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Underlying Racism and Injustice Behind the Japanese Internment Camps

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After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, the United States quickly entered in World War II. However, the USA began a series of events that resulted in more than 120,000 Japanese Americans to be interned in camps operated by the War Relocation Authority, as after the bombing, the USA suspected more than 2,000 Japanese of espionage and or sabotage. The displacement of Japanese Americans was supported by the commander of the Wester Defense Command, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, who stated that the Japanese race is any “enemy race,” and by President Franklin Roosevelt, who issued an executive order justifying that “all persons may be excluded.” After World War II ended, a majority of the interned Japanese citizens returned to their homes, having endured financial losses, disruption of education and careers, and deep psychological wounds. Eventually, many court cases began questioning the constitutionality of the relocation camps, which had reached as high as the Supreme Court. In the court case Korematsu v. United States, although the court did not rule the displacement of Japanese citizens as unconstitutional, it stated that the US courts must scrutinize all legal restrictions made for a single racial group. However, in 1988, the passage of the Civil Liberties Act acknowledged that the displacement of Japanese Americans was a “grave injustice” for them, as these actions were carried out without adequate security reasons, and thus were motivated by racial prejudice and wartime hysteria. Most importantly, this act provided $20,000 as payment in reparations for each surviving internee. Thus, if the displacement of Japanese Americans was truly not morally wrong, then the Civil Liberties Act would have not had to come to effect in order to pay for reparations for each Japanese internee.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese military forces incited fear within the American government and public about the role of Japanese spies residing in America, aiding Japan to destroy American during World War II. Per an evacuation order in San Francisco on May 7, 1942 by the Western Defense Command, it stated that “all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien” would be evacuated from their homes, and were also not permitted to move to escape this evacuation (DeWitt 1219). However, Japanese American residents and citizens never had a say as to how they pledged their loyalty to the American government. On March 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a Japanese placed a sign titled “I am an American” in front of his store. Nonetheless, he was still later sent to one of the relocation camps, despite pledging his allegiance to the American government during World War II (Lange 1220). Similarly, lawyer Yamamoto referred to the internment of Japanese Americans as “racial incarceration, without charges or trial” (Yamamoto 1232).

Additionally, the displacement of Japanese citizens caused them to have significant trauma and stress from these events. In the historical fictional novel, When the Emperor was Divine, a Japanese family recounts their experiences being sent to an internment camp in Utah during World War II. Their father has been taken away by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, leaving the mother and her two children to depart for the internment camps on their own. Throughout the short story, the mother feels rage against the “White Man” for displacing the Japanese citizens. In one notable scene, where she refers to her white dog as “White Dog,” she ties it up against a tree and ultimately kills it with a shovel, symbolizing her anger towards the “White Man,” and thus indirectly representing the displacement of Japanese citizens as indirectly racist. In another scene, the mother is scene tearfully drinking wine the night before her departure to the internment camps as well, displaying her sadness and fear of the uncertainty of what is about to come (Otsuka 1229). Prominent lawyer Eric Yamamoto stated that the interment of Japanese citizens was comparable to the “trauma of racial incarceration…and the lingering self-doubt over two generations left scars on the soul” (Yamamoto 1232). This ultimately shows that not only did the displacement of Japanese citizens lead to the trauma of every individual person, but rather tore down the entire culture as a whole.

Finally, if the displacement of Japanese citizens was truly just, then the government would not have been obliged to pay reparations. President George Bush referred to the monetary sum of $20,000 to each surviving internee as well as words alone could not restore the “lost years” nor “painful memories” these Japanese individuals had to face. He also criticized the USA by stating how these reparations could never fully convey the Nation’s resolve to rectify injustice and to uphold the rights of individuals. Ultimately, President Bush himself admits to not only the wrongdoing of sending Japanese Americans to internment camps, but also acknowledging reparations as not being enough for the amount of traumatic and painful events that these Japanese people had to endure. Meanwhile, lawyer Yamato weighs in both the pros and cons of the reparations for Japanese Americans. As a critique, Yamamoto further explained that “reparations legislation and court rulings do not…. inevitably lead to a restructuring of government, a changing of social attitudes or a transformation of social relationships.” However, he also mentioned that reparations should be appreciated as intensely powerful and calculated acts that challenge racial assumptions, as they bear potential for contributing institutional and attitudinal restricting.

Therefore, despite the worries of the U.S. Government about the invasion of the Japanese in the USA, the internment of all Japanese American families (including women and children) was inherently racist. If this act was truly just, the American government would have not complied to pay reparations of $20,000 to each surviving internee. Not only did these families undergo emotional and physical stress, but previous presidents and lawyers have also expressed that reparations can never cover up for the prevalent, underlying racism within the USA government and population.

Works Cited

Bush, George. “Letter of Apology.” Conversations in American Literature: Language,

Rhetoric, Culture. Boston, Bedford/St. Martin's, 2015. 1230-1231.

Lange, Dorothea. “I Am an American.” Conversations in American Literature: Language,

Rhetoric, Culture. Boston, Bedford/St. Martin's, 2015. 1220.

Otsuka, Julie. “When the Emperor was Divine.” Conversations in American Literature:

Language, Rhetoric, Culture. Boston, Bedford/St. Martin's, 2015. 1221-1230.

Yamamoto, Eric. “Japanese American Redress and African American Claims.” Conversations

in American Literature: Language, Rhetoric, Culture. Boston, Bedford/St. Martin's, 2015.


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