A Nation's Shame: Japanese-American Internment in WWII
The reality of people rounded up and placed in camps because of their ethnicity is a blot on America's past — and a warning for its future.
Historical/Corbis via Getty Images
Published June 18, 2018
Published a month ago
Within months of the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy, the United States began forcibly removing more than 100,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent from their homes and businesses. Almost all of those targeted — the majority of them American citizens — spent the entire Second World War in "internment camps" operated by America's War Relocation Authority (WRA). Eight decades later, the executive orders by President Franklin Roosevelt and "proclamations" by Lieut. General John L. DeWitt that set the incarcerations in motion remain indelible stains on America's legacy. And as with so much 20th-century history, it is through photographs — of the internees, and those charged with packing them off to camps — that the true scale of humiliation and fear, and of America's knee-jerk racism, comes into focus.
Dorothea Lange/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images'I AM AN AMERICAN'The owner of a store in Oakland, Calif., a University of California graduate of Japanese descent, placed this "I am an American" sign on his shop on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. In 1942, the owner was sent to an internment camp.
Dorothea Lange/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesEVEN VETERANS WERE TARGETEDAn American veteran of World War I, proudly wearing his uniform, is processed for internment at an "assembly center" for persons of Japanese ancestry in California, 1942.
Dorothea Lange/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesPUTTING JAPANESE-AMERICANS ON NOTICEA posted notice informing people of Japanese ancestry of imminent relocation from homes to internment camps. In subsequent decades, government reports commissioned by FDR's administration — at least one of them well before the attack on Pearl Harbor — meant to gauge the loyalty of Japanese Americans have come to light. Several of the reports argued against incarceration, and found little to no evidence of sympathy for Japan over the United States in anticipation of a war between the two countries.PhotoQuest/Getty ImagesLEAVING HOMESoldiers stand watch as the luggage of residents of Japanese ancestry is loaded onto a truck prior to relocation to internment camps, San Francisco, California, April 29, 1942.
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images'WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL'Japanese American children say the Pledge of Allegiance at a public school in San Francisco, 1942.Dorothea Lange/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesSOLDIERS AND TRAINSIn a picture that brings the darkest chapters of history immediately and inevitably to mind — families huddled beside train cars under the watchful eyes of the military — people of Japanese ancestry line up after arriving at the Santa Anita Assembly Center in California, 1942.Dorothea Lange/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesWELCOME TO MANZANARThe War Relocation Authority internment camp at Manzanar, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, July 3, 1943. Manzanar is the best-known (translation: most infamous) of the "relocation centers" run by the American government during WWII, probably because it was frequently photographed by legends like Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and others. To this day, unsurprisingly, there is passionate debate about the terminology around these sites, with some claiming that "relocation camp" is an accurate phrase to describe the conditions that people experienced, while others argue that "concentration camp" is a more appropriate designation, in light of American citizens forcibly incarcerated solely because of their ancestry and ethnicity.
Dorothea Lange/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesUNCERTAIN FUTUREYoung evacuees of Japanese ancestry await their turn for baggage inspection upon arrival at an assembly center in California, May 1942. It's worth noting that German-Americans and Italian-Americans were also targeted as suspect by the U.S. government (and by their "patriotic" neighbors) throughout World War II. Tens of thousands were classified as "enemy aliens" simply because of their ethnicity, and many ended up in camps not unlike those in which Japanese-Americans were placed. But in terms of sheer numbers and the scale of the dishonorable way they were treated, the Japanese-American experience in WWII stands apart.Historical/Corbis via Getty ImagesA CHILD WAITSA Japanese-American child waits in Los Angeles before being shipped to a Civilian Assembly Center in Owens Valley. "Assembly centers" were places where detainees were often held temporarily, before being sent to internment camps.Historical/Corbis via Getty ImagesA NOTE BEFORE LEAVINGA hand-written sign taped in the window of a shop owned by Japanese-Americans in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, thanking customers for their patronage through the years, 1942.
Dorothea Lange/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesSTANDING GUARDAn American soldier stands guard in front of Japanese-Americans awaiting transport to relocation camps after they were forcibly rounded up from their homes along the west coast, April 1942.Historical/Corbis via Getty ImagesBITTER RECEPTIONJapanese-American internees waiting for registration at the Santa Anita reception center in Los Angeles, April 1942.Historical/Corbis via Getty ImagesALONE TOGETHERJapanese-Americans in Los Angeles watch a train take their friends and relatives to the Civilian Assembly Center in Owens Valley, California, April 1942.
Eliot Elisofon/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesFIRST ARRIVALSJapanese-Americans arrive at the Manzanar camp carrying their belongings in suitcases and bags, March 21, 1942. Countless Japanese-Americans held in camps run by the War Relocation Authority left their homes and businesses with only what they could carry — and in many cases returned after the war to find their homes and businesses destroyed or simply taken over, i.e., stolen, by other Americans. Some encountered violence after the war when they tried to reclaim land and businesses that, in many cases, they had farmed or owned for generations. At one point, Manzanar held as many as 10,000 people. It was closed in November 1945 — months after the war ended.Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveFAMILY MATTERSDinner is served in the mess hall at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in California, 1943. Japanese-Americans manged to create a semblance of normality during incarceration — a situation at least marginally helped by the fact that families were usually allowed to live together in the barracks-like facilities. Roughly a quarter of those held in the camps were children. Over the course of the war, many of the kids attended "schools" in the camps — despite having virtually no educational supplies. In what might be the supreme irony among the innumerable indignities suffered by those in the camps, many of the kids spent their time studying the glories of democracy and "American ideals."Historical/Corbis via Getty ImagesTHE THINGS THEY CARRIEDThe belongings of a Japanese-American internee at the Manzanar "Relocation Center" in California include a portrait of Jesus Christ, letters from home, and a photograph of a son serving in the U.S. armed forces.
Historical/Corbis via Getty ImagesRETURN TO MANZANARManzanar, looking west toward the Sierra Nevada. In the years since WWII, American presidents have signed acts and amendments authorizing monetary reparations to survivors of the internment camps. Many of the camps themselves have been preserved and designated national historic sites. In 1991, on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, President George H.W. Bush declared that "it is important to come to grips with the past. No nation can fully understand itself or find its place in the world if it does not look with clear eyes at all the glories and disgraces of its past.... The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated." If those words are a hard and fast guarantee, or mere hot air, the coming years and decades — and perhaps even the coming months — will tell.Luis Sinco/LA Times via Getty ImagesMONUMENT TO DARK DAYSA stark monument at the site of the Manzanar internment camp.