Executive Order 9066: Relocating the Japanese during World War II

 11th September 2015


On May 16, 1942, my mother, two sisters, niece, nephew, and I

left . . . by train. Father joined us later. Brother left earlier by

bus. We took whatever we could carry. So much we left behind,

but the most valuable thing I lost was my freedom.

(Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, 1982:11)


It would have been difficult, at the time, for the Japanese to begin to speculate what repercussions would follow their attack on Pearl Harbor on the 7th December 1941. Amid stories of Nazi infiltration and assistance in the bombing, tensions and suspicion concerning American-Japanese sabotage rose rapidly to enter into a state of paranoia and panic. The day immediately following the bombing President Roosevelt petitioned congress for a declaration of war, American-Japanese and Japanese-Americans were fired from government jobs, personal possessions, electronic and recording devices such as radios and cameras, were confiscated, and the military began to enact evacuation orders (CWRIC, 1982:62).

The 19th of February 1941, more than two months after the attacks, marks the date of the signing of Executive Order 9066. A document that would change the lives of thousands.

…the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such actions necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commanders may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with such respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Sectary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion… (Roosevelt, 1942)

The enactment of this order gave the Secretary of War, and the military commanders to whom he delegated authority, the power to exclude, remove, detain and imprison any citizen or foreign resident, from designated areas under the auspice of providing security against sabotage, espionage and fifth column activity (CWRIC 1982:2, 28, Nakanishi, 1993:7). The reality of this translated to the exclusion and prohibition of all American citizens of Japanese descent, and long term Japanese residents, from living, working or traveling on the West Coast of the United States. For many, their war years were spent behind barbed wire fences, in overcrowded camp compounds[1], suffering poor conditions with no running water or privacy (CWRIC 1982:135-148, 158-162; Ng, 2002:34-35). One report states that “[W]e stood two hours three times a day with pails in our hands like beggars to receive our meals. There was no hot water, no washing or bathing. It took about two months before we lived half way civilized (CWRIC 1982:141). Those lucky enough to be released remained prohibited from returning to their homes and occupations until the rescindment of the order in 1944 (CWRIC 1982:3)

Despite only lasting a period of 3 years, the residual fallout experienced from the internment Japanese-Americans had a lasting detriment on the lives of those who lived it. Reports of their experiences relate that heads of families, once a position of power, prestige and control, no longer held the means to provide food, shelter and security for their households (Nagata 191:126; CWRIC, 1982:11). This eroded authority and lead to a notable decline in the level of discipline that had been previously associated with Japanese-Americans as a racial and cultural group (CWRIC, 1982:11). For the vast majority, the experience they suffered carried a lasting sense of humiliation and dishonor that no other American, of any background, suffered during this period.

The years that followed World War II paint a picture that is nearly as distressing as the reports that flowed from the camps. Many internees testified that the government safeguards in place had been largely unsuccessful. Businessmen, forced to liquidate inventory, returned to nothing; individuals and families alike had sold belongings and homes for a small percentage of their value; evacuee warehouses, homes, garages and other structures were vandalized and the goods from these were frequently stolen or destroyed. Even some who had found caretakers returned to find their land abandoned, damaged and in in some cases, sold (CWRIC. 1982:117,122,241). The Issei and Nissei[2] attempted to rebuild their lives. Many having to begin once again with nothing. The rapid rates of inflation experienced in post war America and the intense labor shortages provided some opportunity for menial employment, however a percentage of the Issei, now in their late fifties and early sixties, were unable to rebuild what they had lost (Kashima, 1980:110). This group, for their remaining days, remained in poverty, dependent upon their children – for those that had them.

In 1948 the American Congress passed the compensatory Japanese-American Evacuation Claims Act. This Act granted the right to all persons of Japanese ancestry to claim governmental compensation for “damage to or loss of real or personal property,” not compensated by insurance, which was incurred as “a reasonable and natural consequence of the evacuation or exclusion” (50 USC App, 1981). Unfortunately, the effort made in establishing this Act lacked the ability to secure comprehensive or fair compensation for those concerned. Specifically, the Evacuation Claims Act made no attempt at compensation for the social stigma inflicted on those affected by evacuation, relocation, exclusion or internship, nor did it redress the deprivation of liberty, the psychological impact, physical injury or death incurred by those processed during detention (Ng 2002:102; CWRIC, 1982:118, Kashima, 1980:109-110). Under the evacuation Claims Act even the repayment of lost earnings, and financial losses incurred as a direct result of later resettlement were considered unreasonable claims on the grounds that “such claims were too speculative” (CWRIC 1982:118). According to Ng (2002:100) there were a total of 26,568 claims filed under the act totaling US$148 million. The government however only paid US$37 million in compensation. This means that of all the claims files only a small percentage were actually compensated for the loss incurred. Ng (2002:100) further claims that the government effectually paid “about ten cents for every dollar of property lost because former internees had to have documents proving their losses”. Although this Act has been amended several times over the years, it still remains the primary means through which the American federal government seeks to provide compensation for financial and economic damage caused as a direct result of exclusion or evacuation during this period.

In compiling their report the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians emphasized that “More significant than economic loss was the destruction that knew no boundaries between rich and poor—damage to the lives of Issei, Nissei, and even Sansei[3].” Numerous evacuees provided open testimony which expressed their loss, pain and anger over their evacuation, detention, and treatment during their internment and later resettlement. Many of their experiences were being given a voice for the first time. They had never before expressed these emotional feelings to anyone, their children, other members of their ethnic communities who had shared their experiences, and least of all with the public. Despite the painful significance of their bleak recollections, the Issei dealt with their memories by means of suppression and burial (Ng 2003:103; CWRIC, 1982). Kitano[4] (1993) suggests that traits of Japanese social norms and values of gaman, shikataganai, haji, on and enryo[5] provided a coping mechanism which served as “rational, emotional handles to deal with the stress of evacuation and internment. Additionally the Japanese reliance and cultural importance placed on allegiance, obedience and uniformity left little alternative to conforming to the directives of those in power (Fukuyama, 2006:231,238-241). Alternate theories for the actions taken by Japanese Americans actions during the period following their internment have been suggested by various researches. Kashima (1986:113), for example, claims that this is, a kind of “social amnesia” in response to their traumatic experiences. A coping mechanism in which a “conscious effort… to cover up less than pleasant memories [that may include] …particular moments or extended time periods”. Whichever theory one chooses to believe, the immediate post-war years for the Issei and Nissei were ones in which the years spent in internment were quietly silenced but not forgotten (Nagata, 191:122).

For many years, the Issei continued to be considered as ‘aliens’ and as such remained ineligible for citizenship until the passing of the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act in December of 1952. An important stepping stone, this act moved away from the exclusion of immigrants based simply on their country of origin instead focusing on denying those who were deemed to be of poor or immoral character, political radical and unable to or unwilling to assimilate into the economic, social and political structures of the Unites States. Although still highly discriminatory the new law “allotted new Asian quotas based on race, instead of nationality” (US Department of State). Importantly though the passing of this Act meant that the “Issei were now eligible for naturalized U.S citizenship” (Ng, 2003:103)

Socially and psychologically the Nisei’s response to their wartime internment differed significantly from the Issei’s. Although both recognized a common ancestral heritage, the Issei thought of themselves in terms of being first and foremost Japanese. The Nissei in contrast, despite prewar discrimination, viewed themselves as primarily Americans with rights and liberties bestowed under the Constitution They believed that they were falsely imprisoned as a result of government distrust based on racial discrimination and ethnicity (Nagata, 1991:121). This fact had a lasting effect on the ways in which the Nissei adjusted to post-war society. While the vast majority chose to ‘forget’ their experiences, often refusing to acknowledge the significance of loss, and move forward, others took varying positions along the ideological extremes. On the one side there were who believed that their best means of achieving their version of the ‘American Dream’, and eventual acceptance, was through the process of assimilation. This group, perhaps as a result of ingrained tradition or as a response to the internalization of anger “as feelings of guilt, shame, and racial inferiority … [and] focused [this] on attaining economic success” (CWRIC, 1982:299). They felt that their best response to the situation was to become less Japanese, to distance themselves with anything perceived to be Japanese and the institutions that they stand for, and to ‘blend-in’ with what was considered mainstream American society. During the Commission Kiyo Sato-Viacrucis claimed that “Society has stripped a whole group of people of confidence. We are afraid to speak out. We will try to keep peace at any price. We will not make waves. It makes us uncomfortable to stand out. We want to blend in. We want to be Middle America” (Testimony, Kiyo Sato-Viacrucis, San Francisco, Aug. 12, 1981:75. Cited in CWRIC, 1982:299). Many of the governmental relocation policies of the time supported or encouraged this mode of thinking. At the opposite end of the spectrum there were those who maintained a general distrust of American ‘white’ society and congregated as almost exclusive social communities of Japanese Americans. Geographically these communities would never again attain the same size, influence or nature as the pre-war Nihon-machi[6] areas. Sociologists have tried to rationalize the actions of this group and providing explanation in the form that they turn inward, blaming themselves for actions that they had little control over at the time (Kitano, 1993).

The mental scaring that results from internment in a wartime prison camp has left a mark that has gone well beyond altering the individual lives of the Issei and Nisei alone. It has precipitated a range of changes in all areas of the ethnic communities, and has altered or molded the way in which the Sansei were raised (Nagata 1991:122). Karen Umemoto testified that, her “father [a Nisei] always told us, “Get a good education, for it is something no one could take away from you. . . . He said we should assimilate, for any cultural deviation from the mainstream would only hold us back” (Testimony, Karen Umemoto, San Francisco, Aug. 12, 1981:149 cited in CWRIC 1982:300).

Clearly, evacuation had been an emergency measure that according to DeWitt (1943) “was impelled my military necessity” since “racial affinities are not severed by migration” (Dewitt, cited LeFeber, 2013:194), but politics and the inflation, or perhaps even fabrication, of any real threat to military security had provided a justification which culminated in the indefinite internment of a civilian population, for which no individual charges have been, or could have been, brought against them )Nagata, 191:121). The wartime wounds have not entirely healed. According to one person, “[E]ven to this day, there are many amongst us who do not speak about that period for fear that some harsh feelings might arise up again to the surface” (CWRIC, 1982:301; Ng, 2002:104)

In 1988, almost 50 years later, the Civil Liberties Act, which presented formal apology for the wartime internment of innocent Japanese American civilians, was passed by congress and signed by Ronald Reagan. Each of the remaining 81,974 survivors was awarded a financial payment of US$20,000 (Daniels, 2002:306).

End Notes

[1] There remains some contention as to whether or not the camps were “concentration camps”. Government documentation of the time can be noted to use the term “concentration camps,” but post- World War II frequently apply alternate terms to avoid any likening of the internment camps in the Unites States with those of the Nazis in the death camps of Europe (CWRIC 1982:27)

[2] First and Second generation

[3] Third generation

[4] Kitano and his family were interned at the Topaz concentration camp in Utah

[5] Gaman – Perseverance, bearing up, stoicism, the internalization and suppression of anger and emotion. This can also be considered as strength and preservation

Shikataganai – The idea that some things in life simply cannot be helped, it’s a matter out of my control

Haji – shame, loss of face

On – obligation – most likely from oyakoko – fifial piety, duty, reciprocity

Enryo – difference, the refusal of assistance

[6] Translates as Japan or Japanese-town



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Nakanishi, D.T. (1993). Surviving Democracy’s “Mistake”: Japanese Americans & the Enduring Legacy of Executive Order 9066. Amerasia Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 7-35.

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[online] accessed 29 July 2015 from http://baseballinjapaneseamericaninternmentcamps.yolasite.com/resources/pst-28-1-121.pdf

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Roosevelt, F.D. (1942). Executive Order 9066: Executive Order Authorizing the Secretary of War to prescribe military areas. Filed 21 February 1942. Federal Register, vol. 7, no. 38, p. 1407. [online] accessed 28 July 2015 from http://academic.udayton.edu/race/02rights/intern02.htm

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Executive Order No. 9066


WHEREAS the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities as defined in section 4, Act of April 20, 1918, 40 Stat. 533, as amended by the act of November 30, 1940, 54 Stat. 1220, and the Act of August 21, 1941, 55 Stat. 655 (U. S. C., Title 50, Sec. 104):

NOW, THEREFORE, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such actions necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commanders may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with such respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Sectary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. The Secretary of War is hereby authorized to provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary, in the judgement of the Secretary of War or the said Military Commander, and until other arrangements are made, to accomplish the purpose of this order. The designation of military areas in any region or locality shall supersede designations of prohibited and restricted areas by the Attorney General under the Proclamations of December 7 and 8, 1941, and shall supersede the responsibility and authority of the Attorney General under the said Proclamations in respect of such prohibited and restricted areas.

I hereby further authorize and direct the Secretary of War and the said Military Commanders to take such other steps as he or the appropriate Military Commander may deem advisable to enforce compliance with the restrictions applicable to each Military area hereinabove authorized to be designated, including the use of Federal troops and other Federal Agencies, with authority to accept assistance of state and local agencies.

I hereby further authorize and direct all Executive Departments, independent establishments and other Federal Agencies, to assist the Secretary of War or the said Military Commanders in carrying out this Executive Order, including the furnishing of medical aid, hospitalization, food, clothing, transportation, use of land, shelter, and other supplies, equipment, utilities, facilities and services.

This order shall not be construed as modifying or limiting in any way the authority heretofore granted under Executive Order No. 8972, dated December 12, 1941, nor shall it be construed as limiting or modifying the duty and responsibility of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with respect to the investigation of alleged acts of sabotage or the duty and responsibility of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice under the Proclamations of December 7 and 8, 1941, prescribing regulations for the conduct and control of alien enemies, except as such duty and responsibility is superseded by the designation of military areas hereunder.

February 19, 1942


Image from Hanus, J. 2010. Beauty in a bleak World. [online] assessed 28 July 2015 from http://craftcouncil.org/magazine/article/beauty-bleak-world

See also DeWitt, J.L..(1943). Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast. p. 99-100 and Unites States Government. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) (1982). p. 110-111


Source : DeWitt, J.L.. (1943). Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast. p. 97 see also Unites States Government. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) (1982). p. 112


Source : DeWitt, J.L.. (1942). Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast. p. 98 see also Unites States Government. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) (1982). p. 113