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September 27, 2020
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Remembering Japanese Internment

By: Bill Hanson
February 21, 2020

Racism towards Asians existed long before the attack on Pearl Harbor Sunday morning December 7, 1941. In the Gold Rush years Asians, primarily Chinese, were brought into San Francisco by the thousands to work as laborers on the railroads and mines of California. Federal laws were enacted in 1870 that prohibited any Asian, African or Native American from owning property or taking legal action against a white person and prevented them protection of their civil rights under the constitution. Locally, laws prevented Asians from burial in “White” cemeteries until a legislative change in the law in 1938.

After Pearl Harbor racism, specifically towards Japanese, came to a boil. The FBI and military leaders enacted a curfew on Japanese living on the west coast and limited travel to five miles from home after Pearl Harbor, in the name of national defense. Two days after the attack Chinese mothers pinned notes on their children’s clothing stating in bold print, “I am Chinese.” Locally sporadic attacks against Japanese grew from fist fights and racial epithets to a group of teens in Sebastopol setting fire to the Emanji temple south of town. Japanese were arrested by the FBI without due process and disappeared for years without their families knowing where they were. 

Commander of the Pacific Army, headquartered at the Presidio in San Francisco, General John DeWitt suggested the removal of all Japanese living on the Pacific coast to the high deserts of the interior and kept under strict ‘supervision’ by the military. Those of cooler heads including President Roosevelt, resisted such action. The outcry infected much of both political parties. The president, under strong political pressure, reluctantly signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942 which approved the removal of people of Japanese heritage from their homes and businesses living on or near the Pacific coast. 

Most Japanese were given notice via paper declaration signs pasted on telephone poles and walls in public areas. They were given only a few weeks to leave their homes and report to temporary internment centers on the west coast with only as much as each person could carry in one suitcase. Many from Sonoma County were sent to live in horse stalls at the county fairgrounds in Tanforan, south of San Francisco and the fairgrounds near Pomona, also in hastily shoveled horse stalls. The internees were later sent to one of nine facilities scattered around the west. A tenth facility was in Tule Lake, it was primarily a camp for those most suspect by the authorities, at its peak Tule Lake held nearly 19,000 people. For all this not one interned person was found to be an agent of Japan. Archival photos of the camps bear a striking resemblance to German concentration camps. With barbed wire perimeter fences and armed guards, they could have been German camps. Nearly 120,000 people were imprisoned under Executive Order 9066. About two thirds of Japanese in Internment Camps were born in the U.S. and were full U.S. citizens.

In 1929 the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) was born out of concern for Japanese civil rights and published a semi-monthly newsletter, the Pacific Citizen. Still published today the Pacific Citizen keeps readers abreast of today’s civil rights issues, particularly those groups being persecuted by our government. The JACL was instrumental in drafting changes to laws that allowed mandated prejudice. People born in Asia could not become American citizens until 1952. The JACL worked to get the interment recognized as an illegal action by the government. Eventually the federal government officially apologized to Japanese Americans in the civil liberties act of 1988, signed by president Ronald Reagan. The act included reparations of $20,000 to internees. It took the government more than ten years to finish paying reparations. Today there is a permanent display commemorating Japanese Interment at the Presidio in San Francisco. The display is housed in the former office of General John DeWitt, the very birthplace of the atrocity.

Visit the JACL web site: www.Pacificcitizen.org for historical and current information. Search Wikipedia: Internment of Japanese Americans for extensive research of the subject. The Pacific Citizen archives provided information for this article. Visit:www.presidiotrust.gov for visiting times and details of the internment.