“You may think that the Constitution is your security—it is nothing but a piece of paper. You may think that the statutes are your security—they are nothing but words in a book. You may think that elaborate mechanism of government is your security—it is nothing at all, unless you have sound and uncorrupted public opinion to give life to your Constitution, to give vitality to your statutes, to make efficient your government machinery.”
—Charles Evan Hughes
Chief Justice U.S.
Supreme Court, 1930-1941
Introduction and Objectives
While the United States engaged in a global struggle, during World War II, to safeguard democracy and the Four Freedoms, a critical test of constitutional democracy was being conducted on the homefront. A test that would become as infamous as December 7, 1941, “A Day of Infamy.”
At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor approximately 112,000 persons of Japanese descent were living in California, Arizona, and the coastal areas of Oregon and Washington. One third of them had come to the United States as immigrants before the Immigration Act of 1924 restricted Oriental immigration. Acceptance, of the Issei, first generation Japanese immigrants, at first as cheap labor, by the citizenry, changed over the years to resentment, racial hatred, mistrust and discrimination.
They had come to America in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century to work the mines; to help develop our nation’s railroad system; to be fishermen, farmers and migrant agricultural laborers. Although they contributed greatly to the economic development of the United States they inherited the stereotype and distrust that West Coasters had previously directed against immigrants from China who also greatly contributed to our nation’s economic development.
As Japanese immigration increased the transfer of the yellow peril stereotype from the Chinese to the Japanese accelerated and fears of Oriental inundation on the West Coast were revived.
Japanese victories in the Russo-Japanese War reinforced the belief that the Western World was facing a yellow peril. For two decades, after the Russo-Japanese War many Americans believed that a United States war with Japan was inevitable.
The image of the yellow peril was mirrored for Americans by the writings of various authors, newspaper editors, columnists, and movies in which Orientals were portrayed as sinister villains engaged in activities of vengeance and treachery.
Confronted by anti-Oriental public opinion, and the demand by organized labor to exclude the Japanese, West Coast politicians reacted accordingly. Prior to 1870 only those individuals who were “free, white and twenty-one” were able to become American citizens. In 1870 Americans of African nativity gained the right to citizenship. Individuals of Oriental Heritage were the only aliens ineligible for citizenship. In 1913, California passed the Alien Land Law barring aliens ineligible for Citizenship from ownership of land in California. Political parties in California adopted platforms which encompassed anti-Japanese declarations and the American Legion established a committee to promote alien land laws and to work for the removal of Japanese from competitive ventures.
Despite the prejudice and racial discrimination and although ineligible for citizenship the Issei stayed contributing to the growth of the West Coast and raised their own families. By 1941 the descendants, Nisei and Sansei, American citizens by birth comprised two thirds of areas population of Japanese descent. But the past had set a foundation for a program that would cost the American taxpayers nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. A program that was never necessary or adequately justified by our government. A program, of forced relocation, that would deprive American citizens of their livelihood, their land, their freedom and the basic guarantees of the United States’ Constitution. It was a program which eventually would bring dishonor to America and the Supreme Court, but would in the long run give impetus to the entire constitutional question regarding racial discrimination.
It is the intent of this unit to give insight into the overall treatment of the Japanese Americans and to what led our government to place citizens into prison or concentration camps and the legal ramifications of the relocation program.
The unit is designed to be incorporated into the Social Studies curriculum in the eighth grade or above in courses of American History dealing with the period covered or in law related courses. No time limitations are set for this component as each educator may desire to add or delete materials suitable for the grade level of his or her class.