Reparations and Apologies

Monday, March 31, 2014

Is there any way we can make up for what we did to our fellow Americans during World War II? Even if we reimbursed them for their financial losses—their homes and businesses—how do you put a monetary value on family heirlooms? More importantly, how can we make reparations for taking away freedom and dignity?
We can’t.

Still, America has a responsibility to do what it can. Several years after the war ended, those affected by the forced move were given the opportunity to file claims for damage to or loss of property, with a $2,500 limit. The Federal Reserve Bank estimated the losses at approximately $400 million, but less than a tenth of that was paid out as a result of the claims process.* Even those claiming less than the $2,500 limit received only a fraction of what they asked for.

In 1981, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. The Commission held 20 days of hearings all around the country and heard more than 750 witnesses. It concluded that Executive Order 9066 and the subsequent events were not justified by military necessity but resulted from “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” It recommended that the United States issue an apology and make payments of $20,000 to each of the survivors. This was still a miniscule sum compared to the actual losses, but the Commission may have been concerned about the affect that larger amounts would have on the U.S. Treasury.**

Congress accepted these recommendations in what became the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which President Reagan signed into law on August 10, 1988. The formal letters of apology came from President Bush and accompanied the payments that began in October 1990 but were made—as recommended—only to those who still survived.

To me, the apology is worth more than the money. But there is a better way to show that we are sorry for what America did to its Japanese citizens and permanent residents.

It’s easy to say that we would never do the same thing today. But wouldn’t we? Human nature doesn’t change, and living in a country that extols freedom and diversity doesn’t make us immune. In my opinion, the best reaction to our past is to know it, to realize that what happened to the Japanese Americans could occur again (although probably to a different group), and to work hard to keep it from happening.

Because complacency ensures that it will.


*    My resources agreed on the Federal Reserve Board estimate and the $2,500 limit, but they were not consistent as to the amount that was actually paid. I have used the higher amount of “less than $40 million,” but it might have been significantly less.

**  Based on the CPI Inflation Calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $400 million in 1942 dollars would have been $2.4 billion in 1982 dollars. By 1990, when the payments began, that amount had risen to $3.2 billion.


The photograph at the head of this post was taken at Manzanar War Relocation Center on July 3, 1943. If you look closely, you can see a dust storm in the background. Dorothea Lange took the picture 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.

Everything Was Gone

Monday, March 24, 2014

Beginning on December 17, 1944, the Japanese Americans were allowed to return to their homes and businesses on the West Coast. The war hadn’t ended yet, but by that time it was clear there was no threat—at least not from the Japanese Americans. More cynically, FDR had just won another presidential election (eliminating the political pressure), and the government probably anticipated losing two U.S. Supreme Court cases that were scheduled for decision on December 18. As it turned out, they lost one case and won the other. But even in the case the government won, the decision implied that the state of emergency that justified the original evacuation order no longer existed.*

Now that they could go home, the Japanese Americans should have been thrilled, right? Wrong. Many were afraid to return. America was not in danger from the Japanese Americans, but the Japanese Americans were in danger from the bigots on the West Coast. Although the vast majority who returned did so without facing physical violence, beatings and murder were not unknown.

Far more people were affected by financial devastation. As noted in my February 24, 2014 post, the Japanese Americans had only a few days to pack up and store, lease, or sell everything they owned. The government offered to provide storage “at the sole risk of the owner,” and those who took them up on it discovered that the safety of their items depended on the particular facility.

Some Japanese Americans were fortunate to find trustworthy friends to store their goods and honest business managers to run their businesses and collect rent on their properties. But many others returned to find their goods looted, their homes foreclosed after rents intended to pay the mortgage went into the agents’ pockets, and their businesses raided. And they received practically no compensation for their losses.

As my next post will discuss, the U.S. did eventually provide some redress. But was it enough? And why have I spent two months on this subject? I’ll leave you to ponder those questions until next week.


*    The government won Koramatsu v. U.S., which upheld the original exclusion orders. It lost Ex Parte Endo, which held that the government could not restrict the Japanese Americans’ freedom once they had left the West Coast.


The May 20, 1942 photograph at the top of this post shows goods stored in a Woodland, California facility. The picture was taken by Dorothea Lange 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.

Barbed Wire and Deserts

Monday, March 17, 2014

After spending several months in the temporary camps, the Japanese Americans were sent to more permanent “relocation centers.” There were ten of these permanent incarceration camps, and all were built on land that was isolated and unusable. The easternmost two were built in the Louisiana swamps. The other eight were built in the western deserts. The camps were surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard towers, even though only a fool would have tried to cross the desert to freedom.

The temperature ranged from 120 degrees in the summer at Poston, Arizona to -30 degrees in the winter at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Yes, even deserts can be cold at the higher elevations. At Poston, the residents dragged their cots outside to sleep during the summer months because the tar-papered barracks retained the heat from the daytime sun. But if a dust storm came up, they fled back indoors. During the spring and fall, the residents at many camps bundled up on their way to breakfast and shed their extra layers in the heat of the day.

In the deserts, the Japanese Americans were at the mercy of violent windstorms. The dust-sized sand particles blew in their eyes and noses and blinded them so that they couldn’t see where they were going. The dust even blew into their homes and the mess hall through cracks in the walls and floors, forcing them to eat and drink it. And in many camps the residents were triply cursed—dust blizzards in the summer, snow blizzards in the winter, and mud the rest of the time.

Housing in these more permanent camps was similar to that of the barracks used in the temporary camps. Each “apartment” was a single room used for sleeping and living, although most of the living occurred out of doors or in the mess hall. As in the temporary camps, residents had to leave their rooms and go to a mess hall for their meals and to another central location to do their laundry, use the bathroom, and take a shower. 

There was some improvement over the temporary camps, however. The food got better as the cooks became more experienced, and the latrines were eventually fitted with partitions between stalls and showers. School opened, and life settled into a routine. But it was a routine lived in deserts or swamps behind barbed wire fences. 

As in the temporary camps, the only furnishings provided by the government were an army cot and mattress (or straw ticking) for each member of the family. The government also provided two army blankets for each person, but those blankets often ended up as privacy walls. People managed to make their quarters livable, but they had to do it on their own.

The camp administration and some of the teachers were white, but the Japanese Americans who were forced to live there held most of the jobs in these newly created cities. At Topaz, Utah, professionals such as doctors made $19 per month, skilled laborers and semi-professionals made $16 per month, and unskilled laborers made $12–$14 per month. This was many times less than they had made outside or than white colleagues made at the camps.

The college-age and young adult residents left as soon as they were accepted into colleges or jobs away from the west coast and could get sponsors. But the older people and the young children stayed until the government forced them to move yet again. Why did they stay in a prison after they were given a chance to leave?

As I will explain in my next post, they had nowhere else to go.


The photograph at the top of this post shows the interior of a barrack apartment at Manzanar. It is typical of the “apartments” at all of the permanent incarceration camps. Notice the bareness of the room and the cloth partition used by the residents to create a little privacy. The picture was taken by Dorothea Lange 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.

Home is a Horse Stall

Monday, March 10, 2014

General DeWitt initially favored a “voluntary” removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. It was only voluntary in the sense that they would get to choose where to relocate outside the restricted area, however. There was nothing voluntary about leaving.

Unfortunately for General DeWitt’s plans, many Japanese Americans had no where to go, and those who did try to leave often had to turn back after being denied service at gas stations and threatened with violence in supposedly unrestricted states. So the policy changed to one of forced removal into hastily assembled incarceration camps.

While the permanent camps were being constructed, General DeWitt sent most of the West Cost Japanese Americans to temporary camps.* These assembly centers, as they were called, were built primarily at race tracks and fair grounds, where there was enough land to squeeze in thousands of men, women, and children. They contained three basic types of housing.

·       Horse stables, shown in the picture, were converted into family housing, often with six people crowding into a stall with two “rooms” separated by Dutch doors. (The back room was for the horse and the front room for the fodder.) Linoleum was laid directly over the manure-covered floors, and the rooms smelled of urine. The walls had been whitewashed so hastily that the painters hadn’t even swept off the cobwebs or the insects, which were now part of the interior decoration.

·       Cow barns with concrete floors were divided into miniature units using flimsy wooden partitions that didn’t reach all the way to the ceiling.

·       Tar-papered barracks designed for soldiers were constructed with green lumber that quickly shrunk, leaving gaps in the floorboards with grass and dandelions growing through them.

All three types of housing were short on privacy. Males and females had to share sleeping rooms, and the thin walls (most of which didn’t reach to the ceiling) guaranteed that your neighbors knew your business and that the crying baby four units away would keep you up at night.

And the furnishings? An army cot and straw ticking for each member of the family. Period. As time passed, people managed to make their quarters livable, but that was due solely to their own resourcefulness.

The inmates ate their meals at picnic tables in a huge mess hall. Badly cooked oatmeal was standard breakfast fare, and dinner might consist of two canned sausages, a boiled potato, and a piece of bread without butter. They didn’t starve, but they didn’t eat their fill, either.

The bathroom situation was even worse. Dozens or perhaps hundreds of people shared a common latrine with no doors on the stalls. In some locations, it was just a row of seats with no partitions between them. The showers were also communal. And there were no bathtubs for the Issei, who were unused to showers.

What if there was a storm? If they wanted to eat, they went out in the rain. If they needed to use the bathroom, they went out in the rain. Or mothers took empty coffee cans from the mess hall garbage and used them as chamber pots for their young children, requiring them to empty and rinse the cans during the day. Those were their choices.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to live like that.


*    Some Japanese Americans were sent directly to Manzanar, which was the first permanent camp to be “completed.” Even that word is a misnomer, however, as construction continued long after the inhabitants arrived. The next post will cover these permanent camps.


The photograph at the top of this post shows a row of converted horse stalls at Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California. It was taken by Dorothea Lange on June 16, 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.

The Power of Words

Monday, March 3, 2014

Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Of course it would. But if somebody handed you something that looked like a rose and called it a “stinker,” you might hesitate before putting your nose up to it. Words do matter.

President Roosevelt, General DeWitt, and the federal government were masters at misleading through euphemisms. As mentioned in last week’s post, the Civil Exclusion Orders and other orders issued by General DeWitt turned citizens into “non-aliens” to make the orders sound more palatable—or to make the Nisei sound less American. But that was just the beginning of the euphemisms.

According to the official terminology, Japanese Americans were “relocated” or “evacuated” from the West Coast. Those words conjure up images of moving people for their own safety, as when residents are evacuated from homes in the path of a flood or a forest fire. There was isolated violence against Japanese Americans and some people argued—and may even have believed—that the forced removal was for the safety of those removed. But then why weren’t they given a choice of where to go? And, as many of the Nisei remarked, why were the guns pointed at those being “evacuated” rather than at those responsible for the threat?

Then there were the terms used for the camps the Japanese Americans were sent to. “Assembly centers” were temporary camps used to house the Japanese Americans while more permanent “relocation centers” were being built. Both had barbed wire fences and substandard housing, as will be described in subsequent posts. The government’s labels were political propaganda used to whitewash the fact that the camps were actually prisons for people who had committed no crimes. Those terms worked so well—at least among the bigots—that some Caucasians claimed the camps were country clubs where Japanese Americans received free room and board and took valuable resources away from the troops fighting overseas.

Finding an accurate label for these camps created a dilemma for me. Many people call them internment camps. Technically, however, internment camps are for aliens, and about two-thirds of the Japanese Americans were citizens. Today, some Japanese Americans use that term, while others view it as politically incorrect.

Technically, the assembly and relocation centers were concentration camps, where people were imprisoned solely because of their race. That seems to be the politically correct term, but I can’t quite bring myself to use it. For me, “concentration camp” conjures up images of the German camps where Jewish people were intentionally put to death and of the Russian camps where Germans and dissidents died from hard work and starvation. The American camps were terrible places, but they don’t match the image in my mind or in the mind of most Americans when they hear the term “concentration camp.”

I was conflicted when I thought that internment camp and concentration camp were my two basic choices. Then I read a resolution from the National Council of the Japanese American Citizens League. That resolution gave a thumbs down to “internment” and a thumbs up to “concentration camp.” But it also provided the term “incarceration camp” as another option. That term eliminated my dilemma, and I have chosen to use it.

But what we call the camps doesn’t matter nearly as much as what happened to loyal citizens and their parents. We’ll start by looking at the “assembly centers” in next week’s post.

* * * * *

The photograph at the top of this post shows the front entrance gate at the Tanforan Assembly Center in California. It was taken by Dorothea Lange on June 16, 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.