Snow Falling on Cedars

Snow Falling on Cedars Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor from the air. The following day, the United States declared war and joined the Allied Forces in World War II. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, on February 19, 1942, in the midst of wartime hysteria, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt facing a reelection campaign, Executive Order 9066 was signed, authorizing the forced relocation and internment of Japanese Americans to designated areas in California and the Northwest. On March 9, 1942, the order was made enforceable by Public Law 503, and persons of Japanese ancestry were rounded up for mass relocation.

It is important to note that the language of Executive Order 9066 does not contain any reference to persons of Japanese ancestry, though, ultimately, only Japanese Americans were interned and citizens of German and Italian descent were exempted. Approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans were relocated and interned; over two-thirds of them had been born in the U.S. and thus were American citizens.

Their story, otherwise, is not unlike the usual immigrant story of a group trying to make a life and achieve a dream in the U.S. They arrived first as sources of cheap labor, following in the footsteps of the Chinese. By the early 1900s, however, as more and more people of Japanese descent rose to become farm owners and small businessmen, discriminatory laws were passed. These Americans could not own land or marry outside of their race, they could not buy homes, and they were barred from certain jobs in some industries. Schools were segregated and, by 1924, immigration from Japan virtually ceased.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, rumors of Japanese residents being engaged in espionage were widespread, particularly in Hawaii and along the West Coast. No evidence of a single instance of espionage was ever found by the FBI investigations. Nevertheless, this information was suppressed and the relocation continued. When a man named Fred Korematsu was arrested for refusing to follow the evacuation order, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) approached him with an offer of representation. The case, Korematsu v. The United States (1944), however, fell against Korematsu, legitimizing the internment as "military necessity," though evidence of such a necessity was never found. Three justices heatedly dissented to the holding and claimed it a virtual "legalization of racism."

In 1983, Korematsu sought that the holding be overturned and won. On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which was then passed by Congress, making an official Presidential apology for the internment, allowing for $20,000 in reparations to each citizen who had been imprisoned. The Act also provided for an educational fund to encourage the teaching of what has become a seriously flawed chapter in civil rights and liberties in America. This chapter continues to be remembered and, hopefully, provides a lesson that will not have to be repeated.