One of the darkest moments in the history of U.S. presidential executive orders — and the South Sound — happened 75 years ago today with the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized an order that relocated about 120,000 Japanese Americans from West Coast states to 10 internment camps.
The order came two months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and Japanese residents in the United States were considered a threat to national security.
In recent weeks, the Japanese internment has drawn comparisons to an executive order by President Donald Trump to restrict immigrants and refugees from entering the United States.
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Supporters say the Trump order will increase the nation’s safety; critics decry it as a race-fueled assault on human rights and civil liberties.
Under both executive actions, thousands of lives were changed by a document that started on the president’s desk.
‘THE PRIVILEGE OF REMAINING HERE’
Roosevelt’s order in 1942 prompted a quick reaction later that month from the Emergency Defense Council of the Seattle chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League.
The league submitted a report to the Tolan Congressional Committee on National Defense Migration as a way to “bring about a fair solution of a difficult problem.”
State archivist Benjamin Helle provided The Olympian and The News Tribune with several documents from the 1940s that shed light on the status and fears of Japanese people in American society.
According to 1940 census numbers, Washington was home to about 14,500 people of Japanese descent, including about 8,800 American-born citizens.
King County had the highest number of Japanese residents with 9,863, while Pierce County had about 2,050 and Thurston County had 90. The Olympia Historical Society notes that Japanese Americans played an important role in Olympia’s growth before World War II, especially in the oyster industry.
Excerpts from the Japanese American Citizens League report cite local opposition to the “evacuation” while expressing patriotic sentiments during the early stages of United States’ involvement in World War II.
“We also desire the privilege of remaining here to fight shoulder to shoulder and shed our blood, if necessary, in the defense of our country and our homes, together with patriotic Americans of other national extractions, if that time should ever come,” the report states.
It also cites the economic contributions by Japanese, whose two main occupations were farming in rural areas and hotel operation in the cities.
In the South Sound, the average size of Japanese-operated farms was between 15 and 20 acres, with about 500 farms in King County and 250 farms in Pierce County.
At the same time, there were about 200 hotels in Seattle operated by Japanese Americans as a family enterprise. Other urban Japanese residents owned grocery stores, restaurants and cleaning businesses. Still others worked in lumber mills and canneries.
EVACUATION AND LOSS
After Roosevelt issued his executive order, the first evacuation began March 24, 1942. Because the Navy considered Bainbridge Island a highly sensitive area, 45 families were moved.
Nearly 10,000 Japanese Americans from Washington and Oregon ended up in the Minidoka camp in Idaho. Many had been transferred from Camp Harmony at the Puyallup Fairgrounds.
Camp Harmony is described in documents as one of the largest “assembly centers,” in 1942. At one point it reached a maximum 7,390 evacuees.
Dirty and with smelly living conditions, most camps along the West Coast were hastily assembled and lacked basic needs, such as cots, blankets and pillows.
A federal report titled “Personal Justice Denied” by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians noted that Army police guarded the perimeters and in some cases propositioned or harassed female evacuees. Contraband included flashlights, short wave radios, alcohol and hot plates.
The report includes stories from several evacuees about the conditions of the camps, such as this account of the Puyallup camp:
“The room in which I was confined was a makeshift barracks from a horse stable. Between the floorboards we saw weeds coming up. The room had only one bed and no other furniture. We were given a sack to fill up with hay from a stack outside the barracks to make our mattresses.”
Sanitation was primitive and a problem at the camps, especially at the Puyallup site. A lack of adequate drainage and sewage disposal was a problem for the elderly and families with small children. Chamber pots became prized commodities because restrooms were more than 100 yards away in some parts of the camp.
Another evacuee reported: “We fought a daily battle with the carnivorous Puyallup mud. The ground was a vast ocean of mud, and whenever it threatened to dry and cake up, the rains came and softened it into slippery ooze.”
With the mass internment, Japanese farms locally were confiscated and transferred to non-Japanese farmers.
A 1946 report by the U.S. Department of the Interior called “The Wartime Handling of Evacuee Property” described a case in which a group of investors had started Farm Management Inc. in Sumner to take over operations of 36 Japanese-American farms in King and Pierce counties. The company paid about $20,000 for all farm equipment and about $21,650 for 25 percent of the crop value.
Once the crops were harvested, the company was to pay the rest of the money it owed the farmers. But when a federal loan came due, the money went toward the loan and left none for the evacuees. According to the report, Farm Management filed for bankruptcy in 1944.
Unfounded rumors of espionage and sabotage on the part of the Japanese ran rampant. The Washington State Planning Council published reports that mention a fear that Japanese farmers would poison their crops before sending them to market.
“Considerable sentiment among canners and (other) people against Japanese products also feel that crops might be poisoned by the Japanese, radical whites, Filipinos or Mexicans attempting to stir up trouble,” according a 1942 report by the council. “It is understood that such crops as tomatoes and cantaloupes could be easily poisoned by using a hypodermic needle.”
The planning council also notes that if Japanese farmers were allowed to remain, they would require “strong supervision, not only to check on the Japanese, but to protect them from the radical whites, Filipinos and Mexicans. This supervision should be both physically and financially.”
At the time of Roosevelt’s executive order, a major produce shortage was feared as a result of interning Japanese farmers, mainly due to a labor shortage, along with the lag time between new farmers taking over the crops.
In Western Washington, more than $3 million worth of produce was marketed by Japanese farmers — equivalent to about $44.1 million in 2016 when adjusted for inflation. Top crops grown by the farmers included lettuce, cauliflower, peas, beans, strawberries and celery.
The report by the Japanese American Citizens League reflects the uncertainty of the Japanese community’s fate in 1942 while pleading for local residents to stay and contribute toward a U.S. victory in the war.
The league also criticized leaders who inflamed public opinion by using the Japanese as a “punching bag which politicians can pummel in the limelight of public approval without experiencing any sort of political retaliation.”
“We are Americans. We want to do our duty where we can serve best,” the report concludes. We make these statements not because we fear evacuation, but because we believe, to the bottom of our hearts, that the best interests of the United States, our nation, are to be served by being permitted to stay, work, fight and die for our country, if necessary, here where we belong.”
In 1942, an English-language publication called The Japanese-American Courier urged people to obey the executive order for evacuation “loyally and cheerfully” — and to do their part to defeat Japan.
The weekly paper — which promoted American values to an audience of second-generation Japanese Americans — blamed the evacuation on the Japanese military’s actions.
“Japan caused it by arrogance and treachery, and wrecked the welfare of the Japanese people in this country,” the article states. “Young Americans of Japanese ancestry would like to remain in this area and help smash that Tokio (sic) military clique. It will be smashed! We only regret that we cannot contribute as much to that cause as we would have contributed if allowed to remain in our homes.”
Japanese Americans still had support on the home front when it came to protecting their rights, as shown in a 1943 letter to Washington Gov. Arthur Langlie from the Pacific Coast Committee on American Principles and Fair Play.
The letter calls on Langlie and governors from nine other states to protect the rights of law-abiding people with Japanese ancestry, especially with many enlisting in the American armed forces.
“Because of your previous record, we have confidence that you will view this significant racial minority problem in a statesmanlike way,” the letter states.
“We recognize that in this critical war period, when passions are inflamed, there are those who would penalize persons of Japanese descent solely for the crimes of the government and military caste of Japan.”
Langlie, who lost a re-election bid in 1944, had defended the evacuations as a way to protect industries and the overall public.
In a landmark report titled “Personal Justice Denied,” the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians estimated that between $810 million and $2 billion (in 1983 dollars) was lost in income and property among all Japanese evacuees.
That’s up to $4.82 billion when adjusted for inflation in today’s economy.
Many evacuees returned to their properties only to discover they had been looted of valuables and belongings.
Local and state law enforcement officials showed indifference toward vandalism, theft and even arson on the properties, according to the federal report called “The Wartime Handling of Evacuee Property.” The responsibility for safeguarding property bounced among federal agencies that had been slow to set up protections in the first place.
Some evacuees from the Puget Sound region settled elsewhere in Washington or the country with help from the state and federal government.
Many families relied on public assistance to support them until they could harvest a new set of crops or find housing and employment. Residents also sought to recoup the firearms and cameras they had surrendered upon an order by Gov. Langlie in 1942.
Although plenty of pro-Japanese opinions were expressed at the time, not everyone welcomed the resettlement of Japanese Americans.
In 1945, the Auburn-based Remember Pearl Harbor League published a 24-page booklet that accuses American-born Japanese of being disloyal. The booklet called for depriving these residents of their citizenship “on the sole ground of loyalty,” and asserted that racial or religious prejudice did not play a part in that position.
The booklet also argues that American-born Japanese cannot be loyal to both the United States and their heritage.
“The Shinto doctrine as a religion of the Japanese is based on the sadistic philosophy of Emperor worship — it teaches fanatical loyalty and devotion to the Emperor of Japan,” reads one passage. “American-born Japanese children are indoctrinated with all these sadistic philosophies.”
South Sound businessman Nifty Garrett, a leader of the Remember Pearl Harbor League, owned a newspaper in Sumner called The Standard. From 1943-46, the paper ran on its front page the message, “Our objective: Banish Japs forever from the USA,” according to a report by the publishers of the Sumner News-Index.
The newspaper also circulated a free poster that said, “Banish Japs from this coast forever,” and encouraged people to “show your colors” by pasting one on their windshields.
Anti-Japanese hostility in the Puget Sound area began to subside in 1945 with help from a government-led publicity campaign about the heroism of Japanese-American soldiers, according to a University of Washington study.
Anti-Japanese groups saw their membership and influence decrease, including Garrett, who sold The Standard and retired in Missouri.
In the bigger picture, the nation’s view of Japanese internment eventually shifted.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially apologized for Roosevelt’s executive order, and in 1988, President Ronald Reagan approved the Civil Liberties Act that provided $20,000 for each internment camp survivor.
The play, “Nihonjin Face,” is touring Tacoma schools and theaters to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the federal order to incarcerate more than 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.
Three performances will be presented Sunday (Feb. 19) at Studio 3, 915 Broadway.
“Nihonjin Face” was written by playwrights Janet Hayakawa and Tere Martinez and produced by the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts.
It tells the story through the eyes of a 10-year-old who sees her father taken away by the FBI, loses her best friend and copes with guard violence inside the camp.
In alternating scenes, the play also follows her grandson in 2017 as he teams up with a friend for a civics project that explores current-day racism and civil rights.
Who: Broadway Center for the Performing Arts.
When: 1, 3 and 5 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 19).
Where: Studio 3, 915 Broadway, Tacoma.
Cost: Free, but an RSVP is necessary.
Walking tour: A historic walking tour of Tacoma’s former Japan Town will be led by Tamiko Nimura and Michael Sullivan at 2 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 19). The group will meet at the W sculpture at the top of the stairs at University of Washington Tacoma, South 19th Street and Jefferson Avenue.
Panel discussion: 4 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 19) in Studio 3, with playwright Janet Hayakawa and speaker Mayumi Tsutakawa.
Information: 253-591-5894, broadwaycenter.org.