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The Relocation of the Japanese During World War II Has Significance Today

By Krista Geary

Junior Division Paper, Wyoming History Day Competition

Reproduced by permission of author

The unexpected terrorist attacks that took place on the eastern coast of the United States on September 11, 2001, had an immediate, devastating effect. In addition, those atrocities have had an impact which continues even today on the Constitutional rights of all American citizens. Because of the aggression directed against our country that day, all of us have been subjected to heightened security procedures and a loss of individual freedoms of movement and expression. Acts of war took some of our freedoms away. Historically, this has happened before. During the 1940s it occurred on a much more intense and invasive scale. An examination of the relocation of the Japanese during World War II has lessons to teach about rights and responsibilities today.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor will always be remembered. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese managed to plot a strategic bombing on the Hawaiian Islands that was so well planned that the Japanese bombers were able to fly through the skies without the American people or government knowing what was happening.

The fear of this happening again led to an unreasonable panic about the loyalty of the Japanese living on the West Coast. Some Americans worried that it might be too convenient for Japan to contact its people living in the states of Washington, Oregon and California. These people might be spies for the Japanese leaders or, worse, they might help them invade our mainland or destroy strategic resources like oil refineries. These Asians living among us -- who didn’t look like us anyway -- might be dangerous.

It was determined that they must be moved to the inner part of the country until the war was over so that there was no possibility that they could help Japan invade the United States.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which stated that people could be removed from certain areas in the United States if the military deemed it necessary for national security. Under this proclamation, all of the Japanese men, women, children and elderly were to remove themselves from the Western Coast of the United States.

It was nothing more than the color of their skin and the shape of their eyes that led to their rights as American citizens being trampled. Even though the rights of Japanese Americans were ripped from them after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they upheld their responsibilities as American citizens.

Many Japanese Americans felt that they were demonstrating their loyalty to their country by willingly cooperating with the order to relocate. In the Japanese language there is a “traditional phrase ‘shikata ga nai’ (it can’t be helped; there is no way out), which they considered relevant to their cooperation with the evacuation order” (Takezawa 23). They were carrying out their responsibilities as citizens by unquestioningly obeying their government in this matter.

At first, the moving took place voluntarily. Families went to live with friends or relations in the inner states for the duration of the war. But soon, the military stepped in and ordered that within two weeks’ time all Japanese people were required to reduce their belongings to the clothes, blankets and eating utensils they could carry with them. Everything else had to be gotten rid of or sold. They had to hurry, so whatever they sold was offered at prices next to nothing compared to what they were worth.

They had to leave behind their homes and businesses. Through all of this indignity and humiliation, they believed their government knew what it was doing. It was their responsibility to comply, and most quietly did.

Because of the wide age-range of people relocated, “federal officials attempted to conduct this massive incarceration in a humane manner” (Funada 1). Yet, the truth is that the Japanese people were escorted by train to the relocation camps and guarded at those camps by American Army men in guard towers. It was the WRA, the War Relocation Authority, that built ten permanent relocation centers throughout the United States which were to exist until the end of the war. “They were to be located away from strategic points, on public land and large enough to become home to more than 5,000 people” (Kessel 4).

“These camps were hastily built and made of green wood that shrank to produce cracks that let the weather in” (Kessel 4). They were covered with tar paper, but the coldness of the winters and the blistering hotness of the summers came right in. These camps would hold, until the end of the war, the more than 120,000 Japanese Americans who were forced from their homes on the West Coast. One of the places that the Japanese were removed to was a relocation camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

Another area in which the Japanese Americans maintained their responsibilities to the United States was in their military service. As American citizens, they, like any other young men in the country who wanted to prove their responsibility to their homeland, signed up for the draft. Many were classified 1-A. After Pearl Harbor was bombed, they were reclassified as “enemy nationals” and “rated 4-F -- those physically, mentally or morally unfit” (Hosokawa 397). When their requests to join the army were denied, they felt their rights as voluntary defenders were denied. However, they remained willing to help out.

Meanwhile, messages were being sent over the airwaves and in written communications from the Japanese in the complicated language that they thought was too difficult for Americans to figure out. The military realized they needed help in translating the correspondence. The language was too hard to learn quickly, so Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) were recruited to interpret the messages. Once again, the draft was expanded to include people of Japanese ancestry. Once trained, Japanese American army translators quietly waited for battle plans to be intercepted, then worked furiously on them when they were brought in. “They worked in back rooms, out of public notice. Their skills and abilities helped to shorten the war because the U.S. knew battle positions and plans, sometimes before they happened” (Hosokawa 398). In this way, the Japanese proved they were responsible citizens, even while their families were kept behind barbed wire in relocation camps without the basic rights of free people.

Another way the Japanese Americans were able to serve in the military occurred in Hawaii, where prejudice against the Japanese was not a big factor. The Hawaiian National Guard became federalized as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. It was made up entirely of people of Japanese ancestry. “They fought valiantly in Italy and France, with more casualties and more decorations than any other unit of comparable size and length of service in the army’s history” (Conrat 23). They, too, showed responsibility when their families had few rights.

There was one more group of young men concerned with military service, that, on the surface, may have appeared anti-American. At the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp members of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee chose to resist the draft on the basis that their constitutional rights were currently being denied. They “celebrated their loyal citizenship and expressed their desire to fight for America if they were recognized as Americans as Frank Emi explained in a 1976 interview: ‘We really felt that what the government did was just combining two wrongs: first evacuation, putting us in camp, and then drafting us out of camp without any talk of restoring our rights or clarifying our citizenship status.’ A courageous act of civil disobedience, the Fair Play Committee sought to reclaim their loyalty and liberties through passive resistance” (Fujimoto 3).

Finally, the most obvious way that the internees honored their responsibility as American citizens was the way they carried on with their daily lives in the relocation camps. They followed a normal routine of life even when their lives were far from normal. Within the premises of the centers, they were allowed a certain amount of self-government. They elected their own block leaders. They published their own weekly newspaper;  at Heart Mountain it was called the Sentinel. They also set up their own businesses like barbershops, fire stations, churches and hospitals.

They showed that they wanted to be responsible citizens by establishing schools -- both elementary and high schools -- within the compound so their children could continue to be educated.

There was a positive side to the camp experience. For the first time the Nisei could fill a variety of social roles that had been closed to them in their home communities. Those in school became student-body leaders, captains of athletic teams, and editors of yearbooks. Those with teacher training could teach; others took on community leadership at an earlier age than would have been possible otherwise. (Daniels 68)

Adults, too, could attend classes on topics such as American history and government, Japanese arts, and secretarial skills and bookkeeping. The Japanese took their education very seriously. They saw a need for it beyond the walls of the classroom.

At the commencement ceremony of the first graduating class from Heart Mountain High School in June of 1943, the valedictorian, Li Kako, gave the graduates some inspiring advice. “We must take the lead, not only for the other Nisei, but also for our parents who led our way in the past” (“First Year at Heart Mountain” 1).

In the end, exercising this responsibility to be educated helped the Japanese Americans after the war was over. They successfully moved back into communities. They often worked harder than their neighbors and built up solid businesses because of it. “They had gotten an education at the insistence of their parents, so when it came time [to use what they had learned] they had the tools to do the job” (Hosokawa 488).

At first, the government denied its responsibility in this unfortunate incident and stuck to its claim that the relocation had been a “military necessity“ (Takezawa 33). They did, however, offer some compensation for property losses. In 1948 President Harry Truman signed a law that allowed those who suffered monetary loss because of evacuation to file claims for partial compensation. “The Act had many serious shortcomings. First, there were limits on how much they could be paid. Secondly, for claims larger than $2,500, the money had to be appropriated by Congress, so getting any money took a very long time. And thirdly, the claims had to be supported by documentary evidence which was often lost because of evacuation” (Takezawa 34). That small, partial repayment was the end of the government’s facing its responsibility for many more years.

With the political unrest of the 60s and 70s, civil rights groups realized that Executive Order 9066 had never been removed from the books. “In 1976, as part of the bicentennial celebration of the American Revolution, President Gerald R. Ford used the thirty-fourth anniversary of F.D.R.’s Executive Order 9066 to issue a proclamation repealing it” (Daniels 90).

To further study the possibility of the government’s responsibility in this dilemma, in late 1980, Congress and President Jimmy Carter created the Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. “The Commission’s mandate was to determine whether any wrong had been done to Japanese Americans during World War II, and if so, to recommend appropriate remedial action to the Congress” (Daniels 91).

Three years later, in early 1983, the Redress Commission issued its report “Personal Justice Denied.” Its finding reads

The promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it -- detention, ending detention and ending exclusion -- were not driven by analysis of military conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership. … A grave injustice was done to Americans and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry who, without any individual review or probative evidence against them, were excluded, removed and detained by the United States during World War II. (Daniels 97)

The report included the recommendations that the government would offer a formal apology along with a one-time payment of $20,000 to any survivors of the relocation camps. It also called for the establishment and funding of educational activities to tell others about the causes and circumstances of this event.

Through grassroots efforts and legislative lobbying, “the redress movement -- the term that Japanese Americans and their supporters used to describe their struggle for official recognition that a grievous wrong was done to them“ (Daniels 91) -- continued. As one old homesteader from the area near the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, when asked why he supported -- 50 years later -- establishing a memorial about the camp, stated, “This is one of the worst things that the government ever did to people. Those people were all incarcerated; they were never charged with [anything]. They were never tried for any offense, but they [were] penned up for three years” (Warrington). Their rights had been trampled; who was responsible?

The Civil Rights Act of 1988 enacted into law the recommendations of the Redress Commission. Finally, the United States government recognized that it was responsible for denying the rights of some of its citizens. The first checks were issued in October of 1990. They were accompanied by a “letter of apology, signed by President George Bush, acknowledging, ‘a monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories….But we can take a clear stance for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II’” (Takezawa 28). The checks were sent out, beginning with the oldest person who had been incarcerated and going in order all the way to the youngest. The U.S. accepted its responsibility in this hardship.

So, even though the rights of the Japanese were so rudely taken from them after Pearl Harbor, they chose to follow the higher path of duty to their country and upheld their responsibilities as citizens through the turmoil. Eventually, the U.S. government recognized its responsibility in the grave injustice.

And now, the responsibility becomes ours. The Constitution reads the same today as it did in 1942. “The Constitution and laws are not sufficient of themselves; they must be given life through implementation and strict enforcement” (Conrat 110). Each of us bears the responsibility to see that the tragedy that happened to an entire group of people shall not happen again.

Unfortunately, this may be easier said than done. When we think of the airport screening policies directed toward males of Middle Eastern descent since 9/11, we should all be horrified. Because of the color of their skin and the spelling of their last names, the rights of American citizens are being trampled once again. Our voices of protest against unwarranted searches and other injustices should ring loudly on editorial pages and in courtrooms. Our actions of support for innocents caught in the backlash of ignorant racist response should be immediate and unconditional. Rights are maintained and won through the exercise of responsibility. Are you responsible?

Annotated Bibliography


“First Year at Heart Mountain High School Ended.” Sentinel [Heart Mountain, WY] 5 June 1943: 1.

This newspaper article recounted news about the first graduation ceremony at Heart Mountain High School. It included remarks by the commencement speakers, encouraging the graduates to go forward and lead productive, upright lives that would make themselves and their parents proud.

Governor Nels. H. Smith Papers, 1942. American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Smith, who was the governor of Wyoming during the years when Japanese Americans were kept at the relocation center in Heart Mountain, WY, received many letters during his term of office. One letter was from a Lead, South Dakota lawyer named Kenneth Kellar, telling Smith that he thought the Japanese should be removed from the West Coast . The women and children should be put into concentration camps and the able-bodied men put to work “at the point of a bayonet if necessary on building the Canada to Alaska highway. No one ought to worry about constitutional objections,” Kellar said, “because the Constitution has been flouted on other occasions in the immediate past.”

Another was a request from an educated Japanese lady wanting to move to Wyoming with her husband and baby to live near her employed brother. Her husband had been assured of a waiting job, and she was quite sure she would find employment also.

Inouye, Mamoru. “Heart Mountain High School, 1942-1945.” Unpublished paper, 1995.

Inouye wrote this brief history of Heart Mountain High School to complement a presentation at a Northwest College Symposium held May 19-21, 1995, in Powell, WY, titled, “After 50 Years--Japanese American History: The Heart Mountain Experience.” It details many of the activities of the school in the same way that a school’s newspaper or yearbook might.

Kessel, Velma Berryman. Behind Barbed Wire. Billings, MT: Topel Print, 1992.

This registered nurse, who spent 31 months at the Heart Mountain Relocation Hospital in Wyoming, shares her diary. In it, she shows respect and understanding for the displaced Japanese who were forced to live in the sparse conditions of the camp, and she acknowledges the dedication of the five Japanese doctors who worked there to care for their people.

“Main Street, Wyoming #506: Heart Mountain.“ David Warrington, Director. Wyoming Public Television. PBS, Riverton. 1994.

This video is part of a series covering items of interest within Wyoming. This segment talked about the relocation center once located near Heart Mountain. Part of the video was an interview with an older Japanese man who lived in the camp when he was 19 years old. He looked back on his experience as an adventure. Another portion was an interview with a lady whose parents and grandparents had been interned at the camp. She spoke with pride about the agricultural accomplishments of her father, who remained as a farmer in the area even after the war was over. Another point of view was offered by a sympathetic older couple who homesteaded in the area and were trying to get a memorial erected on the site.

United States. Department of the Interior. War Relocation Authority Reports. Washington, 1942.

The topic of this report is “Relocation and the Constitution.” It examines the fact that the American government relocated 112,000 of its citizens in a manner similar to the way a dictator of Europe might have done it. It shows two sides to the legal question: the evacuation from certain military areas, and the detaining of citizens in isolated communities in the interior. It doesn’t give answers but does suggest that the questions need to be considered in the context of total war and from a standpoint of a nation fighting for its existence.


American Heritage Center University of Wyoming. “AHC Primary Sources in the Classroom: Heart Mountain Relocation Center.“ 26 Sept. 2000. <> (25 March 2003)

This is a lesson plan including four activities for students to better understand the experience at the Heart Mountain relocation camp and its implication for civil liberties. The parts are each structured to have the students examine some primary sources and then complete an activity based on what they’ve read or seen. The fourth activity, which focused on restitution and whether or not the government was justified in its actions during World War II, was the one I found most helpful.

CLPEF Network: Education Resources. “Historical Overview of the Japanese Internment.” 1989.

<> (27 March 2003)

This is a concise summary of the Japanese American internment. It begins during pre-Pearl Harbor days, extends through the relocation to the camps, and finishes with the formal apology and redress by the United States government. It was especially helpful in detailing the steps that led to redress. It also reported on the part of the settlement agreement that called for education of the public about this trampling of civil rights.

Conrat, Maisie. Executive Order 9066: The Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans. Los Angeles: University of California, 1992.

This publication is a book of photographs and essays about WWII that were originally part of an exhibition sponsored by the California Historical Society that opened in 1972 and traveled throughout the country, reminding Americans of both sides of the Japanese American internment issue. It was helpful in making the problem seem very personal and realistic.

Daniels, Roger. Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II. New York: Hill and Wang,1993.

Daniels presents a brief account of relocation of Japanese American citizens during World War II. The book covers not only the background of the relocation, but extends all the way through the resettlement of the people back into society and the eventual redress that was given to them years later. This is the only source that was completed after the redress was complete, so it was helpful especially in that area.

Daniels, Roger, Sandra C. Taylor, and Harry H.L. Kitano, eds. Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 1986.

In 1983, an international conference was held in Salt Lake City on relocation and redress. This book is a compilation of some of the varied essays presented there, along with others that round out the presentation by providing historical perspective and insight into the, then, ongoing process of redress.

Ehrlich, Gretel. Heart Mountain: A Novel. Fairfield, Pennsylvania: Arcata Graphics, 1988.

In this work of fiction, Ehrlich explores the attitudes of the local ranchers and sheepmen living in the Heart Mountain area of Wyoming toward the Japanese Americans who were forced to settle near them. It also examines the lives of the resigned Issei (first-generation Japanese Americans) and the defiant Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) who were “caught between freedom and confinement.” The novel provides a historically accurate setting and the opportunity to experience the motivation and thinking of characters who could have been real.

Embrey, Sue Kunitomi. The Lost Years 1942-46. Los Angeles, California: Moonlight Publications, Gidra, Inc., 1972.

This small booklet was compiled to give an overview of the events of evacuation, relocation and resettlement of the Japanese Americans who were sent to the Manzanar relocation camp in California. It was written as part of the effort to get Manzanar named a historical site. In addition to the history section, it includes short excepts taken from a magazine article published in 1944 about life in the relocation center.

Fujimoto, Amy. Conscience and the Constitution. “Ben Wakaye: A True American.” 28 June 2000.

<> (27 March 2003)

This was written by a fourth-generation Japanese American girl as a tribute to her uncle, Ben Wakaye, who, as a young man, was the treasurer of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, an organization of Japanese American draft resistance. The author takes the stance that these individuals risked personal safety and ostracism from their own community to stand up for the larger issues of constitutionality. It helped show that even the draft resisters were exercising their rights as American citizens.

Funada, Diane. “Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American     Relocation Sites.“ Western Archeological and Conservation Center, National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, 2000.

This brochure contains a concise summary of the relocation process and its effects. It shows the various sites for the relocation camps throughout the US.

Hosokawa, Bill. Nisei: The Quiet Americans: The Story of a People. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1969.

Hosokawa, an American-born child of Japanese immigrant parents, a Nisei, takes a complete look at the history of the Japanese living in America. His treatment of the “Japanese question” during World War II is detailed and specific, not only in its presentation of the personal side of the story, but more importantly, in the official government role as well.

Larson, T. A. Wyoming’s War Years: 1941-1945. Cheyenne, WY: Wyoming Historical Foundation, 1993.

In this book Larson takes a look at many aspects of life in Wyoming during the years from 1941-1945. Only one chapter, “Heart Mountain,” speaks specifically to the topic of Japanese relocation within the state. Larson is quite formal in his presentation of details and facts; he’s a historian, noting important statistics and events in very precise fashion. It was reassuring to see that the other, more reader-friendly sources agreed historically with this one.

Mackey, Mike. Heart Mountain: Life in Wyoming’s Concentration Camp. Casper, WY: Mountain States Lithographing, 2000.

This book grew out of research Mackey did about Heart Mountain for a master’s thesis. He used early written sources about the relocation camp and added to them the recollections of former internees. The book is easy to read and full of general interest information about life in the camp. It is a thorough work that extends from the time before the bombing of Pearl Harbor until after the relocation camp was closed and the internees resettled elsewhere. 

National Japanese American Historical Society. “The Military Intelligence Service (MIS) 1941-1952.” 1994.

<> (25 March 2003)

This short article focused on the need for Japanese language interpreters before and during our conflict with Japan in World War II. It spoke about the Military Intelligence Language School where the men were trained and the vital contributions its students made in the combat strategy of the American forces. It also told that this important work was generally concealed and kept low-key, so there isn’t much press information or pictorial record remaining.

Noble, Antonette Chambers. The Heart Mountain Relocation Camp Story. CD-ROM by Vision West Productions, LLC.,1998.

Noble uses photos, along with printed and audio text, to unfold the story of the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp. She includes primary source documents and a glossary of terms to make her work easy to understand and believe. On the one hand, she depicts images of what happened to the Japanese Americans and, on the other hand, makes the point that it was our Constitution that failed its citizens. She ends by raising the possibility that this injustice could happen again if we aren’t careful.

Takezawa, Yasuko I. Breaking the Silence: Redress and Japanese American Ethnicity. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Takezawa focuses on the Japanese American population in Seattle to make generalizations about the group as a whole in America. She looks at how the movement for redress began early in Seattle and how it affected both second- and third-generation Japanese Americans. She concludes that the historical experience of the relocation and redress affected and changed the ethnicity of the Japanese in American society today.

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