By: Kathleen Shea
Before the rise of Islamophobia in the United States, there was “Japanophobia.”
In 1947, over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry called the United States their home. About one third were born in Japan. Among other limitations on their civil liberties, they could not attain citizenship, hold property, or participate in elections.
Doubts were raised regarding Japanese-Americans’ allegiance to the United States after the attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941. Many Americans began to believe that these Japanese-Americans were planning collectively to hinder efforts against Japan in the war.
At the same time, pressures on the Roosevelt administration heightened from those seeking to eliminate Japanese competition in the market, from politicians hoping to capitalize on racial divisions, and from military officials. On February 8, 1942, Congress directly advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt to imprison Americans of Japanese descent, purportedly to defend the U.S. effort in World War II.
Two months after Pearl Harbor, FDR signed an executive order, which instructed all Japanese persons residing in America, regardless of citizenship status, to leave the Pacific Coast military zone effective immediately. It has been noted that this order did not apply to those of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii.
Curiously, Americans of Italian or German descent were not detained, despite the German and Italian opposition to the U.S. and its allies.
As a result, more than 100,000 people were forced to move into one of 10 concentration camps across the country in California, Utah, Wyoming, Arkansas, Idaho, Arizona, and Colorado, with no promise of return. It was not until three years later when American citizens in the camps were allowed to leave gradually and return to the West Coast. Many had already sold all of their property and no longer owned homes. In 1946, the last camp was officially closed.
Afterward, over 5,000 American-born Japanese renounced their American citizenship, although this action was later voided by a federal judge. Yet, almost 4,000 Japanese-Americans entered the U.S. armed forces directly from the camps, and 22,000 more joined from Hawaii and other areas outside the West Coast.
In 1948, the Civil Liberties Act provided for reimbursement of property losses by interned Japanese persons. Still, the Supreme Court judged the relocation order constitutional in both Korematsu v. United States and Hirabayashi v. United States. Since then, there has been no further ruling on the camps.
During President Donald Trump’s campaign, a former spokesperson for the pro-Trump Great America PAC, Carl Higbie, referenced these Japanese internment camps as a “legal precedent” for a ban on Muslims entering the country and for a proposed registry of Muslim persons residing in the U.S.
The blatant connection between this dark moment in U.S. history and the present day is not lost on people. Last month, actor George Takei, who was detained along with his family during World War II, drafted a petition to “Stand Up for Muslims in the U.S.” and gathered more than 40,000 signatures.
As the status of the travel ban is currently in limbo, those affected by the camps continue to remind the public of FDR’s own executive order. Rep. Mark Takano of California, whose parents and grandparents were among those imprisoned in the concentration camps, spoke to the House of Representatives on January 30.
"History often forces us to ask ourselves: How would we have acted if we lived in that moment?” said Takano. “Through the president's recent executive order, we no longer have to wonder."
Kathleen Shea is a Strategic Trust-Building Intern at EastWest Institute. She is currently a junior at New York University, majoring in International Relations with a minor in Mandarin Chinese.