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Commemorating the Japanese Internment

Harry Brill
Friday April 21, 2017 - 10:56:00 AM

Seventy five years ago FDR signed an executive order that sent almost 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps. Some government officials described the policy as an evacuation which implied that moving the Japanese out of their homes was not such a terrible decision. Actually, they were being sent to the equivalent of concentration camps, where they lived behind barb wire fences until the end of the war. The soldiers who guarded the camps could shoot anyone who attempted to escape. 

The forced relocation of the Japanese was explained by the importance of protecting the nation's national security. But the Japanese committed no crime and nor were they accused of doing so. Most west coast Japanese were not newcomers. Sixty-two percent were American citizens. 

Although the national security issues were the public explanation for interning Japanese Americans, the government actually knew better. One year before FDR's executive order, the President secretly commissioned a study to determine whether Japanese Americans would be a threat to U.S. Security. Called the Munson Report, it was submitted to the President one month before Pearl Harbor was bombed. The report found that "the local Japanese are loyal to the United States". Another study written by a Naval Intelligence officer found nothing to worry about. He claimed that incarcerating the Japanese was unjustified. Also, the FBI director, J. Edger Hoover told the Attorney General that there was no need to evacuate Japanese Americans for security reasons. All these assurances were ignored. 

The United States was also at war with Germany and Italy. Yet there was no comparable mass roundup of Germans and Italians. Clearly, the racist attitudes toward the Japanese played a decisive role in how they were mistreated. Prejudice against Asians has had a long history in the US. The racism was further inflamed by Pearl Harbor and the war with Japan. But since the Japanese Americans posed no threat to national security, why did the national government take such extraordinary steps? 

The racist pressure on the government was tremendous, particularly from agribusiness, which very much wanted to take over the farms owned by the Japanese. The Japanese Americans were the largest supplier to California's fruit and vegetable market. The white farmers and truckers were not subtle about their interest in acquiring Japanese property. The Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association acknowledged "if all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we would never miss them because the white farmers can take over and produce everything that the Japanese grow. The Chamber of Commerce as well as the farm organizations echoed the same view. 

But obviously, relocating the Japanese without forcing them to surrender their property would not have served the interests of the agricultural industry. So the regulations required that they sell almost all their belongings and property within ten days, which forced the Japanese to sell their possessions at much lower prices than they would have ordinary receive. Moreover, they could only take to the internment camp what they were able to carry. What they did not sell was taken over in one way or another by others. 

Many years later, in 1988, the federal government officially apologized for the enforced relocation of Japanese Americans. Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act which apologized to the Japanese and paid survivors $20,00 each for the enforced relocation. Although the Republicans voted against the bill, President Reagan, who was a Republican, signed the law. When we take into account the nightmare that afflicted the Japanese along with losing their property and belongings, the compensation was really minimal. Although the public apology was certainly appropriate, it would have been much more credible if all branches of government had denounced the judicial decision that justified the incarceration. It is not only a Japanese problem. All minorities can be at risk. 

P.S. Berkeley will commemorate the tragedy of the Japanese internship Wednesday, April 26 at UC Berkeley's Student Union from 5 to 7:30p.m. Sam Mihara, who was 9 years old when he was interned, will talk about his experience.