It has been three-quarters of a century since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The order, issued just over two months after Japan’s surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, gave the U.S. military the ability to designate areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded.”
There was no mention of any particular ethnic or racial group anywhere in the order. Nevertheless, the implications were quickly quite clear: Not even a week passed before people of Japanese descent were being ordered to leave their homes in California. Soon, the forced relocation applied to the whole state, as well as much of the rest of the West Coast.
Roosevelt signed another order the next month, creating an agency to usher these people — mostly U.S. citizens — to camps set up expressly to incarcerate them as potential threats.
By the time the last internment camp closed in 1946, roughly 120,000 Japanese-Americans had been held in 10 camps, tar-paper barracks set up in a handful of states.
Beacons In A ‘Dark Chapter’
Before an Oregon Senate committee, George Nakata, who was no more than 8 years old when the Roosevelt’s order was signed, spoke earlier this week of a “dark chapter in American history … not found in many school textbooks,” according to The Associated Press.
“I can never forget, upon entering the building [where I was incarcerated], the smell of livestock urine, the pungent odor of manure underneath the wooden floors,” Nakata told lawmakers, who are considering a bill to establish a Day of Remembrance of the internment. The AP notes that California and Washington have passed similar resolutions.
In their commemorations, many have turned to the courage of a few as a beacon in that “dark chapter” — especially Fred Korematsu, who as a young man refused to be relocated in 1942. Korematsu, a U.S. citizen, took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled against him.
“The majority of justices claimed the detentions were not based on racial discrimination but rather on suspicions that Japanese-Americans were acting as spies,” as NPR has reported.
Though in his dissent, Justice Robert Jackson wrote the decision “has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens.”
He added: “The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.”
That conviction was eventually vacated in 1983 by a U.S. District Court in San Francisco. But “if anyone should do any pardoning,” Korematsu said at the time, “I should be the one pardoning the government for what they did to the Japanese-American people.”
Japanese-Americans across the country still harbor memories of childhood years spent behind barbed wire.
That includes Roy Ebihara, who recently spoke with StoryCorps.
“I really didn’t understand what this all meant and how it would affect our family. I guess I felt we were guilty of something but what, I didn’t know,” he told his wife Aiko during the interview.
“I just feel that I want to go back and accept that pride, that pride of who we are.”
Regret And Reflection In LA
At the time Roosevelt’s order was signed, The Los Angeles Times defended the internment — a decision the Times editorial board on Sunday called “our lasting shame.”
“The time has come to realize that the rigors of war demand proper detention of Japanese and their immediate removal from the most acute danger spots,” the paper wrote in 1942. “It is not a pleasant task. But it must be done and done now. There is no safe alternative.”
A year later, the paper pinned their rationale on the idea that “as a race, the Japanese have made for themselves a record for conscienceless treachery unsurpassed in history.”
In this respect, the paper was in lockstep with the mayor of its home city at the time, Fletcher Bowron. On member station KPCC, Michael Holland and John Rabe point to Bowron’s archived speeches, which referred to citizens of Japanese descent as a threat to the homeland.
Some of his addresses drew on legal trappings for credibility:
“I have merely pointed out a legal theory that native-born Japanese never were citizens under a proper construction of the provisions of the United States Constitution. If they never were citizens, nothing could be taken from them and their position is different. … [They] are in a class by themselves.”
Bowron later “made several public apologies for the treatment of the Japanese citizens of Los Angeles,” Holland and Rabe write.
The Times of 2017, for its part, condemned the claims of its forebears.
The anniversary marks a time “to exercise some humility and to reflect on how we reach our positions on the passionate issues of the day,” the paper’s editorial board wrote Sunday. “Here’s one obvious conclusion: Even in times of stress and fear, we need to keep a firm grip on our core values and bedrock principles.”
Others in the U.S. also treated Sunday as a time for reflection — and as an opportunity to cast an eye on the present.
“Curators at the Japanese American National Museum say they see parallels between how Japanese Americans were treated during World War II and how Muslim Americans are treated today,” NPR’s Hansi Lo Wang reports for our Newscast unit.
Starting this weekend, the Los Angeles museum is displaying two pages of Roosevelt’s original executive order.
“They say they hope younger visitors will have a chance to see firsthand the document that scarred the lives of generations of Japanese-Americans.”