Looking Like the Enemy

For nearly a decade prior to the outbreak of war, various federal agencies had been conducting surveillance in Japanese American communities in anticipation of a possible war with Japan. The general consensus of those agencies was that the Japanese American community as a whole posed little threat to the U.S. should war with Japan take place. They also put together custodial detention lists of those who would be arrested should war come. These lists allowed the government to begin rounding up what were now “enemy aliens” within hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. For the most part, those apprehended were male immigrant community leaders who were suspect for the positions they held—heads of a Japanese Association branch or priests at Buddhist temples, for instance—rather than for anything they had specifically done. Initially held in local facilities—along with some prisoners of German and Italian descent—they were moved to internment camps run by the army or Immigration and Naturalization Service, with most spending the duration of the war there, sometimes alongside Japanese Latin Americans who had been evicted from their homes and brought to the U.S for internment.

Despite the swift arrest and detention of all whom prewar surveillance had identified as suspect, calls for stronger measures soon came from West Coast political leaders, who drew upon five decades of anti-Japanese sentiment. Such sentiment dovetailed with views held by General John L. DeWitt, the head of the army’s Western Defense Command, which was charged with the defense of the Western U.S. They influenced key figures in the War Department to advocate for removing all Japanese Americans from West Coast states. Though the Justice Department, led by Attorney General Francis Biddle, opposed such measures, the proponents of mass removal won out, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066—which gave the army power to exclude whomever it saw fit under the guise of “military necessity”—on February 19, 1942.

Armed with EO 9066, General DeWitt wasted no time in ordering the West Coast be cleared of Japanese Americans. At first, Japanese Americans were encouraged to move inland on their own, what the government called “voluntary evacuation.” Not surprisingly, leaders of other Western states objected, and this plan was called off after a mere 5,000 out of 110,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast had moved. Instead, the army’s Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) quickly created fifteen “assembly centers” and two “reception centers” to house the Japanese Americans. The “assembly centers” utilized existing facilities such as fairgrounds and horse racing tracks located near the areas where Japanese Americans were being removed. The WCCA efficiently removed Japanese Americans neighborhood-by-neighborhood over the spring and summer of 1942 in a series of 108 exclusion orders. Residents of the area defined by each order were given a week to tie up their affairs and report for their own exile. Stories abound of profiteers offering distressed Nikkei pennies on the dollar for their possessions or taking over farms filled with ready-to-harvest produce. As Japanese Americans got on the trains and buses, they wondered what the future held for them.

Stay up to date on Densho News. Sign up for our Newsletter >Subscribe

  • #OTD in 1970, Asian Americans for Peace organized Little Tokyo's first anti-war march. About 200 people, young and… https://t.co/jEeV4ekpq0
  • Exiled from their homes and stripped of the routines that filled their prewar lives, incarcerated Japanese American… https://t.co/4VOjH130k2
  • The glow up is real. Densho website in 2000 v. today. #pubertychallenge #theawkwardyears https://t.co/4Q7oLuTBkd
  • Seattle haiku association Rainier Ginsha begins its 85th year in 2019: "I've been making haiku for seventy years no… https://t.co/4M9uLlYY16
  • "The Steel Helmet" opened #OTD in 1951. It was the first mainstream film to critically address Japanese American in… https://t.co/O9rlDfyRRu