The History Of America’s Japanese Internment Camps

“You damn Jap-you! By gosh, the government should put every damn one of you in concentration camps”

That’s what a low voice uttered as Kimi Tambara strolled through Chinatown with a her friend on Christmas in 1941. Just weeks earlier, the Japanese military had launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, sparking fear and panic that those with Japanese roots would aid the Asian country in its fight against America.

At the time, Tambara shrugged off the comment.

“The freedom of life and liberty was so much a part of us that the idea of confinement had never once occurred to us,” she wrote later, recalling the incident.

This National Park Service map shows the location of Japanese internment centers. (Click to enlarge)

This National Park Service map shows the location of Japanese internment centers. (Click to enlarge)

But by Christmas the following year, Tambara was among Japanese Americans forced from their homes, jobs and families and into internment camps, or War Relocation Authority centers. President Franklin Roosevelt approved the move on February 19, 1942 when he signed Executive Order 9066, which permitted the military to detain without due process those suspected of sabotage and espionage.

WATCH: George Takei Remembers His Time In Concentration Camp

From the National Archives and Records Administration:

“Under guard and surrounded by barbed-wire fences, the internees lived in cramped barracks sharing communal toilets, showers, and mess halls. Privacy was nonexistent. The relocation centers mirrored small communities with churches, hospitals, libraries, post offices, and schools. The WRA allowed some internees to leave for temporary seasonal agricultural work. Others attended college, served in the military, or obtained outside employment. Some of the internees remained in the WRA relocation centers until they closed in 1946.”

In 1988, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act acknowledging the Japanese internment camps as “a grave injustice.”

The trying experience for the more than 120,000 men, women and children detained at the relocation centers between 1942 and 1946 is depicted in the new Broadway musical, “Allegiance,” starring Star Trek’s George Takei. His own experience as an internee inspired the show.

More resources:
Children of the Camps, PBS
World War II: Internment of Japanese Americans,” The Atlantic
Manzanar Relocation Center photos, Library of Congress

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