How Japanese Americans Survived Internment in WW2

120,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned in the U.S. in internment camps during World War II. Their lives and stories are remembered in an exhibition in San Francisco.

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Melissa Ayumi Bailey’s maternal grandparents met and fell in love at an internment camp in Wyoming. The Civilian Exclusion Orders (enacting Franklin Delano Roosevelt) forced them and hundreds of thousands of other Japanese Americans to vacate their homes and be held in internment camps for the duration of World War II.

Two thirds of the 120,000 people imprisoned were born in the United States, and they had to leave behind homes, businesses, and belongings, taking with them only what they could carry.

Lt. General John DeWitt signed the Civilian Exclusion Orders 75 years ago at the Presidio of San Francisco. Recently, Bailey found out her paternal grandfather was stationed there during World War II, just a couple doors down from DeWitt’s office.

Bailey never knew either of her grandfathers, who both died before she was born. But her grandmother on her mom’s side lived with her until her death when Bailey was 16. She never heard any stories about her three years in a camp, Bailey said.

“It was very common in the Japanese-American community not to talk about it,” Bailey said. “They didn’t tell their children about it. It was shameful—they were in jail, and for the Nisei (the children born in the U.S. to Japanese-born immigrants), the pain and the shame were still there.”

Bailey works with the National Japanese American Historical Society, based at the Presidio. The organization has helped put together an exhibition with the Presidio Heritage Group, Exclusion: The Presidio’s Role in World War II Japanese American Incarceration, which runs for a year and opened on April 1, the anniversary of the day the orders were posted in San Francisco.

With President Trump having issued executive orders for two travel bans for majority Muslim countries, both blocked by federal judges, the history of rounding up a group of people based on ethnicity or religion seems especially relevant and urgent.

A couple weeks before the exhibition’s opening, Eric Blind, the director of Heritage Programs for the Presidio, showed me the space that would house it. Outside the entrance visitors will see a telephone pole with a replica of the poster telling all Japanese Americans to report to that buses that would take them to the camps.

“It’s an ordinary object with an extraordinary pronouncement,” he said. “We want to create this empathy with people seeing the order—not just if you were Japanese Americans, but their friends and neighbors—about how would you feel if you saw this on a telephone pole?”

The exhibition includes an outline of the map of the United States with sites of the camps marked, a list of all the names of the 120,000 people imprisoned, and a replica of DeWitt’s desk where he signed the order.

On the walls are text from the orders along with some of the discussion around shipping off Japanese Americans on the West Coast, including an opinion from J. Edgar Hoover, who, perhaps surprisingly, said it was absolutely unnecessary.

The exhibition also presents information about Fred T. Korematsu, and displays the pipe he was often seen with later in life and his California Senate Medal. Korematsu refused to go to the camps, and his case went to the Supreme Court where it lost in a 6-3 decision.

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Forty years after his arrest, a district court judge in San Francisco vacated his conviction, after it was revealed that the U.S. solicitor general who argued Korematsu v. United States had suppressed FBI reports concluding that Japanese-American citizens posed no security risk, and the order was the result of prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of leadership, rather than “military necessity,” as they had claimed.

Korematsu’s daughter, Karen, now runs the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, another organizer of Exclusion, also based at the Presidio.

Karen grew up in a suburb of Oakland, hating Dec. 7, the day when the teacher would show the class videos of Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Her classmates would call her racist names, blame her for the bombing, and tell her to go back to Japan. At the institute named after her father, she focuses on eradicating that kind of racism through education and teaching people about what happened to Japanese Americans during the war, in hopes it will never happen again.

Karen didn’t know about the internment camps growing up, let alone her father’s role. She found out when another student gave a presentation mentioning her father’s Supreme Court case in a high school class. She echoes Bailey’s assertion that the Nisei community didn’t talk about what happened, focusing on moving on.

“Those who were sent away were stripped of their dignity, as well as their homes and businesses, and it was such a painful experience for everyone,” she said. “My father lived by his principals of right and wrong. He was quiet, reserved and soft spoken, and he didn’t have a bitter bone in his body. He basically thought the government was wrong, and he was right to take a stand. There is a word in Japanese, ‘gaman’ which means endure, and Japanese Americans, they endured.”

Karen wrote a New York Times op-ed after Trump’s first attempt at temporary travel ban. In it she wrote that the president had “hurled us back to one of the darkest and most shameful chapters of American history.” She thinks people need to understand the power of executive orders, and that’s one reason the exhibit at the Presidio is so important.

“One of the most worrisome things of this administration is how executive orders are being issued and who they’re targeting,” she said. “The Constitution clearly states you can’t discriminate against a certain ethnicity or religion and we all need to speak up to the government and say, ‘You can’t do this—this is not what America is about.’”

Bailey says she is particularly concerned that since Korematsu v. United States was never officially overturned, it could be used as a precedent for a Muslim registry or something similar.

She says these government orders don’t just impact those directly targeted, but the community as well. She adds families are affected for years to come, noting her grandfather was sent to a different camp from his parents and brother and that the time in the camp took a toll on her grandmother, who she describes as “not necessarily a happy person.”

But Bailey says she’s heartened by protests against the travel ban and anti-Muslim sentiment, mentioning the video that has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times of a woman standing up to another woman—in both English and Spanish—who is berating a Muslim couple.

“No one spoke out against the internment, but we’re in a different world now,” Bailey said. “It’s easy for Japanese Americans to make connections with what’s happening now, but we want that for everyone even if you’re not in a community being targeted. That’s what makes the difference: solidarity.”

Karen Korematsu also mentions these changes.

“In 1942, there were no groups of any significant voice or power that could say to President Roosevelt’s administration that this was wrong,” she said. “Fortunately, that’s changed in 2017, and we are very proud of the legal profession and all these attorneys on both sides of the aisle who are stepping up. We’re a land of laws.”

Exclusion: The Presidio’s Role in World War II Japanese American Incarceration is at the Presidio Officers’ Club, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, 50 Moraga Ave., San Francisco. Details here.