Japanese American relocation Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The removal of more than 112,000 Japanese immigrants and their children, most of whom were U.S. citizens, to detention camps as a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066.

In 1790 the Nationality ActNationality Act of 1790 established the standards to be used for U.S. citizenshipCitizenship and naturalization. The law stated that only free white persons were eligible to become U.S. citizens. The primary intent of this law was to create a legal distinction between people of AfricanAfrican Americans;citizenship[citizenship] descent and European immigrants. Although the law did not specifically address Asian immigrants, whose numbers were insignificant, in practice those who entered were categorized as nonwhites and therefore denied citizenship.

Japanese Americans in San Pedro, California, board a train to a relocation center in Manzanar in 1942. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of their relocation.

(National Japanese American Historical Society)

After the Civil War, the Fourteenth AmendmentFourteenth Amendment (ratified in 1868) proclaimed that anyone born in, and subject to, the jurisdiction of the United States would be a U.S. citizen. The intent of this amendment was to grant citizenship to the black former slaves in the South. However, in 1870 Congress passed legislation to amend the naturalization law, effectively retaining the prohibition of citizenship for nonwhite immigrants. The result was that only white people or people of AfricanAfrican Americans;citizenship[citizenship] descent already in the United States could become naturalized citizens. Neither Asian immigrants nor their U.S.-born children were granted these rights.

In 1898 the Supreme Court ruled in the United States v. Wong Kim Ark[case]Wong Kim Ark, United States v.[Wong Kim Ark, United States v.] that anyone born in the United States could became a citizen. This decision was the result of a three-year lawsuit by an American-born Chinese man, Wong Kim Ark, who was detained and prevented from reentering the United States after returning from a trip to China. Although this decision upheld birthright citizenship for all U.S.-born Asians, the Supreme Court still acknowledged the power of Congress to restrict naturalization. In Ozawa v. United States[case]Ozawa v. United States[Ozawa v. United States] (1922), the Court rejected the application for citizenship of Takao Ozawa, who had been raised and educated in the United States but was born in Japan, judging him ineligible for naturalization because he was nonwhite.

Internee resting in a typical barracks room at the government's Manzanar camp in California's eastern Sierras.

(National Archives)

Also in 1922, Congress passed the Cable Act.Cable Act This law provided that “any woman citizen who marries an alien ineligible to citizenship shall cease to be a citizen of the United States.” The justification for this act was that civil law generally recognized a husband’s citizenship over the wife’s. An Asian American or white woman with U.S. citizenship who married an Asian immigrant lost her citizenship. If the marriage terminated by divorce or death, the white woman was eligible to reapply for citizenship, but the Asian American woman could not. The law was amended in 1931 to permit Asian American women married to Asian immigrants to retain or regain their U.S. citizenship, but it was repealed in 1936.

The Seeds of Relocation

After the first Japanese arrived in Hawaii in 1868, many workers immigrated to the island. Immigration to the U.S. mainland, however, largely remained limited to wealthier, more highly educated Japanese. After Hawaii became an American possession in 1898, the number of laborers who reached the mainland increased significantly. In 1899, 2,844 Japanese arrived on the mainland, but two years later, in 1900, 12,635 Japanese entered the continental United States. Many white Americans viewed the influx of Japanese and Chinese immigrants as an economic and cultural threat, and racial tensions grew, especially on the West Coast where most Asian immigrants had settled. Pressure from the western states forced the federal government to restrict Japanese immigration by means such as the Gentlemen’s AgreementGentlemen’s Agreement with Japan (1908).

The Gentlemen’s Agreement prohibited immigration by Japanese men; however, it permitted the wives of immigrants already in the country to enter. Ironi- cally, the agreement actually increased immigration because immigrant men believed that they must immediately send for their wives in Japan or risk permanent separation. Many single men hurriedly sent pictures of themselves to Japan to find wives or asked relatives and friends to send pictures of prospective brides willing to come to the United States. Thus, many Japanese women, while still in Japan, married Japanese men living in the United States without ever seeing more than a photo; these “picture brides” crossed the ocean by themselves with visas sent by their husbands in the United States. To stem this great influx, Congress passed the Immigration Exclusion Act of 1924, virtually barring any further Japanese immigration.

World War II

World War II Immediately after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt (military commander of the western defense zone) suggested removal of all persons of Japanese ancestry citizens or aliens from all West Coast states. Many Japanese Americans’ homes were searched by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, and within four days, 1,370 Japanese immigrants had been taken from their homes and places of business with no warning. Less than a month after Pearl Harbor, the Treasury Department froze the financial assets of Japanese nationals and bank accounts registered under Japanese-sounding names. Although the Treasury Department soon eased these restrictions, Japanese Americans were not allowed to withdraw more than one hundred dollars per month from the bank. The federal government also seized money from Japanese American clubs and organizations; for example, in 1942 the government took seventy thousand dollars from the Japanese Association of New York, returning fifty thousand of it in 1953.

In February, 1942, just one week after DeWitt submitted the final recommendation for relocation, President Franklin D. RooseveltRoosevelt, Franklin D. signed Executive Order 9066, which sent 112,350 people of Japanese descent to detention camps, describing them as either “enemy aliens” or “strangers from a distant shore.” This order applied only to the mainland; in Hawaii, where one-third of the population was of Japanese ancestry, no restrictions were ever enacted. In March of 1942, the draft status of Japanese Americans was reclassified, and men of military age were exempted under a 4-F classification, which implied that being of Japanese ancestry was a physical defect, eliminating the possibility of military service. In 1943, however, the government changed this policy, making Japanese American men subject to the draft. By the end of the war in 1945, almost 40,000 Japanese Americans served in the U.S. armed services, several thousand of them coming from the detention camps.

Supreme Court Decisions

Japanese Americans soon questioned the legality of the executive order and other government policies. Some objected to the loss of property on the grounds of due process; some questioned the right of the government to restrict the liberty and movement of U.S. citizens; and others disputed the moral authority of the government to force men in detention centers to join the military. Most of these challenges were eventually heard by the Supreme Court, though the Court itself avoided acting on the constitutionality of exclusion and actual detention until near the war’s end.

Min (Minoru) Yasui, a Japanese American lawyer and U.S. citizen, doubted the legality of the curfews for Japanese Americans that were imposed soon after the start of the war. He deliberately violated a curfew in Portland in 1942 to force the courts to hear this issue. After he was arrested, his U.S. citizenship was taken away because he had studied in a Japanese language school and had worked for the Japanese consulate. Though a lower court found the curfew unconstitutional, the Supreme Court in Yasui v. the United States[case]Yasui v. the United States[Yasui v. the United States] (1943) reversed this finding, claiming that the government possessed extraordinary powers in time of war, especially in the light of Japanese Americans’ “continued attachment” to Japan. The same year, Gordon Hirabayashi, also a U.S. citizen of Japanese descent, was arrested for violating curfew. Hirabayashi turned himself in to the Seattle office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for failing to report for imprisonment. After Hirabayashi had spent five months in jail, the Supreme Court, in Hirabayashi v. United States[case]Hirabayashi v. United States[Hirabayashi v. United States] (1943), unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the curfew. He was ordered to serve another ninety days of work on a government road crew.

In October, 1944, in Korematsu v. United States,[case]Korematsu v. United States[Korematsu v. United States] the Court upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion order by a 6-3 vote. Fred Korematsu, a U.S. citizen of Japanese descent, was arrested for trying to avoid incarceration in a detention camp. He had plastic surgery done on his nose and eyelids to look less Japanese and changed his name to Clyde Sarah, a Spanish-Hawaiian sounding name. Unlike Yasui and Hirabayashi, Korematsu did not wish to create a test case; he just wanted to stay with his fianc who was not of Japanese ancestry.

In July, 1942, attorney James Purcell filed a writ of habeas corpus with the federal court in San Francisco on behalf of Mitsuye Endo, an American-born civil service employee. Although the cases of Yasui, Hirabayashi, and Korematsu challenged the curfews and exclusion orders, Endo’s case challenged the legality of the detention camps themselves. At first, lower courts found against Endo. However, after a two-year struggle, in December, 1944, in Ex parte Endo,[case]Endo, Ex parte[Endo, Ex parte] the Supreme Court set her free, saying that because she had been found to be a loyal citizen, the War Relocation Authority could not detain her against her will. The Court, thus, ruled that detention of citizens was unconstitutional and loyal U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were free to move anywhere in the United States.

In spite of the federal government’s discriminatory treatment of Japanese Americans, the Court’s decisions showed progress toward protecting this group’s rights. For example, Fred Oyama, a U.S. citizen of Japanese descent became the titleholder of land in California that his immigrant parents were prohibited from owning because of the California Alien Land Act of 1913.Alien land laws While the Oyama family was in the detention camps, the state government attempted to seize the land, and Fred Oyama sued under the equal protection clause. The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision in Oyama v. California[case]Oyama v. California[Oyama v. California] (1948) supported Oyama, stating that “the rights of a citizen may not be subordinated merely because of his father’s country of origin.”

These various wartime Supreme Court decisions were instrumental in establishing equal rights for Japanese Americans. By the early 1950’s most state and local alien land acts and other discriminatory ordinances against Japanese had been repealed. However, these decisions also represent a substantial cost to all Americans’ constitutional liberties. As was evident in the Yasui, Hirabayashi, and Korematsu decisions, the guarantees of due process in the Constitution are not unambiguous. If the government can claim military necessity, the Court may uphold the restriction of individual liberties.War and civil liberties

The Legacy of Evacuation

One-third of the people interned by the War Relocation Authority were not American citizens. This lack of citizenship does not necessarily indicate a lack of allegiance to or intent to remain in the United States, however, because Japan-born immigrants were not eligible to naturalize regardless of their wishes. Although Chinese immigrants were allowed to naturalize in 1943, and Indians and Filipinos in 1946, Japanese were not permitted to gain citizenship until the McCarran-Walter ActMcCarran-Walter Act[MacCarran-Walter Act] in 1952.

In the late 1960’s, Japanese American groups in San Francisco, Southern California, and Seattle began to agitate for compensation for the detention and subsequent losses suffered during World War II. After much legal paperwork and protest, in 1988 Japanese Americans were recognized as being guilty of nothing but being of the wrong ancestry at the wrong time: Abe Fortas, who had overseen the War Relocation Authority while undersecretary of the interior, called the evacuation “a tragic error.” By 1993 some sixty thousand surviving Japanese American former detainees received compensation in the amount of twenty thousand dollars per person.

Further Reading
  • Perhaps the best place to begin the study of the legal aspects of the Japanese American incarceration is Wendy L. Ng’s Japanese American Internment During World War II: A History and Reference Guide (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002), a comprehensive reference source on the internment years. Another good source to begin with is Angelo N. Ancheta’s Race, Rights, and The Asian American Experience (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998). Ancheta, a civil rights attorney, covers legal issues historically, looking at both Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans in the United States. Masako Herman’s The Japanese in America, 1843-1973 (New York: Oceania Publications, 1974) is highly recommended for its chronology of Japanese American lawsuits and documentation on the various laws, acts, and orders. Democracy on Trial: The Japanese American Evacuation and Relocation in World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995) by Page Smith helps link military, political, economic, racial, and personal motivations of the relocation. Peter Iron’s Justice at War: The Inside Story of the Japanese-American Internment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) presents the best narrative of the cases at trial and before the Supreme Court, with evidence that the government concealed evidence. Advanced students may consult Justice Delayed: The Record of the Japanese American Internment Case (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1989. Jerry Kang explores the complex legal issues of the internment decisions in Race, Rights, and Reparations: Law and the Japanese American Internment (New York: Aspen, 2001). Susan Dudley Gold, Korematsu v. United States: Japanese American Internment (New York: Benchmark Books, 2005) is written specifically for younger readers.

Alien rights and naturalization

Chinese Exclusion Cases


Immigration law

Korematsu v. United States

Race and discrimination

War powers

Wartime seizure power

Wong Kim Ark, United States v.

World War II

Categories: History