Shikata Ga Nai

Monday, February 24, 2014

General DeWitt issued Civilian Exclusion Order No. 1 on March 24, 1942, followed in quick succession by Civilian Exclusion Orders 2 through 108. These orders contained instructions to “all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien.” It seems that General DeWitt couldn’t bring himself to use the word “citizens,” which is what the “non-aliens” were.
No. 5 is a typical exclusion order. It was issued on April 1, 1942 and required Japanese Americans living in San Francisco to present themselves for evacuation (forced removal) by noon on April 7. This gave them six days to pack up and store, lease, or sell everything they owned. Many had little choice but to give in to the vultures who offered less than 10% of the value of furniture and appliances and other household goods. Some women were so incensed at the prices they were offered that they smashed their fine china rather than letting the secondhand dealers have it for unconscionable prices.
The head of the family—or the person forced into that role if the Issei head of the household had been arrested—was required to go to the Civil Control Center in advance to register the family. The family was then given a number. The Civil Control Center also provided baggage tags with the family number and told evacuees to attach them to each member of the family and the luggage they were taking with them. (You can see the tags on the children in the picture at the head of this post.) There were no baggage tags for pets, however, because pets were not allowed.
And how much luggage could the Japanese Americans take? No more than they could carry, which different families interpreted differently. On average, they took two suitcases each plus one duffel bag for the family. There wasn’t room for photo albums or family heirlooms, either, because each family was instructed to pack (1) bedding and linens, (2) toilet articles, (3) extra clothing, (4) knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, and cups, and (5) “essential personal effects” (whatever that means) for each member. It was particularly hard to decide what clothes to take since they had no idea where they would be going or what the weather would be like.
So how did the Japanese Americans respond? With anger and hostility? Inwardly maybe, but not outwardly. There was very little resistance, and the battles that did occur were fought in the courts rather than in the streets.
Why did they submit? There were two main reasons. One is summed up in the Japanese phrase that I used as the title for this post: shikata ga nai. It means “it can’t be helped” and was their way of saying that what can’t be cured must be endured. The second reason is that they believed in obeying the laws of their country. If the American government said they must move out of their homes and into prison camps, they would do it. It was a way to show their loyalty.
Of course, the government didn’t call them prison camps. Tune in next week to find out what it did call them.
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The photograph at the top of this post was taken by Dorothea Lange in 1942 as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.

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