The people's voice of reason

August 14th is Celebrated as VJ Day. Why did the United States inter its Japanese- American citizens?

After Pearl Harbor and the means in which the sneak attack was carried out, Americans became highly suspicious of the Japanese. There were over 110,000 Japanese living on the United States West Coast of which about 70,000 were citizens. Many lived near strategic military areas on the West Coast, which was also closer to Japan and thus more susceptible to attack. Some Japanese- Americans were very committed to the mother country, having sent tinfoil and money in Japan’s war with China. Some Japanese children had dual citizenship ensured by their parents and some received a significant portion of their education in Japan. Many radio transmissions were intercepted following the Pearl Harbor attack and submarines attacked ships as they left West Coast ports. About 5,000 Japanese refused to pledge allegiance to the United States and several thousand requested repatriation to Japan. The evacuation of Japanese and other subversive persons from the West Coast was recommended by the commanding officer of the Western Defense Command. Though second and third generations of Americanized Japanese might be affected, General DeWitt still felt their loyalties might lie with Japan. Oddly enough, he stated, “ . . . the very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken” (yes, you read that correctly).

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and Congress enacted it as law in March 1942. More than 100,000, Japanese in parts of Arizona, Washington, Oregon and all of California were removed to camps more inland if they had not already moved. Their property was seized. The curfew, removal and detention of Japanese-Americans was challenged and affirmed in the Supreme Court cases of Hirabayashi v. United States, Ex Parte Endo and Korematsu v. United States.

Korematsu was arrested and convicted under the law after being found in a prohibited area in California. It was argued by defense that Mr. Korematsu understood both that he was to leave or be arrested but also that anyone found in the area would be arrested.

Justice Hugo Black of Alabama wrote the majority opinion. Justice Black believed that such restrictions on a single race are suspect as being unconstitutional, but also stated that pressing public necessity might justify such action as that taken with those of Japanese ancestry on the U.S. West Coast. Black felt that only the gravest imminent danger to the public could constitutionally justify either the confinement of a race to their homes during certain hours of the day or the removal from their home.

Black said, “It was because we could not reject the finding of the military authorities that it was impossible to bring about an immediate segregation of the disloyal from the loyal that we sustained the validity of the curfew order as applying to the whole group.” Further Black said, “To cast this case into outlines of racial prejudice, without reference to the real military dangers which were presented, merely confuses the issue.” We cannot- by availing ourselves of the calm perspective of hindsight-now say that at the time those actions were


Justice Murphy wrote a dissenting opinion, saying, “The judicial test of whether the Government, on a plea of military necessity can validly deprive an individual of any of his constitutional rights is whether the deprivation is reasonably related to a public danger that is so immediate, imminent and impending as not to admit of delay and not to permit the intervention of ordinary constitutional processes to alleviate the danger.” But to infer that examples of individual disloyalty prove action against the entire group is to deny that under our system of law individual guilt is the sole basis for deprivation of rights.” Also dissenting, Justice Jackson wrote, “ A citizen’s presence in the locality, however, was made a crime only if his parents were of Japanese birth. Had Korematsu been one of four- the others being, say a German alien enemy, an Italian alien enemy, and a citizen of American-born ancestors, convicted of treason, but out on parole- only Korematsu’s presence would have violated the order.”

The 1984 Federal District Court case, forty years after Korematsu v. United States served to correct an error of fact (writ of coram noblis). Justice Patel wrote that the overturning of conviction was due to a factual error and not error of law in the 1944 Supreme Court case. Congress passed Title II of the Internal Security Act in 1950 to allow the President to have those apprehended that might reasonably engage in espionage or sabotage. It was suggested by a U.S. House of Representatives committee, that the law be used to detain those involved in urban riots. It enraged African Americans and was repealed in 1971. It was not the first time that a United States President had repealed the civil rights of some of its citizens, Abraham Lincoln had suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War.

Though worthy of more than a footnote, segregated Japanese- American troops served with distinction in the European theatre during World War II as evidenced by numerous medals of valor awarded many of its members. The 60,000 surviving detainees were given $20,000 each as reparation in 1988.

This article is informative only and not meant to be all inclusive. Additionally this article does not serve as legal advice to the reader and does not constitute an attorney- client relationship. The reader should seek counsel from their attorney should any questions exist.

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