“We were stunned when we entered the camp,” Yoshio “Yosh” Nakamura said, remembering the day when he and his family, from El Monte, California, were herded through the main gate at the Gila River Relocation Center—a Japanese American internment camp 30 miles southeast of Phoenix, Arizona—carrying only suitcases into which their worldly possessions had been crammed.
“There was a wire perimeter, searchlights, armed sentries,” he recalled. “It was demoralizing—traumatic, even.”
Rose Tanaka, who, at age 15, was sent to California’s Manzanar War Relocation Center, reflected, “They looked at us as if we had no allegiance to real Americans—it was in our blood; never mind if we were American citizens by birth. All of a sudden, I felt the hatred from other Americans against us.”
Like tens of thousands of other Americans of Japanese heritage after December 7, 1941, the Nakamuras and Tanakas suddenly found themselves treated as enemy aliens, spies, potential saboteurs. Worse, they found themselves uprooted from their homes and placed in internment camps far inland.
During the war, 10 major internment camps—officially called “relocation centers”—were established by the U.S. government in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming for the purpose of segregating those who were deemed possible threats to the American homeland.
The forced relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II remains a stain on this nation’s deeply held belief in personal rights and the due process of law. The rounding up of over 120,000 American citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent in the wake of Pearl Harbor and their three-year journey through a process of legal persecution and forced removal to spartan camps in hostile environments left damaged lives and trampled liberties in its wake.
Of course, the fear and anger aroused in America by Japan’s attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet and military installations is not hard to understand. America wanted someone to blame and to punish, and anyone who “looked Japanese” was considered by many to be fair game; internment camps seemed to be the quick and easy solution. But America’s war against fascism lost some of its moral purity due to this event.