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Japanese American Internment Camps in the US During World War II
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, anti-Japanese sentiments began to take hold in the United States, particularly on the Pacific coast, where residents feared more attacks and the possibility of spies living amongst them. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the incarceration of nearly 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry in internment camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. More than two thirds of the internees were US citizens, and half were children. Forced to leave behind homes and jobs, they were transported to one of ten “relocation centers” located throughout California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas. In some instances family members were separated and placed in different camps. Many would not be released until the war was over.
Conditions in the Camps
Most of the camps were isolated in the desert or other remote areas away from the rest of civilization. According to a 1943 War Relocation Authority report, internees were housed in "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Meals were served in mess halls, and the food was substandard. A separate bath, laundry, and toilet building was shared by more than 250 people. Some Japanese Americans died in the camps due to inadequate medical care, and several were killed by military guards for allegedly resisting orders.
In January of 1944, a draft was instituted and Japanese Americans interred in the camps were forced to join the military and fight in World War II. Many of them refused until they were given their civil rights. Instead, those who resisted were sent to federal prison.
During this same period, prominent Japanese Americans began to file lawsuits against the United States Government, bringing into question the constitutionality of the internment camps. In December of 1944, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to detain “loyal citizens,” and as a result, the War Department rescinded the original orders to hold the internees, and they were finally allowed to leave the camps.
Having been held for up to 4 years, these Japanese Americans had lost jobs, homes, and land while they were imprisoned. They endured physical, mental, and emotional stresses that cannot be fully measured, although studies have shown a two times greater risk of heart disease and premature deaths among those who were interred compared to other Japanese Americans who did not spend time in the camps. The loss of what they had known as normal life before being sent away could never be replaced.
Apologies and Reparations
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s changed the political climate in the United States; racial discrimination began to be challenged openly. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, second generation Japanese Americans - many born during the internment - began organizing to bring about a formal apology, as well as compensation from the government for their actions during World War II. It would prove to be a long, uphill battle.
Finally, almost 50 years after the Japanese American Internment, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, also known as the Japanese American Redress Bill. It was signed into law by then President Ronald Reagan. The act acknowledged that “a grave injustice was done,” and offered restitution in the amount of $20,000.00 to each surviving internee. It also provided for a public educational fund to inform the public about the internment. The redress payments, along with a letter of apology signed by President George Bush in 1990, were presented to approximately 60,000 survivors of the internment.