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Japanese relocation

Reader comment on item: Why the Japanese Internment Still Matters

Submitted by Bill Leary (United States), Dec 30, 2004 at 14:02

Here are comments by an 83 year-old ex-FBI officer about internment of Japanese during WWII from my book, The River is Boiling. He helped handle the process.

From the viewpoint of today's politically correct world, it's easy to conclude that the actions taken by our government with respect to persons of Japanese descent were the result of irrational war hysteria. But those who took such actions were judges, elected officials, generals and citizen advisors. They carefully weighed the facts and consequences before embarking on the course they took. Even the best-known liberals of the day supported their actions. Those decision-makers could only base their judgments on the facts, as they knew them at the time.
Fear gripped much of America. Two factors determine the justifiable level of fear of an enemy: (1) his capabilities and (2) his intentions.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor destroyed our entire defensive fleet. Three aircraft carriers escaped the assault, but carriers are essentially offensive vessels. Hawaii, Alaska and the West Coast lay helpless in the face of the Japanese juggernaut. The powerful Japanese Army successfully defeated China, Korea, Manchuria, French Indo-China, Dutch East Indies, the Philippines — every country it invaded. Japanese offensive strength and America's lack of defensive capabilities justified considerable fear on that count.
As for the enemy's intentions, General Yamamoto reportedly said, "I will dictate peace terms from your White House." Kiska and Attu in the Aleutians fell quickly and were followed by the shelling of Dutch Harbor, leaving Alaska next in line. Compromised code messages told us our Pacific outpost at Midway would soon be on the enemy's plate as well as Hawaii and the Panama Canal. When Japanese submarines appeared off our West Coast and began shelling California, there seemed little doubt about the enemy's intent.
The destruction of our fleet at Pearl Harbor had clearly been the result of our failure to take obvious precautions. Slogans everywhere announced, "We will never let it happen again." To avoid it "happening again" we evaluated every potential risk. That included the possible danger of aliens and others, sympathetic to our enemies, who were residing within our borders. Meeting notes recorded by officials at the time indicate that they carefully examined facts and made decisions in a very objective and dispassionate manner.
These were the questions and facts confronting our officials. What did the Japanese alien population living in countries invaded by Japan do when the invasion occurred? Clearly, the evidence showed they supported the invading Japanese troops, providing intelligence, committing sabotage and even enlisting in the occupying Army.
What is the level of loyalty of Japanese people living in our country? Would they react as those in other countries had done? Since 1939, our agency knew of Japanese spies in both California and Hawaii. Court orders allowed the tapping of their telephones and documenting of evidence. It was reasonable to assume there were others, unknown to the FBI. Even before the war began, the Bureau had some 300 Japanese under surveillance on the West Coast.
With loose immigration enforcement, unregistered Issei (first generation Japanese) filled the Japanese neighborhoods. They spoke little or no English. All of their information about world affairs came to them from Japanese newspapers and periodicals. Rising Sun patriotic articles and anti-American propaganda filled those journals. Most retained their Shinto religion, which holds the Japanese Emperor to be a deity who can do no wrong.
In addition, thousands of Kibei lived in the West Coast communities. Kibei are second generation Japanese who have gone to Japan to receive their education. Considerable evidence indicated that the Kempei (secret police) attempted to organize the Kibei into militant overseas Japanese patriots — much as Nazi Germany organized the German-American Bunds in this country before the war. Since large numbers of Issei living in the Japanese neighborhoods were not allowed to apply for citizenship under the quota system for Asians, officials doubted the accuracy of the 1940 census figures.
It boiled down to this: we just didn't know who was loyal and who wasn't. Officials clearly believed the majority to be loyal, but they also felt that a significant number would aid the Japanese in case of what appeared might be an imminent invasion of the West Coast.
Officials watched blame being heaped on the heads of those American Officers responsible for the defense of Pearl Harbor. They envisioned an invasion of California with their having allowed the Japanese community to rise up and help the invaders. A second such act of negligence would be intolerable. Better safe than sorry.
With those circumstances staring at them, the decision to evacuate all Japanese aliens and those of Japanese ancestry could not be avoided. They would be moved away from the Pacific Coast areas of California, Oregon and Washington to a place where they could be sorted out in an orderly and selective fashion.
President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 authorized military commanders to designate areas from which those people considered a possible national security risk were to be removed. Those so removed would be furnished transportation, food, clothing and shelter. The order also gave them access to hospitals, use of land, schools, libraries, religious services, etc. Initially, Assembly Centers held the evacuees until permanent housing (Relocation Centers) could be completed. The War Relocation Authority, a civilian agency, controlled the Relocation Centers.
The screening process at the Assembly Centers did sort out some 20,000 who requested repatriation to Japan, renounced their U.S. citizenship or answered questions indicating disloyalty to America. As promptly as possible they were returned to Japan on an exchange ship. The Red Cross ship Gripsholm carried many of them to India where they met the Teia Maru out of Yokohama to complete an exchange for Americans who had been residing in Japan.
Since thirty-seven percent of Hawaii's population were of Japanese ancestry, and represented the majority of skilled labor on the island, officials decided relocation from that territory to be impractical.
Those young men declaring their allegiance to America became eligible to join the Armed Forces. Over four thousand of them volunteered and formed the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Covering themselves with glory in the Italy campaign, they became the most decorated unit of its size during World War II. Awarding a unit citation, President Truman said, "Your action has done a great deal to reduce prejudice against Japanese-Americans." Indeed, it had. "Go For Broke", a movie that detailed the achievements of the 442nd became extremely popular in theaters.
There is no question that the relocation process disrupted a great many family lives. However, one Corps of Engineers Army veteran who helped build a relocation camp had this comment: "The military draft disrupted a million young men's lives at the same time as the relocation. Those drafted were forced to live in barracks and eat food identical to those of the internees. Draftees also faced the possibility of being wounded or killed before the war ended." Japanese-Americans committed no acts of sabotage during the war. On the other hand, there was no enemy invasion.
America hasn't in the past century treated an ethnic group as it did those of Japanese ancestry during World War II — forcing them into "concentration" camps. The government's actions blatantly supported the widespread civilian abhorrence of all things Japanese. Americans indiscriminately used the term "dirtyjaps", referring both to Imperial Japan and domestic Japanese. Yet, today, if a young person walks into an employment office and says, "My name is Hashimoto, and I'm looking for a job," employers compete with each other trying to hire him or her.
What changed attitudes so much in one generation? Certainly such testaments to their patriotism as the exploits of 442nd were a factor. But there are far deeper aspects to the reverse of feelings. With little help from civil rights or affirmative action laws, the Japanese community, itself, is responsible for the change in the way people regard them.
Crime or any form of dishonesty is simply not tolerated among Japanese groups. Families are strong, each member caring for the others. A Japanese girl bearing an out-of-wedlock child would bring great dishonor to her family and acquaintances. It rarely happens. Excellence in education is primary in most families. A child, graduating from a university, will send money to his siblings to bring them to college, too. Nationwide, Japanese-Americans are awarded the largest percentage of scholarships of any ethnic group.
Al Komatsu said it: "Laws do not eliminate discrimination — actions do."
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