Japanese Internment Camps of WWII

by Luke Michel

Overview

Since Japanese people began migrating to America in the mid-nineteenth century, there has been resentment and tension between Americans and Asian immigrants. In California at the turn of the century laws were passed making it difficult for Japanese to own land in America, become naturalized, or to even migrate to America. By the 1920s California had banned almost all immigration from Japan, and laws made interracial marriage illegal. After World War I and the failed attempts of America to create and join the League of Nations, there were strong national feelings of isolationism and nationalism that only added fuel to this fire.

For an easy-to-use interactive guide to Supreme Court cases challenging discriminatory policies towards Asian citizens, see the interactive feature in the March 2005 issue of History Now.

The 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan exacerbated the tension and animosity between people of Japanese descent and white Americans on the west coast. Many Americans were convinced that Japan was going to invade the U.S. by way of California and that the Japanese there were loyal to Japan and would aid its efforts. On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which gave military leaders the authority to create military areas from which groups of people could be excluded. Eventually over 110,000 people of Japanese descent, half of whom were children and two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were removed from their homes and relocated to internment camps until the camps were closed in January 1945.
 

Objectives

  • Students will understand the social and racial climate of America from the beginning of the twentieth century up to World War II.
  • Students will understand the effects that the bombing of Pearl Harbor had on America and American society.
  • Students will understand the Japanese internment camps that were instituted in America during World War II.
  • Students will analyze primary source photographs in order to understand the daily life of inmates of the Japanese internment camps
  • Students will understand the legal justification for the Japanese internment camps and the legal justification for discontinuing the camps through analysis of primary source materials.

Activity One: Post-Pearl Harbor America

Briefly review and explore racial tensions in America after the Civil War, including Plessy v. Ferguson, up to World War II. Discuss the effects of Pearl Harbor on America in terms of race and national security.

Use the sources below to introduce the the Japanese internment camps. Have students read primary source documents on FDR's Executive Orders 8022 and 9066 and complete questions in small groups. Bring the class back together to discuss the sources as a whole.

Introduction to the topic:

Activity Two: Life in the Japanese Internment Camps

Using images from the website below, have students analyze the photographs and complete the photo analysis sheets. Either print out copies of some of the pictures to use in small groups or display the images by projector and have the students complete the work individually.

Discussion questions:

  1. What was life like in the internment camps?
  2. How do these images make you feel? Why?
  3. What evidence did you see that confirms the fears and reasoning for removing these people from American society? What evidence did you see that contradicts the fears and reasoning for removing these people from American society?

Activity Three: The Legality of Internment Camps

Review the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment, and research the Japanese American court cases Korematsu v. US and Endo v. US.
A good source for studying these cases is the University of Dayton's page on Japanese Internment.

Follow-Up Questions

  1. Did the internment camps violate the rights of American citizens?
  2. Do you agree with the national security argument?
  3. Do the events of and surroudning Japanese internment have relevance in America today?

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