News & Features

Concentration Camps on the Home Front: Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow

Professor John Howard
Head of American Studies

As a result of Executive Order 9066 signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on 19 February 1942, over 110,000 Japanese Americans along the West Coast of the United States faced eviction from their homes and expulsion from the area – what the War Relocation Authority (WRA) called “evacuation,” falsely implying rescue. Far from delivering Japanese Americans from danger, the WRA put them into one hazardous situation after another, first confining them at sixteen “assembly centres”: detention camps with barbed-wire fences and guard towers. The largest was set up at Santa Anita Race Track, where horse stables were converted into living quarters and straw was used to stuff mattresses. Then prisoners were shunted into ten longer-term “relocation centres” constructed on undesirable federal lands across the West and South. Though obviously quite different from Nazi death camps, these compounds for the forced, indiscriminate incarceration of an entire ethnic minority population have earned the designation concentration camps from many scholars of Asian American history. The phrase was also widely used by political figures at the time, including Roosevelt. At the camps, inmates were subjected to indoctrination (“rehabilitation”) through aggressive Americanization and Christianization campaigns and inquisition (“registration”) via lengthy questionnaires and loyalty hearings. Those labelled un-American were slated for isolation (“segregation”) and offered renunciation of citizenship (“denaturalization”), with many repatriating or, more commonly, expatriating to Japan, a place they’d never been. In a calculated program of dispersal (“resettlement”), only half or so returned to the West Coast after the war, with the other half impelled, if not compelled, to take up new residences in other sections of the United States. Thus, it is not only inaccurate to call this lengthy set of processes “internment,” a concept recognized in international law for the treatment of citizens of “enemy nations” during wartime, since the vast majority were birthright Americans. It is also, in my view, inadequate – for the term fails to capture the great range and magnitude of these injustices, the lasting repercussions for the individuals and groups involved, as well as their descendants.

Published by Chicago University Press, 2008