Can you imagine imprisoning an entire group of people based solely on their race? I mean, really, it’s not that far of a stretch considering America’s bleak history regarding slavery, but I digress. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that’s exactly what happened. Perpetuated by fear and the explosion of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the internment of thousands of Japanese- Americans. This wasn’t just a few citizens timidly questioning Japanese- Americans’ loyalty. This was mass hysteria. Newspapers called for their immediate removal, with abrasive headlines like “Get ’em Out!” and “A Jap’s a Jap”. White farmers, who once worked side by side with Japanese- Americans, had seemingly changed their tune overnight. Japs dominate the strawberry fields, they said. We can do twice as much work as them once those fields are handed back over to the rightful owners. Japanese- Americans were forced to sell their property and possessions for pennies on the dollar because they only had mere hours to relocate to internment camps. Children were also evacuated. As one former prisoner recalls, “…I remember my mother wrapping a blanket around me and pretending to fall asleep so she would be happy, though I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. I hear there were people herded into the Hastings Park like cattle. Families were made to move in two hours. Abandoned everything, leaving pets and possessions at gun point…”
Life in the internment camps was grim. The barracks were constructed with a simple frame and a tarpaper roof with no plumbing or heat source. Prisoners had to brave extreme temperatures, ranging from -35 degrees to as high as 115 degrees. Guards of the camp pushed for self- sufficiency by having prisoners grow most of their own food, but this was next to impossible for the camps situated in desert areas. They shared communal shower areas and non-partitioned toilet facilities. Families were torn apart as guards arranged activities within the camp for the children that required them to be separated from their parents for long periods of time and they were “promoted” while the elders were ignored. Medical care was poor; many Japanese died while in camp due to illness or stress.
Twice during the period of internment camps, Japanese Americans took their civil rights case to the Supreme Court. Both times, the Court ruled in favor of the government, citing the imprisonment as a necessity.
In 1945, after 3 years of imprisonment, Japanese- Americans were released. The freed prisoners were given a train ticket home, whatever that means. Many of them had sold all of their possessions before internment so they found themselves homeless and without a single item of value. In 1948, the US granted compensation for Japanese- Americans who had lost property but since many records showing former ownership were destroyed from the time before internment camps, Japanese- Americans found themselves only partially reimbursed. Though freed physically, many still faced an emotional prison, suffering from depression and PTSD. Some even committed suicide, unable to cope with the immense feelings of loss and hopelessness. With lingering feelings of shame and fear, many Japanese- Americans have a hard time recounting what happened to them during imprisonment. Moving forward, they encouraged their offspring to turn away from their Japanese heritage in an effort to “Americanize” their children and to forget the painful past.
In 1978, President Carter issued a formal apology and began implementing reparations for Japanese- Americans and their ancestors who faced internment. An official apology was issued along with monetary reparations in the amount of $20,000 per person.
Despite the efforts to reparate and make amends, the internment camps remain another strike against civil rights in America’s already stained history.