centers
- Gila River, Arizona
- Jerome, Arkansas
- Poston, Arizona
In effect these were concentration camps
– not of the sort the Nazis
set up for systematic exploitation of ‘undesirables’ in the sense of “Vernichtung durch Arbeit” (extermination through labour), and without any torture, medical experiments or random executions – but still: the inmates had done nothing wrong, and practically none of them were ever charged with espionage for the (Japanese) enemy or sabotage or other such acts that they were deemed capable of or even likely to commit. They were simply incarcerated because of their ethnicity – as a form of “Sippenhaft” (a difficult to translate German term for the collective punishment through incarceration of people deemed guilty by association solely on the grounds of being of the same family, clan or ethnic group). Some Germans and Italians were also affected by similar measures, but in far smaller numbers.
The relocation orders for Japanese Americans started in February 1942, and all Japanese Americans were told to pack only what they could carry, so most just packed a suitcase with essentials but were forced to leave all their other belongings behind (along with their homes, jobs and day-to-day lives).
Life in the camps was spartan, and many inmates suffered not only from the feeling of having been uprooted, but also as a result of the cramped conditions in the wooden barracks without any plumbing and with little privacy (there were only communal latrines, for instance). But most of them were resigned to their fate (the phrase “Shikata ga nai”, meaning roughly ‘it cannot be helped’, became the common expression for this). There was some medical care and education – about a quarter of the inmates were children – though it was hard to recruit sufficient teachers. Some students were allowed to leave the camps for schools/colleges in the Eastern US that would accept Japanese Americans. Some internees were also allowed to go to work outside the camps. There was work inside the camps too, e.g. for the military (producing camouflage netting, for instance).
From early 1943 the US military also developed an interest in recruiting eligible soldiers from the camps into service in WWII
. For this the War Relocation Authority prepared a questionnaire with which to ascertain the degree of “Americanness” and loyalty of the inmates. This caused much confusion and division, as many did not know what to respond especially to two crucial questions, namely whether they were willing to serve in the US armed forces and whether they would swear “unqualified allegiance” to the USA
. Some answered ‘no’ to both of these questions, often simply out of a feeling of having been mistreated by the US, so why should they suddenly volunteer to serve it? It was also unclear whether expressing willingness to serve already amounted to volunteering. Some also feared that swearing allegiance to the US and at the same time forswearing allegiance to Japan could land them in trouble should they find themselves deported there.
Anyway, while the majority of internees did pledge allegiance, those who had answered those two crucial questions with ‘no’ and were thus deemed “disloyal” were segregated and concentrated in the Tule Lake relocation camp under harsher conditions. On the other hand, over 30,000 Japanese Americans did join the military service and many distinguished themselves.
In late 1944, the US Supreme Court ruled (see Topaz
) that while the initial removal of Japanese Americans was constitutional, their subsequent collective incarceration in camps was not. The first inmates left the camps in early 1945. However, many didn’t have anywhere to return to, no home, no job, no businesses. Ironically quite a few ended up being forcibly removed and sent back to the West Coast.
By the end of 1945 all the camps had closed except Tule Lake
, the camp for those deemed “disloyal” (see above). Those who had also taken up the offer to renounce their US citizenship were held at Tule Lake camp until March 1946 prior to their deportation to Japan.
For those who had returned “home” to the West Coast, the hardship was far from over. Not only had many ex-internees lost their property and businesses due to their relocation, they also faced continued discrimination, and of course they had to deal with the psychological repercussions of what they had been through.
The camps themselves were largely dismantled after 1945/46, so very little of the original structures can still be seen – though at some camps a few reconstructions have been added in recent years (see in particular Amache
The whole history of these camps was almost forgotten, until in the 1960s campaigns for recognition were started by former inmates or their descendants, partly encouraged by other new developments in domestic US affairs, such as the Civil Rights Movement.
The Japanese American movement for redress and reparations had its first success when in 1976 then president Ford issued the first apology for their internment. This was followed by an act signed by president Reagan in 1988 through which all former internees still alive would be awarded 20,000 USD each. Four years later further funds were released.
In 2001 the US Congress decreed that the sites of the former WRA camps were to become National Historic Landmarks that have to be preserved. Thus proper commemoration at the sites was to be ensured.
And indeed at some of these former camps efforts have been made in recent years to better commodify
the sites, with information panels, museums/exhibitions and even some reconstructions of camp buildings have been undertaken. A couple of the sites are managed by the National Park Service, others rely on private initiatives, and a few have no more than a marker plaque or simple monument.
This website covers only those former camps where there is something more to see than just a plaque or monument and that feature some commodification for visitors, namely these seven: