Following the Japanese bombing on Pearl Harbor of the United States of America on December 7, 1941, the Japanese-Americans were considered a national security threat especially on the west coast. In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps, which saw them a terrifying experience. This began with those that were in the west coast and eventually all of them regardless of loyalty or citizenship. Consequently, 120,000 people were relocated to the camps.
The relocation process was saddening and frustrating. They were mercilessly stripped of various valuables they possessed including businesses, trademarks, patents and even respect. Armed with meager possessions, the Japanese Americans were squeezed into temporary shelters like race tracks and stables where they stayed until the 10 relocation centers were completed.
Life in the camps was full of hardships. The prison-like camps were located in remote areas that were desolate and unfavorable. All round the camps were barbed wire borders and guards watching from watch towers. Many people had to share small living spaces and there was no room for personal needs at all. Life had to continue, therefore, in the camps children were expected to go to school as adults worked for meager wages. Anyone who stirred trouble was sent off to Tule Lake in California where all dissidents were held.
The terror gained roots the more due to lots of support that it received. The stronger supporters included the people of the west coast who were an organization of elites that were original settlers, the American Legion and the state Attorney General Earl Warren who was to be a liberal chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The business men were in full support since the relocation had lessened the number of competitors. The media, which captured the situation just kept silent until April 1942 when Life magazine described them as concentration camps whose occupants were delighted by surroundings.
Sign posted notifying people of Japanese descent to report for relocation
This situation remained so since the authorities restricted photographers from capturing the prison like camps or the watchtowers. The war relocation authority which was responsible for the internment, had to approve all photographs. However, one Ansel Adams who considered the camps to be safe and of benefit to the internees, captured some barbed wires. As a result, a very relevant photo to the internment was taken in March, 1942. The photo, printed by the Seattle Post Intelligencer, showed a female Japanese American named Fumiko Hayashida (she was not named in the post). She stood holding her sleeping baby as she waited for a ferry to take her to the internment camp.
In December 1944 the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the evacuation of the American Japanese as a war time necessity, however, ruled it unconstitutional. Following these decisions and the ending of World War II, the US government began releasing internees while closing down 9 of the camps by 1945. The last camp was closed in March 1946. Although they were released, some people retained hostility towards them. Some internees who returned home faced cruelty and even death. In 1998, a formal apology was issued and the congress awarded restitution payments to the camp survivors.
ca. 1942, Arcadia, California, USA — Japanese-Americans Interned at Santa Anita
Images by © CORBIS