Japanese-American Incarceration During World War II – National Archives |

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In his speech to Congress, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was “a date which will live in infamy.” The attack launched the United States fully into the two theaters of World War II – Europe and the Pacific. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the United States had been involved in a non-combat role, through the Lend-Lease Program that supplied England, China, Russia, and other anti-fascist countries of Europe with munitions.
The attack on Pearl Harbor also launched a rash of fear about national security, especially on the West Coast. In February 1942, just two months later, President Roosevelt, as commander-in-chief, issued Executive Order 9066 that resulted in the internment of Japanese Americans. The order authorized the Secretary of War and military commanders to evacuate all persons deemed a threat from the West Coast to internment camps, that the government called “relocation centers,” further inland. Read more…
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Meeting Between Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt and Representatives of the Department of Justice and the Army at the Office of Commanding General, Headquarters, Western Defense Command and Fourth Army, in San Francisco, 1/4/1942
Executive Order 9066 Issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 2/19/1942
Posting of Exclusion Order in San Francisco, Directing Removal of Persons of Japanese Ancestry from the First Section in San Francisco to be Affected by the Evacuation, 4/11/1942
Thank You Note at the Iseri Drugstore in “Little Tokyo” in Los Angeles, California, 4/11/1942
Merchandise Sale in San Francisco, California, Where Customers Buy Goods Prior to Evacuation and Internment, 4/4/1942
Children Pledge Allegiance to the Flag in San Francisco, California, at Raphael Weill Public School, 4/20/1942
The Shibuya Family at Their Home in Mountain View, California, Before Being Sent to Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming Days Later, 4/18/1942
Ranch Superintendent Henry Futamachi (Left) Discusses Agriculture with Ranch Owner John MacKinley Before Evacuation and Internment, 4/10/1942
Dave Tatsuno Reading to His Son and Packing His Possessions Prior to Evacuation and Internment, 4/13/1942
Residents of Japanese Ancestry File Forms in San Francisco, Two Days Before Evacuation and Internment, 4/4/1942
Residents of Japanese Ancestry, With Baggage Stacked, Waiting for a Bus to be Evacuated at the Wartime Civil Control Administration in San Francisco, 4/6/1942
Japanese Family Heads and Persons Living Alone Line up for “Processing” in Response to Civilian Exclusion Order Number 20, 4/25/1942
Baggage Being Sorted and Trucked to Owners in Their Barracks at the Minidoka Internment Camp in Eden, Idaho, 8/17/1942
Registering and Assigning Barracks to the Newly Arrived at Minidoka Internment Camp in Eden, Idaho, 8/17/1942
The Hirano Family Posing with a Photograph of a United States Serviceman at the Colorado River Internment Camp in Poston, Arizona
High School Campus at Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming — Classes are Held in Tarpaper-covered, Barrack-style Buildings, 6/1943
The Poster Crew at Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming, Making Fire and Safety Posters, Announcements for Public Gatherings and Dances, and General Instructions, 9/14/1942
Court Session at Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming, Presiding Over Infractions of Camp Regulations and Civil Court Cases, 6/4/1943
Coal Crew at Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming, Providing Heat for Residents During Cold Winter Months, 9/15/1942
Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942 – Written by General DeWitt, who Oversaw the Internment of Japanese-Americans, Providing a Favorable Overview of the “Evacuation Program”
This 10-minute film clip called “Japanese-Americans” (1945) comes from Army-Navy Screen Magazine, a biweekly film series for servicemen during World War II. It highlights the 100th Infantry Battalion, composed largely of Japanese-Americans.
This video clip shows President Ronald Reagan Giving Remarks and Signing the Japanese-American Internment Compensation Bill, 8/10/1988


In Japanese American Incarceration During World War II on DocsTeach students analyze a variety of documents and photographs to learn how the government justified the forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and how civil liberties were denied.
Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had identified German, Italian, and Japanese aliens who were suspected of being potential enemy agents; and they were kept under surveillance. Following the attack at Pearl Harbor, government suspicion arose not only around aliens who came from enemy nations, but around all persons of Japanese descent, whether foreign born (issei) or American citizens (nisei). During congressional committee hearings, representatives of the Department of Justice raised logistical, constitutional, and ethical objections. Regardless, the task was turned over to the U.S. Army as a security matter.
The entire West Coast was deemed a military area and was divided into military zones. Executive Order 9066 authorized military commanders to exclude civilians from military areas. Although the language of the order did not specify any ethnic group, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command proceeded to announce curfews that included only Japanese Americans. Next, he encouraged voluntary evacuation by Japanese Americans from a limited number of areas; about seven percent of the total Japanese American population in these areas complied.
On March 29, 1942, under the authority of the executive order, DeWitt issued Public Proclamation No. 4, which began the forced evacuation and detention of Japanese-American West Coast residents on a 48-hour notice. Only a few days prior to the proclamation, on March 21, Congress had passed Public Law 503, which made violation of Executive Order 9066 a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Because of the perception of “public danger,” all Japanese Americans within varied distances from the Pacific coast were targeted. Unless they were able to dispose of or make arrangements for care of their property within a few days, their homes, farms, businesses, and most of their private belongings were lost forever.
From the end of March to August, approximately 112,000 persons were sent to “assembly centers” – often racetracks or fairgrounds – where they waited and were tagged to indicate the location of a long-term “relocation center” that would be their home for the rest of the war. Nearly 70,000 of the evacuees were American citizens. There were no charges of disloyalty against any of these citizens, nor was there any vehicle by which they could appeal their loss of property and personal liberty.
“Relocation centers” were situated many miles inland, often in remote and desolate locales. Sites included Tule Lake and Manzanar in California; Gila River and Poston in Arizona; Jerome and Rohwer in Arkansas, Minidoka in Idaho; Topaz in Utah; Heart Mountain in Wyoming; and Granada in Colorado. (Incarceration rates were significantly lower in the territory of Hawaii, where Japanese Americans made up over one-third of the population and their labor was needed to sustain the economy. However, martial law had been declared in Hawaii immediately following the Pearl Harbor attack, and the Army issued hundreds of military orders, some applicable only to persons of Japanese ancestry.)
In the “relocation centers” (also called “internment camps”), four or five families, with their sparse collections of clothing and possessions, shared tar-papered army-style barracks. Most lived in these conditions for nearly three years or more until the end of the war. Gradually some insulation was added to the barracks and lightweight partitions were added to make them a little more comfortable and somewhat private. Life took on some familiar routines of socializing and school. However, eating in common facilities, using shared restrooms, and having limited opportunities for work interrupted other social and cultural patterns. Persons who resisted were sent to a special camp at Tule Lake, CA, where dissidents were housed.
In 1943 and 1944, the government assembled a combat unit of Japanese Americans for the European theater. It became the 442d Regimental Combat Team and gained fame as the most highly decorated of World War II. Their military record bespoke their patriotism.
As the war drew to a close, “internment camps” were slowly evacuated. While some persons of Japanese ancestry returned to their hometowns, others sought new surroundings. For example, the Japanese-American community of Tacoma, WA, had been sent to three different centers; only 30 percent returned to Tacoma after the war. Japanese Americans from Fresno had gone to Manzanar; 80 percent returned to their hometown.
The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II sparked constitutional and political debate. During this period, three Japanese-American citizens challenged the constitutionality of the forced relocation and curfew orders through legal actions: Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu, and Mitsuye Endo. Hirabayashi and Korematsu received negative judgments; but Mitsuye Endo, after a lengthy battle through lesser courts, was determined to be “loyal” and allowed to leave the Topaz, Utah, facility.
Justice Murphy of the Supreme Court expressed the following opinion in Ex parte Mitsuye Endo:
In 1988, Congress passed, and President Reagan signed, Public Law 100-383 – the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 – that acknowledged the injustice of “internment,” apologized for it, and provided a $20,000 cash payment to each person who was incarcerated.
One of the most stunning ironies in this episode of denied civil liberties was articulated by an internee who, when told that Japanese Americans were put in those camps for their own protection, countered “If we were put there for our protection, why were the guns at the guard towers pointed inward, instead of outward?”
A note on terminology: The historical primary source documents included on this page reflect the terminology that the government used at the time, such as alien, evacuation, relocation, relocation centers, internment, and Japanese (as opposed to Japanese American).
CC0 Materials created by the National Archives and Records Administration are in the public domain.
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This page was last reviewed on March 22, 2024.
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