Written Into Our History

Seventy-six years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, leading thousands of Japanese-Americans to be incarcerated in prison camps. This Executive Order was far from the first anti-Japanese-American law enacted by the United States government. From the Naturalization Act of 1790 to the Immigration Act of 1924,
Japanese immigrants were prohibited from becoming naturalized, owning land, marrying certain people, and eventually immigrating altogether.

In 1936, Roosevelt took his first steps to prepare for incarcerating Japanese-Americans. On August 10, he wrote to his chief of naval operations Admiral William D. Leahy that “every Japanese citizen or non-citizen on the Islands of Oahu who meets these Japanese ships [arriving in Hawaii] or has any connection with their officers or men should be secretly but definitely identified and his or her name be placed on a special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble.

The Alien Registration Act of 1940, required aliens over 14 to register with the government and be fingerprinted. In 1941, Japanese immigrants were subjected to further restrictions when Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8832 on July 26, freezing their assets. In November, he ordered that a list of the names and addresses of all Japanese-Americans, citizens and non-citizens be compiled.

On December 7, 1941, after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, Japanese-American community leaders were arrested and detained. Within forty-eight hours, nearly 1,300 community leaders, including priests, Japanese language teachers, newspaper publishers, and heads of organizations. Most were men who would be incarcerated for the entire war.

Three weeks later, all enemy aliens in California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Utah and Nevada were ordered to surrender contraband, including short-wave radios, cameras, binoculars, and some weapons. Many Japanese-Americans hid or destroyed family heirlooms and Japanese books to prevent them from being confiscated.

Restrictions did not just apply to civilians. On January 5, 1942, Japanese-American selective service registrants were re-classified as IV-C, or “enemy aliens” and many were discharged or reassigned to menial labor, their weapons confiscated. Some states went further than the American government. Later that month, the California State Personnel Board voted to bar “descendants of natives with whom the United States [is] at war” from all civil service positions. However, this was only enforced against Japanese Americans. The following day, January 29, Attorney General Francis Biddle established prohibited zones that barred German, Italian, and Japanese immigrants, beginning with the San Francisco waterfront.

The Army established 12 “restricted areas” on February 4. Enemy aliens were subjected to a curfew and travel restrictions limited to work and locations no more than 5 miles from their homes. Soon, Japanese-Americans would be excluded from these areas completely.

On February 19, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, leading 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast to be incarcerated. Over the next few weeks, Japanese-Americans were given days to leave their homes. Some “voluntarily” moved outside the restricted areas, but most stayed. A few weeks later, the
government ended the “voluntary” relocation program and began removing citizens from their homes with only a few days’ notice. Families lost business, homes, and most of their possessions, much of which they would never recover. The property loss is estimated at about $400 million.

During the summer of 2016, I had the privilege of interning for the National
Museum of American History, working on the “Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II” exhibit” exhibit, which opened on February 17, 2017 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. I researched and wrote about donated objects and their owners, most of which were from the three years of incarceration. They ranged from journals to report cards, letters, and hand-made crafts and clothes. There were also programs for pilgrimages and high school reunions for former inmates and their families. I also cataloged objects into the Smithsonian’s database.

One of the most poignant objects was a letter written by a mother to her thirteen-year-old son’s teacher, asking for his records as the family would be removed from their home in the next few days. The letter dated April 27, 1942, reads:


Dear Mr. Hayes,

Because of the recent evacua-tion orders, we will have to leave Berkeley on May 1; therefore, I would like to have Harold Hayashi, adv. #205, leave school to help me pack from today.

I would also like to ask for a transfer for Harold so he may enter a school at the camp.


Harold beside a copy of the letter

This was a unique object among the three hundred or so that I worked with for several reasons. First, it was one of the few handwritten objects. Second, the ink, unlike any other example I saw was blue instead of black. And, three, it was the only object that was written on behalf of someone else.

According to National Archive Records, Harold and his family were sent to the Tanforan temporary detention center and then to the Topaz incarceration camp.

Thirty-four years later, President Gerald Ford formally rescinded Executive Order 9066 by Proclamation 4417.

This entry was posted in japanese-american and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s