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.

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