Working Papers

In Opposition to the Japanese Internment

R. Jeffrey Blair

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Background of the Japanese in America

      In early 1942 fear of and prejudice against Japanese (this term will include all ethnic Japanese regardless of citizenship) reached into the highest levels of American government. Fear was a rather recent emotion to be applied to the Japanese. It derived from the Pearl Harbor attack and the subsequent success of the Japanese armed forces throughout the Pacific. Prejudice, on the other hand, was an integral part of the Japanese experience in America and dated back to the 1860's when Japanese began coming to the United States.
       Initially a few Japanese students came to America as part of a program of cultural and intellectual exchange. Later a fortune hunter named Edward Schnell established a colony of Japanese on Gold Hill, near Sacramento. His plans to grow tea, silk, and bamboo and to manufacture Japanese goods failed. Yet more and more Japanese laborers continued to cross the ocean to America. In the 1880's Emperor Meiji removed the prohibition against Japanese emigration, opening the way for larger migrations. Contract systems soon brought large numbers of agricultural laborers to Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States. Some crossed the ocean in order to avoid Japan's newly instituted conscription laws. Most of these new arrivals, however, came for the opportunities available in agriculture. Unlike America, Japanese society had given a great amount of status and recognition to their farmers. These farmers, in turn, developed a great deal of pride and skill in their work. Yet by the latter half of the nineteenth century, Japan had become crowded and land was scarce. Farm plots had decreased in size to the point where they could no longer be divided among sons, so younger sons had to look elsewhere for their occupations. Hawaii and, even more so, the U.S. mainland offered these people a chance to continue cultivating land of their own.
       The first generation in America, the Issei, found themselves in a precarious position, the price of increased economic opportunity. Like all new immigrant groups, they had to start on the lowest rungs of the social and economic ladder. Unlike European immigrants, however, they found that life in the old country bore little resemblance to their new life in America. Their cultural heritage was Asian, not European, and thought by Americans to be uncivilized. Their religions, Buddhism and Shinto, were non-Christian. The new language, English, required them to learn new sounds, new sentence structures, and a new alphabet. These hurdles could be overcome, but the most obvious and permanent difference--race--could not.
      In addition to this rather formidable array of problems, the Issei soon began to encounter legal barriers. In 1870 a naturalization act had extended the right of aliens to apply for American citizenship from free whites to include people of African descent. The other races were not mentioned. Most courts interpreted this to mean that only whites and blacks could be naturalized, yet a few issued certificates of naturalization to Japanese (Yamashita v. Hinkle, 1922, 69-70). This ambiguous state of affairs lingered on for many years. Then in 1911 the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization decided to allow only blacks and whites to declare their intentions to file for citizenship. No other applications were accepted, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld this decision (Ozawa v. U.S., 1922, 65-69).
      Japanese in America received treatment similar to that of the Chinese, who had come some thirty years earlier. When the Chinese population began to reach a significant level in terms of number and economic competition, national opinion turned against them. In 1882 the Congress passed legislation that excluded Chinese from entering the United States and made those who had already entered ineligible for citizenship.
      About the time that Chinese immigration was barred, the Japanese migration to the United States picked up. From an average of twenty immigrants a year in the first half of the 1880's, immigration jumped to 194 in 1886, then climbed steadily to almost two thousand in 1894 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1976; figures for years ending on June 30). Thousands, mostly from rural Japan, crossed the Pacific to take up jobs in agriculture, fishing, and flower growing. When this new migration began to reach an economically significant level, as with the Chinese, prejudice and discrimination appeared. The Japanese and Korean Exclusion League (later to be called the Asian Exclusion League) formed in 1905 chiefly as a propaganda organ. A number of other anti-Japanese organizations followed. In that same year the California legislature adopted a resolution which condemned the Japanese in that state as a "serious menace to [the] well-being and prosperity" of the white residents and requested that the federal government take steps to stem further immigration of Japanese laborers (California State Senate Joint Resolution #10, 1905). Then for the next several years anti-Japanese legislation was routinely proposed.
      Soon discriminatory treatment escalated beyond political rhetoric. On October 11, 1906 the San Francisco Board of Education removed Japanese-American children from the public schools they had been attending and ordered them to report to a special public school for Asian children. This incident raised not only the ire of the Japanese community in the Bay Area but created a stir in Japan as well. The crisis ended, after federal intervention, with the Gentlemen's Agreement between the United States and Japan. President Theodore Roosevelt promised that Japanese-American children would be allowed to attend the regular public schools. In return, the Japanese government agreed to greatly curtail the issuance of passports for travel to America.
      Racial friction continued, however. Anti-Japanese groups pointed to the "invasion" of picture brides as a violation of the Gentlemen's Agreement and worried about the increase in Japanese-American babies. The California legislature reacted to the "invasion" by enacting the Alien Land Act of 1913. This measure prohibited non-citizens from owning land in California. First generation Chinese and Japanese, ineligible for citizenship, were thus deprived of the right to own real estate. The immigrants, naturally and often successfully, looked for methods to evade these provisions. A flurry of land laws in the early 1920's strengthened the California law in an attempt to remove loopholes, while similar land laws spread to Arizona, Washington, and Oregon. Japanese immigrants with American-born children, however, continued to register land in their children's names, and the courts affirmed the parents' right to act as the guardian of their children's estates.
      The Cable Act of 1922, which allowed American women to retain their citizenship after marrying foreign citizens, failed to protect the spouses of aliens ineligible for citizenship. Until 1930 a woman could lose her U.S. citizenship merely by marrying an Issei man, even if he were a permanent resident in America. Two years later the Immigration Act of 1924 superseded the provisions of the Gentlemen's Agreement by prohibiting any more aliens ineligible for citizenship, including both Chinese and Japanese, from entering the United States.
      This exclusion of Japanese from the United States split up some families whose members happened to be visiting Japan at the time that the bill became law. Although the Nissei, second generation Japanese, were still free to travel back and forth between Japan and America, any such trip for the Issei could only be one-way to Japan. Thus the Issei were permanently separated from their families in Japan.
      The Japanese in America, then, lived in a world half American and half Japanese. The Issei would forever be Japanese aliens. They had suffered under discriminatory legislation, court decisions, and public opinion. Unwanted, they and their children had to be prepared to return to Japan if the situation became worse. For Japanese-American children this often meant studying Japanese at special language schools after the public schools let out. Some even received their education abroad in Japan. Nisei born before 1924 could return to Japan anytime with all the rights and privileges of other Japanese citizens. Yet, despite the unfair treatment they experienced in America, the Issei raised their children to be model citizens of their new country. Statistics indicate a large measure of success in this upbringing. Compared to the general population, Japanese-Americans maintained a high level of education, a high rate of employment, a low number of welfare cases, and a low rate of involvement in crime. Their strong code of honor made them good credit risks as well. In the wake of the Immigration Act anti-Japanese agitation faded into the background until the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent war with Japan disrupted this quiet state of affairs.

The Coming of War

       War came to the United States as a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The American Civil Liberties Union, like the armed forces, was caught unprepared. Having emerged during the unpopular First World War, it concentrated its attention upon free speech and freedom of religion. Twenty-four years earlier the federal government had harassed and imprisoned pacifists, socialists, Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World, a radical labor union seeking to unite all industrial workers into one big union), and other dissidents. Post office censors impounded radical publications including those of the National Civil Liberties Bureau, as the ACLU was then called; while the courts convicted radicals of espionage and sedition on the flimsiest evidence. With this kind of intolerance in mind, the Union in December 1941 could express "confidence that the record of persecutions for mere opinion in the last war will not be repeated [though] reactionary forces may try 'to take advantage of the war'"(S. Cal. ACLU, 27 Dec 1941). One reason for such optimism, perhaps, was the nearly universal appeal of the Second World War. The bombing of Pearl Harbor and Germany's attack of Russia united America's entire political spectrum behind the war effort. With opinion solidly in favor of the declaration of war, the government could afford to be tolerant of the insignificant amount of dissent that remained.
      For a month or two after the Pearl Harbor attack, the situation on the West Coast was handled forcefully, but with restraint. No one, not even civil liberties groups, seemed to realize how hysterical the situation was to become. In December 1941 the American Civil Liberties Union expressed in its publications a sense of cautious optimism. Realizing that "the Bill of Rights will be subject to strains not experienced since the first World War", it predicted the internment of thousands of enemy aliens (Civil Liberties Quarterly, Dec 1941, 2). The Union expressed concern that these legal restraints "not go beyond military needs" (S. Cal. ACLU, 27 Dec 1941) and naively assumed that "the most scrupulous investigation to separate the harmless [alien] from the dangerous" (Civil Liberties Quarterly, Dec 1941, 2) would be carried out. The view that the Roosevelt administration was "committed to the principle that civil liberties must not be subordinated in a war for democracy" (S. Cal. ACLU, 20 Dec 1941) prevented the members of the ACLU from becoming more alarmed.
      As the Union had predicted, the government's initial reactions to the declaration of war were forceful, yet restrained in light of what was to come. Months before Pearl Harbor, FBI agents in Los Angeles under the direction of Richard Hood had collected an index file of suspicious aliens--Japanese, German, and Italian. When the Department of Justice received Presidential proclamations giving them the go-ahead, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the armed forces burst into action, securing strategic locations and arresting several hundred of these enemy aliens.
      The Japanese community fell under heavier suspicion than the German or Italian communities. Partially this was due to racial prejudice, but there were several other reasons as well. Unlike Germany or Italy, Japan violated U.S. territory in a surprise attack, plunging America into war. Moreover, the Japanese population was concentrated on the West Coast and in Hawaii, the very areas that were most prone to Japan's naval power. Having come to America quite late, the Japanese community was the least established or assimilated of the enemy alien groups, making them more susceptible to vague suspicions. When enemy aliens were rounded up right after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese community was particularly hard hit because virtually all of its leaders were Issei, ineligible for citizenship.
      Events at Terminal Island provided the most dramatic example of how the Japanese community was disrupted. This piece of land just off San Pedro, measuring five miles in length and about one mile in width, formed the east shore of the channel to Wilmington, the Port of Los Angeles. Furthermore, it lay close to Long Beach Naval Station, Fort MacArthur, and Reeves Field--three defense points. The island was home of the Los Angeles fishing industry. It housed a population which included 500 Japanese families--made up of 1,400 Japanese-Americans and about 800 aliens. Most of the men fished for tuna, while many of the women worked in the ten canneries on the island. These unsophisticated, hard-working people made little contact with the mainland except for the high school children who crossed by ferry each day to attend classes in San Pedro.
      In what one local paper called a "grim setting of warlike preparation" (LA Times, 9 Dec 1941) truck loads of soldiers from Fort MacArthur rushed to the Sixth Street ferry landing, the Henry Ford Avenue Bridge, and the new Navy Bridge, thereby isolating the island (LA Times, 8 Dec 1941). Suddenly armed guards appeared everywhere. They patrolled wharves and warehouses, Terminal Island shipyards, Wilmington oil refineries and storage facilities. Customs men and soldiers swooped down and seized Hishimoto Company's hardware and boat supply store on Tuna Street. They closed several other stores and detained the Japanese alien proprietors (LA Times, 9 Dec 1941). They halted all motorists, required identification, and later stopped all vehicular traffic to the island. They questioned all Orientals. No one was permitted to leave, and only bona-fide residents who had been away when the approaches were seized were permitted to return to their island homes. Meanwhile, the Navy placed under guard some fifty fishing boats from Fish Harbor. The boats had been about to put out to sea when Los Angles Harbor was closed (LA Times, 8-9 Dec 1941). By Monday the government had taken more than 300 Japanese aliens to Terminal Island Federal Prison and the immigration station near the channel entrance to be held until special hearing boards heard the FBI's evidence against them.
       The American Civil Liberties Union, describing these vigorous precautions as a "hysterical situation" brought about by the sudden attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent war declaration, felt equally relieved that things had not turned out any worse. In so far as the general public was concerned:

the feeling[s] of many people were highly wrought up, but we are happy to report that little in the way of vigilante action occurred. There were threats, angry words and name-calling but very few genuine cases of assault on persons or property. (S. Cal. ACLU, 20 Dec 1941)

The goodwill of government officials surpassed even the public's tolerant disposition. Several members of Congress stood up to propose a policy of tolerance towards Japanese and other enemy aliens (see, for example, U.S. Congressional Record, 8 Dec 1941, A5554). And in mid-December a complaint from the Southern California branch of the ACLU to the new Attorney General, Francis Biddle, concerning Japanese nationals being held incommunicado, brought a prompt relaxation of some stringent procedures (S. Cal. ACLU, 20 Dec 1941).
       A week later the ACLU could announce (a) that the 435 enemy aliens arrested in the Los Angeles area were being examined to determine which ones should be held as dangerous aliens and (b) that

Attorney-General Biddle has ordered that the utmost care be exercised in examining these aliens to see that their rights shall be respected and none shall be held in detention camps who are not proven to be actual enemies of the U.S.A. (S. Cal. ACLU, 27 Dec 1941)

       The ACLU's war-time program, announced in late January, reflected this optimism. The program's focus indicated a concern for "maintaining freedom of speech, press, and communication; and the rights of Negroes and conscientious objectors" (S. Cal. ACLU, 3 Jan 1942). The ACLU skimmed over the entire Japanese question without realizing its vast significance. Only two of the program's twenty-three points even touched upon the possibility of racial discrimination against Japanese. Point eighteen, opposing racial discrimination "especially in the armed forces and the defense industries" (S. Cal. ACLU, 31 Jan 1942), included no specific mention of the Japanese and more likely referred to the larger minority group of black Americans (for further discussion see Polenberg, 1972). Point nineteen vowed to protect aliens from any "unreasonable treatment ... because of opinion or nationality" (S. Cal. ACLU, 31 Jan 1942). At this time the Union thought Nisei safe from abuse while even Issei seemed in pretty good hands. It noted "as a practical matter only those suspected of hostile activities are taken into custody"; adding, "[t]he government has set up special boards to sift cases rapidly and to detain only those whose activities are objectionable or suspicious" (S. Cal. ACLU, 3 Jan 1942).
       Unable to conceive the extent to which civil liberties were to be violated, the Union was worried about (a) job discrimination against blacks, (b) the persecution of radicals, and (c) the kind of mob violence that had occurred during the First World War. But times had changed. This war was to give xenophobia and racial intolerance in America a scope and force surpassed only by the treatment of Native Americans and black slaves. A whole race, native-born citizens and aliens alike, would face imprisonment and exile from their homes. Their persecutor would be neither one of the few hate groups that had almost faded from the scene nor an ad hoc gathering of hysterical townspeople, but the U.S. government. This policy was to be planned in advance, then executed by order of the President, and finally upheld by the Supreme Court.
       If the ACLU could feel optimistic from observing the public and their congressional representatives, listening to the man in charge of alien control would greatly intensify this feeling. Attorney General Biddle not only defended Japanese-Americans against persecution, he urged the fair treatment of aliens as well, „[t]he great majority of [whom] will continue to be loyal to our democratic principles¾ (S. Cal. ACLU, 3 Jan 1942). He maintained, "Most revere and respect the freedom which America is able to offer them. If we create the feeling ... that they are not wanted here, we shall endanger our national unity" (S. Cal. ACLU, 3 Jan 1942).
      On December 27, after vague suspicions of disloyalty motivated lay-offs among alien workers and even those with foreign sounding names, Biddle stepped in to remind employers that:

No more short-sighted, wasteful, or unAmerican policy could possibly be adopted at this time than of barring non-citizens from legitimate employment. ... [O]f our total non-citizen population of almost 5 million, fewer than 6 out of 10 thousand have been regarded as dangerous. These have been taken into custody. (S. Cal. ACLU, 10 Jan 1942 and NY Times, 28-29 Dec 1941)

       From this point of view, the worst had already passed. The dangerous aliens had been taken into custody. And so it might have ended had the Attorney General remained in charge of the nation's internal security. Prodded by racial animosity on the West Coast, the U.S. Army, however, developed a growing dissatisfaction with the restraints which the Justice Department imposed upon its investigations of a possible Japanese threat.

continue with
The Decision to Evacuate
Formulating an Opposing Policy
Lobbying Against Injustice

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