At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the West Coast of the United States already had a long tradition of anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese discrimination. The Japanese came later than the Chinese. In 1890 there were only 3,000 Japanese people in the whole United States. When Hawaii became a United States Territory in 1898, the Japanese there were free to move to the mainland. In 1900, over 12,000 arrived, mostly from Hawaii. Between 1900 and 1908, 135,000 Japanese individuals entered the country, most settling on the West Coast especially in California. Politicians, labor leaders, and newspaper publishers campaigned to restrict further immigration into the state. Reacting to this pressure, the United States and Japan agreed in 1908 to reduce immigration ("The Gentlemen's Agreement"). In 1924, the United States prohibited Japanese immigration entirely. Immigrants already in this country (Issei, from the Japanese word for "one") were barred from citizenship, but their children (Nisei, from the word for "two"), born in the United States, were automatically citizens.
Over the years, the Japanese population in America prospered, and by the outbreak of World War II, many Japanese had left the ranks of low-paid workers to become owners or managers of farms, fishermen who owned their own boats, and operators of small stores and other businesses. Their very success brought complaints against them from agricultural interests who wanted to eliminate competition. When World War II began in the Pacific with Japan's devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, fear of an attack on the West Coast created even greater antagonism toward Japanese immigrants and their children. In 1942, fear and prejudice combined to confine nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, citizens and aliens alike, in relocation centers established by the U.S. government in remote areas west of the Mississippi River. Many would not pass through the barbed wire fences surrounding the centers until the war was over.
Japanese-American internment was the forced relocation and internment by the United States government in 1942 of approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese residing along the Pacific coast of the United States to camps called "War Relocation Camps," in the wake of Imperial Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. The internment of Japanese Americans was applied unequally throughout the United States. Japanese Americans residing on the West Coast of the United States were all interned, whereas in Hawaii, where more than 150,000 Japanese Americans composed nearly a third of that territory's population, 1,200 to 1,800 Japanese Americans were interned. Of those interned, 62% were American citizens.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized the internment with Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which allowed local military commanders to designate "military areas" as "exclusion zones," from which "any or all persons may be excluded." This power was used to declare that all people of Japanese ancestry were excluded from the entire Pacific coast, including all of California and most of Oregon and Washington, except for those in internment camps. In 1944, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion orders, while noting that the provisions that singled out people of Japanese ancestry were a separate issue outside the scope of the proceedings. The United States Census Bureau assisted the internment efforts by providing confidential neighborhood information on Japanese Americans. The Bureau's role was denied for decades but was finally proven in 2007.
By June 2, 1942, the U. S. Army had moved the nearly 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans living in the western parts of Washington, Oregon, and California into hastily created assembly centers. By November, they had all been transferred to the 10 long-term relocation centers built and run by the civilian War Relocation Authority (WRA). One third were foreign-born Issei, prohibited from becoming citizens and many over 50 years old. The remaining two-thirds were Nisei, American citizens born in the United States, most under age 21. For the next two to three years, many evacuees would not go beyond the confines of the centers.
Ranging in population from 7,000 to almost 14,000 people, the relocation centers were often the largest "towns" in the sparsely settled areas where they were located. They were designed to be self-contained communities, complete with hospitals, post offices, schools, warehouses, offices, hospitals, and residential areas, all surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. Since the centers were supposed to be as self-sufficient as possible, residential cores were surrounded by large, open buffer zones. The evacuees farmed this land, producing much of the centers' food.
Evacuees lived in tar paper-covered barracks and used communal mess halls and bathrooms. They constructed their own community buildings, such as schools and churches. Often entire blocks of barracks were used as schools. At first there were no school supplies or equipment. Later, some of the evacuees and people from relief agencies or churches built or donated desks, bookshelves, maps, and books of all kinds. Administration buildings and staff housing were covered with wood, painted white. Civilian employees lived in individual one, two, and three bedroom apartments, each with its own kitchen and bathroom. The Military Police lived in separate areas adjacent to the centers to minimize personal contact with the evacuees.
Camps were laid out in blocks. Each block had it's own facilities.
When evacuees arrived at the camps, they found row on row of identical barracks in bleak settings of desert or swamp. Although they could do little about the extremes of heat and cold they encountered, they quickly found ways to improve and personalize their new lodgings, first to make them habitable, and later to make them into homes. They planted trees, hedges, flower borders, vegetables, gourds, vines, and cactus. Artist Kango Takamura was one of the first evacuees to arrive at Manzanar. He described what he found, and what happened: "Oh, it's really so hot, you see, and the wind blows. There's no shade at all. It's miserable, really. But one year after, it's quite a change. A year after they built the camp and put water there, the green grows up. And mentally everyone is better." Making physical changes in the environment was an important way to take some measure of control over their own lives and to create a sense of normality in their abnormal situation.
Anger and frustration and the physical and psychological disorientation brought on by the relocation took a toll on the evacuees. Most had supported the United States and were loyal and patriotic until their government decided that they were untrustworthy and guilty until proven innocent. In extreme cases, formerly loyal citizens renounced their citizenship. Others merely sympathized with the Japanese government. Ethnic churches, Japanese language schools, and unofficial unions flourished. Open resistance came in the form of strikes and protest demonstrations. The most serious disturbance erupted at Manzanar in December 1942, following months of tension between supporters and opponents of the WRA administration. The confrontation ended when the director called in the military police who used tear gas to break up the crowd. When a truck was pushed toward the jail, the military police fired into the crowd, killing one and wounding at least ten others (of whom one later died).
Evacuees also found ways to express their resentment secretly. At Manzanar, they scratched inscriptions into the wet concrete of a settling basin they were building. Written in Japanese and under water when the settling basin was in use, they read "Beat Great Britain and the USA," and "Banzai, the Great Japanese Empire, Manzanar Black Dragon Group headquarters."
Other evacuees remained loyal to the United States, in shock and disbelief at how they had been deprived of their homes and their freedom. Their major goal was to find ways to prove their loyalty. Many young men volunteered when the army announced in 1943 that it would accept volunteers for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Nisei combat unit. Women volunteered for the Women's Army Corps and the Red Cross.
In 1988, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed legislation which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government. The legislation stated that government actions were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership". Over $1.6 billion in reparations were later disbursed by the U.S. government to Japanese Americans who had either suffered internment or were heirs of those who had suffered internment.