Racial discrimination has been prevalent in the United States since its birth. Even still, it would be a surprise to many Americans that our great country herded nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps during the early years of World War II. During that time period, this fact was well known especially in the westernmost states where most of the Japanese and Japanese American population resided. The public views of this issue can be seen in our country's legislation and legal decisions regarding the internment.

On December 7, 1941 the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor causing death or injury to over 3500 Americans, and near total destruction of the US fleet in the harbor. Within days, the Japanese fleet had lead assaults on Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia, Guam, Wake Island, as well as other islands in the Pacific. The quick and unpredicted actions by the Japanese created mass hysteria on the West Coast with the public fearing a mainland attack by the Japanese Navy. Those of Japanese descent, who were already considered less human than the "whites", were blamed for the actions of the Japanese Empire.

A few months later, the commanding general of the Western Defense Command, Lieutenant General John Dewitt, is quoted as saying, "The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become 'Americanized', the racial strains are undiluted . . . The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken." He also said before Congress, "You needn't worry about the Italians at all except in certain cases. Also, the same for the Germans except in individual cases. But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."{2} In addition, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times said that "a viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched - so a Japanese American, born of Japanese parents - grows up to be a Japanese, not an American."

With advice like this, it is no wonder that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order allowed military authorities to exclude any group of people from any region designated a "military area" without trial or hearings for reasons of "military necessity". According to the document, this order was written to ensure "protection against espionage and against sabotage to national defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities." In retrospect we see that this was to be an extremely large operation requiring the "furnishing of medical aid, hospitalization, food, clothing, transportation, use of land, shelter, and other supplies, equipment, utilities, facilities and services."{1} It is this order that provided the legal authority behind the mass removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast to concentration camps.

While these orders obviously had broader scopes than dealing with those of Japanese ancestry, they were rarely used for anyone else. For a short time, Public Proclamation No. 3 established an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew (house arrest) for all "enemy aliens", which included Japanese, Germans, and Italians living in the military areas. General Dewitt was later ordered to rescind the curfew for the Germans and Italians "as soon as Japanese evacuation is complete."{3}

It was shortly after this that a series of Civilian Exclusion Orders were published which specifically excluded all persons with as little as one-sixteenth Japanese ancestry from military areas. In addition, to ensure orderly evacuation, these people where not allowed to leave the military areas without supervision. The subsequent exclusion orders required the Japanese to report to Assembly Centers, and then move on to Relocation Centers. Congress later passed legislation making it a misdemeanor to be in violation of these orders.

The laws, orders, and proclamations above caused quite a stir in the Japanese population. Relocation caused the breakup of families, the loss of property, assets, and personal possession, as well as significant hardship and inconvenience. Situations as seen in David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars must have been common throughout the west Coast as families packed up on short notice. Most of the Japanese population were not, and could not become US citizens according to US law, and most of the Japanese who were citizens by birth were still quite young, so there was very little they could do about their situation. Regardless, the United States Supreme Court addressed four cases about controversies resulting from Executive Order 9066. The first two of these cases were Hirabayashi v. United States and Yasui v. United States. These cases are very similar in both content and outcome. They are significant as they upheld the constitutionality of both the curfews for American citizens of Japanese descent, and of "differentiating citizens of Japanese ancestry from other groups in the United States."{4},{5}

Korematsu v. United States was an important case as it questioned the legality of the exclusion orders. Specifically, was it constitutional to exclude Fred Korematsu from his home in California simply because he was a Japanese American? As the court decided, it is constitutional to prevent a person from entering his home or property based on race or national origin. The court refused to comment on the constitutionality of the internment itself.{6}

The last case centered on Mitsuye Endo. The War Relocation Authority had granted Ms. Endo leave clearance from the internment camp, but the Western Defense Command would not allow her to re-enter the restricted military zone. Her case reached the Supreme Court in Ex Parte Endo where she demanded that she be restored to liberty because the regulations holding her were invalid. The Court granted her petition, but refused to rule on constitutional grounds. The Court merely found that, pursuant to the War Relocation Authority statute and Executive Order 9066, the War Relocation Authority had no power to subject admittedly loyal citizens to its leave procedure, meaning they had no power to detain loyal citizens. The court explicitly left open the possibility that the Order allowed for the detention of citizens and non-citizens whose loyalty was unknown.{7}

While the Court understood the delicate nature of the cases they were making decisions on, they relied heavily on "military expediency" as the reasoning behind their verdicts. Some of the Justices did not agree with the majority decision, and even considered it overt racism, but their dissents did not hold any force of law.

The Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the West Coast during World War II suffered terrible hardships due to their national origin. The verdicts of the US Supreme Court are astounding in that they ruled as legal to do some of the things that were done based on race. It is just as astounding that since the relocation derived from an Executive Order, ratified by act of Congress, nothing exists to prevent a future President from reissuing a similar Executive Order. For an example closer to the present, in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, at least one Arab American was arrested at a local airport, apparently because he looked Arab, and Arabs are known to commonly perform acts of terrorism. Under the Supreme Court's holding in Korematsu v. United States, this was proper and legal. It is unfortunate that the occurrences of nearly 50 years ago are still not resolved, and the government has done very little in way of reparations.

Selected Bibliography

  1. United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Executive Order 9066" Washington D.C., 1942
  2. Geoffrey S. Smith, "Racial Nativism and Origins of Japanese American Relocation" in: Ed. by Roger Daniels, Sandra Taylor, and Harry Kitano; Japanese Americans, from Relocation to Redress; University of Utah Press; Salt Lake City, UT; 1986.
  3. Michi Weglyn, Years of Infamy, Morrow Quill Paperbacks, New York, 1976.
  4. Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81 (1943).
  5. Yasui v. United States, 320 U.S. 115 (1943).
  6. Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944).
  7. Endo, Ex Parte, 323 U.S. 283 (1944).

Written by me for an undergraduate English Literature class
ENGLIT 500 Critical Reading
Node your Homework

Some famous Japanese Americans:


  • Norman Mineta - Secretary of the Department of Transportation
  • Mike Honda - Congressman
  • Daniel Inouye - Senator from Hawaii and World War Two combat hero.
  • Robert Matsui - Congressman


  • Francis Fukuyama - economist and historian
  • Michio Kaku - scientist
  • Ronald Takaki - historian
  • S.I. Hayakawa - linguistics scholar and politician


  • Pat Morita - mentor to the karate kid
  • George Takei - Mr Sulu


  • Ellison Onizuka - astronaut and victim of the 1987 Challenger disaster.
  • Eric Shinseki - United States Army General, Army Chief of Staff, 1999-2003


  • Kristi Yamaguchi - figure skater
  • Paula Suzuki - bodybuilder and powerlifter
  • Tommy Kono - weightlifter


  • Yoko Ono - artist *cough*
  • Minoru Yamasaki - architect of the World Trade Centre
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