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International Socialist Review Issue 13, August-September 2000

America's Concentration Camps

By Ken Matsumura

Two members of the author's family, Yoko Mitani and Grace Arimura, spoke to the International Socialist Review about their experiences of internment in California and Arkansas.

Grace: It was May 1942 when my sister Ida brought home a poster she had torn down from a telephone pole on her way home from school in California's San Joaquin Valley. We were stunned by its terse message: "All persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the designated area by 12 o'clock noon on May 22." In two weeks my parents were required to somehow terminate or suspend a lifetime. After years of struggling, my parents and family faced imprisonment.

The family cages and coops were opened and rabbits and chickens freed. My mother burned precious fabric remnants and quilts, the furniture abandoned. We all just dropped out of school.

Yoko: Our family was sent to the Fresno Assembly Center, built on the site of the Fresno Fair Grounds. There were approximately 10 blocks of barracks, 20 barracks in each block. Each barrack was divided into four rooms. Our family of 11, the youngest 4 years old, was assigned two rooms. There was no ceiling between the rooms. Our floors were concrete. Eight-foot fences surrounded the entire camp. There was another, shorter fence inside the camp. There were strategically placed guard towers manned day and night by soldiers with machine guns. At night, searchlights beamed along the fence to deter any escape attempts.

We ate in mess halls, army style. We were summoned to meals by a bugler playing "Doggie, Doggie, Doggie, Come and get your food."

We were transferred to the Jerome Relocation Center in Denson, Arkansas in the last days of October 1942. The trip took us five days and four nights by train. A contingent of armed MP's guarded us at all times. We slept sitting up in our assigned seats.

Grace: We made the best of our situation. Education continued, sports and culture clubs formed. We laughed at our plight, but it wasn't funny.

There were young men of draft age reclassified from 1-A to alien status 4-C, making them ineligible to serve in the armed forces. They were reclassified back to 1-A two years later. Is it any wonder that there were those who refused to report for the draft out of the prison camp? My brother was serving in the Army while his family was in a concentration camp.

What had we done to deserve this?

The history

In February 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order Number 9066, forcing more than 120,000 Japanese Americans into "relocation centers" across the country in the largest forced movement of people in the U.S. since the relocation of Native Americans in the nineteenth century. Driving them from their homes in California, Western Oregon, Washington and Southern Arizona, the U.S. government gave families as little as two weeks to report to concentration camps where most would spent the next three to four years.

The sudden order and the distances families were being asked to travel meant that almost everything but the clothes on their backs had to be left behind. Families from Bainbridge Island, Washington, for example, were forced to report to the Tule Lake relocation center in Northern California. Most lost everything they had before the war. They had to sell, give away, or destroy land, homes, vehicles, cherished relics, and artifacts.

Nearly 65 percent of those interned were American citizens born in the United States, while the other 35 percent could not become citizens by law. They had broken no laws. There would be no hearings or trials for those incarcerated. Their only crime was their heritage.

While the Second World War raged in Europe and Asia, the incarceration of Japanese in the United States rested on a campaign of racism and hypocrisy. To justify the camps, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Command and the Fourth Army, characterized Japanese Americans as "a large, unassimilated, tightly knit racial group, bound to an enemy by strong ties of race, culture, custom and religion," which constituted a "menace which had to be dealt with."

Where did the racism come from?

The oppression of Asians did not start with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 but rather much earlier. In 1882 Congress passed and President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years. The law was extended another 10 years in 1892 and made permanent in 1902. In 1907, the U.S. struck a deal with Japan to stem the tide of Japanese immigration to the United States. During the first half of the twentieth century, immigrants from Japan could not become citizens of the United States. Without citizenship they could not legally own land. Despite these controls, by 1940 nearly 130,000 Japanese lived in the United States, 113,000 on the West Coast.

But the racism toward Asians reached new heights during the war. After the Japanese armed forces bombed Pearl Harbor, a wave of racist hysteria swept the United States. The issue of Time magazine following Pearl Harbor exclaimed:

Over the U.S. and its history, there was a great unanswered question: What would the people...say in the face of the mightiest event of their time?

What they said--tens of thousands of them--was: "Why, the yellow bastards!"

The FBI immediately began to arrest and detain "subversives" suspected of aiding the "enemy," even though there was no documented evidence of spying activity. In Norfolk, Virginia, every Japanese American found was immediately jailed. In Nashville, the Tennessee Department of Conservation requested 6 million licenses to hunt "Japs." The purchasing department rejected the request, noting, "Open season on 'Japs'--no license required." Within a month, 2,192 suspects had been jailed. Throughout the country, Asians were threatened by angry mobs of racists.

Generals used the same language to speak of Japanese in the U.S. that they used to speak of the people they were daily bombing. Secretary of War Henry Stimson saw no difference between those he was at war with and those at home: "Their racial characteristics are such that we cannot understand or trust even the citizen Japanese."

Politicians used every opportunity to push racism at home further. Senator Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio) declared on the floor of the Senate that one of the "exclusion" laws was the "sloppiest" criminal law he had ever seen, but once assured that it would be used only against the Japanese, he voted for it. It passed both houses without a single dissenting vote. While demanding internment, the governor of Wyoming, Nels Smith shouted, "If you bring Japanese into my state, I promise you they will be hanging from every tree."

Not to be left out, the Supreme Court added to the chorus. The 1943 Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favor of the selective suspension of civil rights of the Japanese. One justice attempted to write a dissenting viewpoint but under pressure from the rest of the court withdrew it from the record. Justice Black in fact was unrepentant about this decision when he said in a 1971 interview for the New York Times, "There were lots of disloyal Japanese-Americans who would have fought alongside any invading Japanese troops."

California Attorney General and future Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren complained that Japanese Americans had "infiltrated themselves into every strategic spot in our coastal and valley Counties."

Washington State Senator Henry M. Jackson, dubbed the Senator from Boeing, criticized internment--for pampering Japanese Americans.

Roosevelt not only signed the initial order for internment, but he also established the "Aliens Division" of the Department of Justice, which in cooperation with the FBI and military intelligence drew up lists of aliens to be interned in case of war.

Fifth column?

The main report to the military regarding the threat of Japanese in the U.S. was the Munson Report compiled by businessman-turned-spy Curtis B. Munson. Munson, along with military intelligence and the FBI, concluded that although the majority of Japanese in the U.S. were loyal, "there are still Japanese in the United States who will tie dynamite around their waist and make a human bomb out of themselves."

Reports regarding the loyalty of Japanese went from the hysterical to the lunatic. "The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken," concluded one army report.

In fact there was absolutely no evidence that Japanese Americans were a "fifth column"--secret sympathizers of the enemy sabotaging the war effort. Naval Lieutenant Commander Kenneth D. Ringle, who contributed heavily to the Munson Report, concluded, after "careful investigations on both the West Coast and Hawaii, there was never a shred of evidence found of sabotage, subversive acts, spying, or fifth column activity."

Moreover, the case of Hawaii proves that internment in the U.S. was motivated by political rather than military considerations. On the West Coast of the U.S., Japanese made up 2 percent of the population, while in Hawaii every third person was of Japanese ancestry. Yet, in Hawaii, only 1,500 of the 150,000 Japanese Americans were interned. Why? Because in Hawaii the U.S. depended upon Japanese labor to pursue the war effort. One would think that if the fear of sabotage were the real reason for internment, then Japanese would not have been free to work near the heart of the U.S. Navy stationed in Hawaii.

Resistance in the camps

Those who organized in the camps for better conditions or in opposition to the internment were sent into solitary confinement for months at a time, or sent to special prison camps separated from the other detainees. At Tule Lake, a War Relocation Authority (WRA) penal colony, a former security officer describes how he and other security officers beat inmates with baseball bats:

None of the three Japs were unconscious but all three were groggy from the blows they received, especially the one...hit with the baseball bat. We picked the three of them up and got them on their feet and took them into the administration building...[where] we ordered the Japanese to lie down on the floor. They refused to do so, whereupon I knocked my Jap down with my fist. He stayed down but was not unconscious. [The other officer] hit his Jap over the head again with a baseball bat.

WRA authorities ran the internment camps tightly, surrounding them with barbed wire and gun towers. Camp officers rarely allowed anyone to leave. The treatment of the Japanese American camp prisoners was in stark contrast to the treatment of German soldiers in a prisoner of war camp only 15 miles from Tule Lake. The German prisoners were free to go into the nearby town whenever they pleased to shop in local stores and picnic in the hills.

Dillon S. Myer, director of the camps, pronounced the internment program "an exciting adventure in the democratic method." He later became commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where he presided over the "termination" policy that closed down reservations and relocated Indians in urban centers.

Reversing an earlier decision, the military started to draft Japanese American citizens of military age, even those in concentration camps. An antidraft movement began in the camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where 85 of the inmates refused induction, maintaining that as long as their families were locked up they would refuse to serve. The federal government, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, arrested and tried 291 and eventually convicted 263.

Despite the treatment they received, many Japanese Americans chose to serve in the military. Their division, the 442nd, was the most decorated in the U.S. military and was the division that liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. Ironically, as they liberated Dachau, their mothers and fathers languished in concentration camps in the United States.

Special thanks to Yoko Mitani, Grace Arimura and Itsu Arimura for material and interviews.


Roger Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993).

Michi Nishiuea Weglyn, Years of Infamy (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976).

J. Burton, Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites (Publications in Anthropology 74, 1999).

Paul D'Amato, "The war at home: The hidden history of concentration camps inside the U.S.," Socialist Worker, December, 1991: p. 8.

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