And what of the details of this imprisonment? Were the camps liveable? Did they provide basic community services, like public education, privacy for families, civic news communications? The original "evacuation" to the camps was traumatic in itself for many of the Japanese-Americans, who were given a week or less to gather belongings, settle any long-term obligations they might have in their communities, say goodbye to friends and loved ones, and report a camp. The starkness of the evacuation is evident in the signs pasted every time a neighborhood was targeted for evacuation:
all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, weill be evacuated from the above area by 10 o'clock noon on...evacuees must carry with the on dparture for the Assembly Center the following property: a. bedding and linens for each member of the family; b. toilet articles for each member of the family; c. extra clothing for each member of the family; d. sufficient knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, and cups for each member of the family; e. essential personal effects for each member of the family...tied and plainly marked with the name of the owner...limited to that which can be carried by the individual or family group (Spickard 1996, pp. 105-106).
This dismal picture was repeated over and over throughout the cities and towns of the West Coast, with children forced to leave behind toys, parents forced to leave behind family heirlooms, and everyone leaving behind their businesses, jobs, homes, and lives.
These abrupt removals had a profound effect on the Japanese-Americans and their impressions of their nation; "Imagine that you don't know where you are going or how long you are going to be away. Your own government has said to you that you are untrustworthy. All the ideals you have been brought up with have just gone down the tubes. If you had a pet, you couldn't take it with you. If you had a business, people knew your were leaving; who would buy it, and could you get a fair price?" These words were spoken years later by Marge Taniwaki, who was incarcerated at the age of four (Rancourt 1993).
If the removals were inhospitable, the trip to the camps was even more discomfiting. The camps themselves were desolate, through remote portions of the western United States-Arizona, California, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho; what one scholar has called "some of the most uninhabitable parts of the interior of our continent" (Thornton 2002, p. 100). These sparsely populated areas became military installments whose sole purpose was to house Japanese-Americans for no reason other than a threat perceived by their entire race; "by midsummer 1942, everyone was behind barbed wire" (Spickard 108). In all, well over 100,000 Japanese-Americans-as many as three fourths of whom were United States citizens-were forced to leave their homes for incarceration in these camps for no other reason than their ethnicity (Persico 2001, p. 168, Thornton 2002, p. 100).
Upon arrival to the camps, their "makeshift" nature was evident; the Seattle camp was about thirty miles out of the city and was actually a converted fairground; many internees were sent from this area to one in Idaho over one thousand miles away but no less "primitive and unsanitary" (Shaffer 1999, p. 600). These personal accounts are by far our best points of reference for the conditions in the camps; there are not extensive news articles about them from their era, for obvious reasons-anti-Japanese sentiment was so heavy, even after the execution of Executive Order 9066, that sympathy for the people banished to these military camps was small. One examination of media coverage of the issue while it was current found that "all editorials and most letters to the editor published in seven West Coast newspapers and The New York Times in 1942 supported the internment" (Thornton, 2002, p. 99).
This bias makes it difficult to obtain accurate information about the conditions in the camps, even today. Some personal accounts, however, do exist:
the place was in semidarkness; light barely came through the dirty window on either side of the entrance. A swinging half-door divided the 20 by 9 ft. stall into two rooms...the rear room had housed the horse and the front room the fodder. Both rooms showed signs of a hurried whitewashing. Spider webs, horse hair, and hay had been whitewashed with the walls. Huge spikes and nails stuck out all over the walls. A two-inch layer of dust covered the floor...(Spickard 1996, p. 108).
These makeshift accommodations were, sadly, the norm and not the exception. Paul Spickard, while not a survivor of the internment camps, has done extensive research on their conditions, and perhaps the best way to explain the conditions is to look directly to Spickard's exact words:
The assembly centers were cramped and filthy. There was little privacy: more than one family often shared a single living space, separated only by sheets hung as partitions. Food was starchy and unappetizing but edible if one wanted to wait long enough in line at the mess hall. Medical care was rudimentary. Sanitary facilities were poor. (Spickard 1996, p. 107).
Spickard's stark prose gives an idea of the barrenness, the hopeless feelings inspired by the camps. Later, however, he notes that despite these conditions, "the inmates did what they could to make life in camp livable" (Spickard 110). They used old sheets for curtains and private areas, some had cards or radios for entertainment; they forged makeshift mattresses out of straw, planted any seeds they could find for a semblance of a garden, and tried valiantly to establish a routine of "life" in the camps (ibid.).
Despite these efforts to make life in the camps more bearable, many aspects of life were impossible to replicate: Spickard names one of the first "casualties" of the camps as family life: "the father...lost his economic position as primary provider" (Spickard 110). Mothers who had traditionally been housewives were forced to take on significantly larger responsibilities of community duties; education, civic training, and socialization of the entire family-duties that had traditionally taken place in the schools. In addition, the cafeteria-style mealtimes contributed to the loss of the familial identity; children were difficult to control in the open atmosphere and "behaved so badly that I stopped eating there" said one survivor (Spickard 111). As Spickard notes, this atmosphere of chaos and the loss of the structure which was such an important part of traditional Japanese-American heritage made family unity and discipline impossible to maintain (Spickard 112).
Despite these drawbacks, a few bright points stood out in the internment camps-there were schools, social events like dances and ballgames, and church services (although Shinto, the official Japanese religion, was not allowed). Some camps had inmate fire departments, elections for civic posts, and newspapers published by inmates (Spickard 114). The efforts on the part of the Japanese-Americans to replicate the semblance of a normal life were admirable; however, they could not be considered to replace an independent life in one's own community-i.e., without armed guards at your door.
Two years after Executive Order 9066 authorized these internments, Public Proclamation No. 21 permitted many Japanese-Americans to return home; despite this freeing of Japanese-Americans, a Supreme Court ruling in a case brought by Toyosaburo Korematsu, an American of Japanese descent who was arrested for disobeying the internment order upheld the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066. Korematsu's case established that although "all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect. That is not to say that all such restrictions are unconstitutional" (324 U.S. 314 at 317). In his dissent, Justice Frank Murphy disagreed:
dissent, therefore, from this legalization of racism. Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States. (324 U.S. 314 at 343).
Despite Justice Murphy's passionate plea for a true equality among races, Korematsu's conviction was upheld and, along with it, the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066.
This chapter of American history cannot be interpreted as part of national security during the second World War; nor can it be seen as a necessary precaution in light of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Murphy's assertion that the main purpose of Executive Order 9066 was the "legalization of racism" is the only reasonable interpretation of the actions taken by the United States government during the war, and one can only hope that in our current war on terror, the government can learn from its past mistakes and shy away from actions which may be construed to become so overtly racist.
Daniels, R., 1988. Asian America. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Kurashige, L., 2002. Japanese-American Celebration and Conflict: A History…