Japanese Internment Essay, Research Paper
Japanese Internment: Will We Ever Know The Truth? Would The Truth Make It Moral?
In 1942, 120,000 Japanese-Americans were “relocated” to areas far from their
homes, out of the fear the United States Government held inside their hearts. Japan had
just bombed Pearl Harbor. Many of the U.S. seaport areas on the West coast were
inhabited by Japanese-Americans. General DeWitt provided a “security plan” for both
United States citizens (Caucasian) and the Japanese-Americans…or so it was stated.
However, when seeking the fine details of this incident, will we ever know the absolute
truth? The Official Government documents drastically contrast the first-hand accounts of
what it was like in those “Pioneer Communities.” Each source changes the story behind
the Japanese-American Internment slightly. Can truth truly exist once it becomes a part
of the past? By looking at both governmental and personal accounts of the Internment,
only small similarities carry throughout.
In the “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry,” John L. DeWitt,
lieutenant general of the Western Defense Command, posted on April 30th, 1942,
instructed all Japanese descendants, whether born inside or outside of the United States
that they were not to change residences after 12:00 PM on this very day, and that all
would be evacuated from their homes no later than May 7th, 1942 – only one week later.
There were no reasons behind this “evacuation,” and there were no explanations as to
what was going to happen after such an evacuation. Thorough plans for preparation were
provided, such as the offering of assistance from the Civil Control Station to help sell or
dispose of all personal or business property, and to provide temporary residence for all
Japanese in family groups. The instructions on this evacuation were very precise, and did
not allow for any compromise:
“THE FOLLOWING INSTRUCTIONS MUST BE OBSERVED:
…2. Evacuees must carry with them on departure for the Assembly Center, the following
(a) Bedding and linens (no mattress) for each member of the family;
(b) Toilet articles for each member of the family;
(c) Extra clothing for each member of the family;
(d) Sufficient knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, and cups for each member of
As is obvious, it seemed the government had a very specific plan in mind for these
thousands of Japanese-Americans. But no reasoning was offered to the victims of this
plan. Each citizen and “alien” (Non-American born Japanese were not allowed to
become citizens – evidence of previous racism against those of Asian background) were
expected to fully accept and obey what the government had expected of them. Most of
them did. It was a trust of the government – it was the center of everything, and the
President and his men held a great deal of respect – and the government officials must
have had sufficient reason for doing such a thing to it’s people. We know now that this
“relocation and evacuation” was immoral, deceitful, and practically criminal. But in the
1940’s, it was somehow accepted.
The instructions also included, not just what they were to bring, but also what
NOT to bring. “No pets of an kind…no personal items and no household goods….” The
government only allowed for the Japanese-Americans to bring necessities. Nothing that
would provide them with any of the comforts of home. Perhaps some thought the
government would provide them these sorts of amenities once they arrived wherever it
was that they were going. But they left it all behind.
It is easy to look into this occurrence now, with hate and wagging fingers,
knowing that even the government which initiated such a situation has taken blame and
admittance for such a wrongdoing. In the eyes, minds, and hearts of those involved in the
situation and around it, it must have been a very different situation.
In a news reel from 1942, reported by Milton Eisenhower, these camps of
“untamed” lands and “pioneer communities” seemed like ample opportunities for the
Japanese-Americans which were being moved there. The government was depicted as
working quickly to provide safety for Japanese descendants from the war-affected
Americans that may become violent towards them, and that they were busy ensuring that
the Japanese had everything that they would need for as long as they were there. The
Japanese were depicted as “curious” about their new surroundings, though the film
showed rather frightened-looking humans with slumped shoulders and withdrawn souls.
Nothing about them looked curious, however I’m sure some were – regarding when they
could go home again.
The government, particularly Milton Eisenhower in this film, portrayed the role of
the ‘good guy,” the protector, the provider, the safe-haven, for both its native citizens and
those of Japanese descent. They explained the “relocation” as a method of eliminating
the opportunity for sabotage, because the Japanese had settled around many navy bases
and seaports, allowing ample opportunities to spy upon the U.S. plans, and, if desired, to
report them back to Japan. This solution provided protection for the entire West Coast, if
not the entire country, from secret attacks from Japan due to secret information relayed to
them from a Japanese person in the United States. This also provided protection to the
Japanese from the Caucasian citizens in the U.S.. In case of hostility and violence, they
would be safe from any racial attacks due to the war at hand.
But was the “relocation” not a racial attack? What exactly was the basis for
“imprisoning” only the Japanese descendants when we were also at war with Italy and
Germany? DeWitt did address the concept of all “enemy-race” internment, or rather
imprisonment, but 10,000 Italians and Germans were arrested, placed through hearings,
and about 6,000 were immediately released. The government, indeed, played the severe
role of a hypocrite, and has admitted to such today.
After the situation had long been past, in 1982, the U.S Commission on Wartime
Relocation and Internment of Civilians was produced. It addresses a movement which
arose in the 1970’s to “provide redress for victims of the internment.” Apparently, the
government did realize that their actions in 1942 were morally wrong and detrimental to
the Japanese involved. This committee, the U.S.C.W.R.I.C. for short, interviewed
hundreds of internees, and published the report, Personal Justice Denied. “The report
concludes in no uncertain terms that the Nikkei internment was a grave injustice.” The
Congress was suggested to issue a formal apology and to authorize a $20,000 payment to
all surviving internees. These suggestions were, indeed, enacted by the Civil Liberties
Act of 1988, and the payments began in 1990.
Personal Justice Denied referred to the internment as a “policy [that] inevitably
failed,” and noted the fact that the “camps” were “surrounded by barbed wire and
military police.” This was something that, in 1942, the government would not admit to
the rest of the country. It was portrayed as a rather decent establishment, with quiet safety
and nurture. Now the government authorities were admitting otherwise. This document
even discusses the mistakes of “exclusion…continued without regard for their
demonstrated loyalty to the United States.”
One line, out of the entire documentation, summarizes the situations flaws at
“All this was done despite the fact that not a single documented act of espionage,
sabotage, or fifth column activity was committed by an American citizen of Japanese
ancestry or by a resident Japanese alien on the West Coast.”
It also addresses the fact that no “mass exclusion or detention, in any part of the
country, was ordered against American citizens of German or Italian decent,” and further
refers to the internment as a “personal injustice of excluding, removing, and detaining
loyal American citizens.” Finally, it refers to General DeWitt’s reasoning behind the
internment as “unfounded justifications.”
The government has, indeed, admitted their wrongdoings and injustices, and has
offered methods of repair and forgiveness, but the scars left upon those who were on the
inside of these camps cannot be repaired with a simple apology and the offering of
financial reimbursement. Imagine how damaging the inside, first-person view of the
dreaded internment camps were.
Min? Okubo, author of Citizen 13660, gives her first-person account of the way
the Japanese-Americans in the “communities” were treated, how they felt, and how they
lived. In her book, she says that “it was a real blow when everyone, regardless of
citizenship, was ordered to evacuate.” Imagine the audacity: no matter how long you had
been in the United States, whether from birth or soon after, you could look at your skin
color and know that you, too, had to go to this mysterious “relocation,” this “evacuation.”
You would lose everything you had lived for – your home, business, cars,
memories…everything that belonged to you, besides a few unimportant accessories
(bedding, clothes, etc.). Imagine losing even your identity, and having it replaced by a
number, having to tag “the baggage with the family number,” and pin “the personal tags”
on yourself. You would be filed onto a bus with hundreds of other Japanese descendants,
escorted by military police, and driven to a possibly familiar sounding place, such as a
racetrack or fairground, yet not knowing what to expect once you had arrived. Even once
you arrived, you would be searched. All “straight-edged razors, knives longer than four
inches long, and liquor were considered contraband” and confiscated. Okubo even talked
about how the government attempted to separate her brother and herself, but she argued
the point with the “receptionists,” and finally got to remain with him.
While in the camp, it was much different from Milton Eisenhower’s interpretation
of “plenty of healthful, nourishing food.” Min? describes her first meal as “canned
hash…potato and two slices of bread.” They had a single pitcher of tea on each table, and
when finished with their “meal,” the dishes were not very sanitarily cleaned in a “soapy
At the end of the day, like while at home, or anywhere else for that matter, it was
time to attempt a good night’s sleep. However, “the mattress department was a stable
filled with straw.” “Bags of ticking” were given to be stuffed with the straw. Only the
old and sick were allowed the few cotton mattresses that were available.
The “rooms” that the Japanese were housed in were depicted in Citizen 13660 as
having many holes in the boards and very cold in these stable-like dwellings. All of the
possessions they had brought with them were used as warmth for the night, because their
single blanket was not enough to keep them from shivering.
Numerous unhappy, uneasy experiences are depicted in reference to any aspect of
the interment camps for the Japanese-Americans placed there. Min? explains that
because of the poor conditions, she had a cold most of the time she spend in internment.
Serious conflicts in the descriptions of these such camps between the government
and the internees occur. Governmental views of these camps depict decently designed,
safe shelters with many opportunities and healthy surroundings. Min?’s views are
completely oppositional. What exactly is the truth behind the matter?
The government did admit to the camps being extremely less glamorous than
envisioned and defined in 1942. Many aspects were not addressed by the government
regarding the camps, however, leaving many unanswered questions. Can one aspect
necessarily be believed as the truth?
One thing is for sure; The internment of the Japanese-American citizens and
‘aliens’ was morally, judgmentally, ethically, and governmentally wrong. That aspect, at
least, has been agreed upon.
Can truth, once it has become an aspect of the past, truly exist? Again, I feel, we
have failed to prove that it truly can, at least in entirety. On the concept of the
Japanese-American internment, most aspects have been settled, but yet, as in all historical
situations, many have not. The world may never know exactly to what extent the horrors
occurred, or to what depths the scars left had been cut. It is in the past, but it will affect
many lives from here far into the future.