Teaching about Japanese-American Internment

Gary Mukai
September 2000
PDF ( 4.23 MB )



Civil rights issues

Japanese immigration

Media perspectives

Question of “loyalty”

Redress and reparations

Resources and methods

Recommended sources

Although many state and national U.S. history standards include the Japanese-American internment experience, more often than not it is a topic that is treated without nuance. Because of spatial considerations, many U.S. history textbooks condense this historical episode into no more than a few pages, at best. As a result, textbooks are forced to emphasize certain historical themes and to abandon others. This digest offers suggestions on the teaching of Japanese-American internment as a supplement to current textbook offerings on the subject.


Most American students are probably at least somewhat familiar with the African-American struggle for equal rights. However, students may not be at all familiar with the Asian-American struggle for equal rights. Asian-American civil rights have also been challenged and/or denied throughout the history of Asians in the United States. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by Congress in 1882, barred further immigration from China. This was an unprecedented act directed at a specific ethnic group. Furthermore, although Asian immigrants have made significant contributions to U.S. society since the mid-nineteenth century, Japanese immigrants, for example, were denied naturalization rights until 1952.

When the United States entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese immigrants and their descendants, including those born in the United States and therefore citizens by birth, were placed in a very awkward situation. The immigrants were resident aliens in the United States, a country at war with their country of birth.

Amid the hysteria following the U.S. entry into World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. This order authorized the War Department to prescribe military areas from which any group of people could be excluded. This served as the legal basis for the evacuation and internment of over 110,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans from the West Coast. Most were forced to sell their homes and businesses and suffered huge losses. Schooling and careers were completely disrupted.

Even more than 55 years after the closing of the camps, the Japanese-American internment experience continues to deeply affect the Japanese-American community. Below are six suggestions for teaching about Japanese-American internment.

Set the context for Japanese-American internment through an examination of civil rights.

Students should discuss the definition of “civil rights” and consider the importance of civil rights in their lives. They should also consider the U.S. Constitution as a document that describes the basic rights of U.S. citizens. Particular attention should be given to the Bill of Rights and selected amendments, e.g., XIII, XIV, and XV. Point out that the denial of due process to Japanese Americans was the central civil rights violation in their experience with internment. Due process refers to a course of legal proceedings carried out regularly and in accordance with established rules and principles.

Introduce the Japanese immigration experience in the early twentieth century.

Like the historical experiences of many other ethnic groups in the United States, the Japanese-American historical experience was, at its core, the story of an ethnic minority struggling to find its place within U.S. society. Unlike European immigrants, all Japanese immigrants to the United States were considered “aliens ineligible to citizenship” until 1952. Because of this, they could not vote. Asian Americans also experienced segregated schools. In 1906, the San Francisco Board of Education ordered 93 Japanese Americans to attend a segregated “Oriental School” with Chinese and other Asian Americans. Laws such as the Alien Land Law of 1913 in California were directed at Asian immigrants to prohibit them from purchasing land. The Immigration Act of 1924 barred further immigration from Asia.

Introduce perspectives on Japanese Americans from the media following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Japanese Americans were thrust into a precarious position following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; this is an important issue to present to students. The U.S. media would often make no distinction between Japanese Americans and Japanese imperial soldiers. For instance, one edition of the San Francisco Examiner, published around the time of the evacuation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, declared in a headline, “OUSTER OF ALL JAPS IN CALIFORNIA NEAR!” That same front page contained an article on the battles that were being waged in Indonesia. The title of the latter article read “Thousands of Allies Face Japs in Java.” This racial fear and prejudice combined with other forces such as desire for economic gain, hysteria generated by sensationalist journalism, political opportunism, and a sincere concern for national safety. The result was a complex mixture of motives that impelled the U.S. government to forcibly intern over 110,000 people of Japanese descent from the West Coast, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens, into concentration camps located in isolated regions of the United States. It is also very important to point out that some non-Japanese-American groups, such as the Quakers, did speak out against internment. While the Japanese American Citizens League, a civil rights organization, urged compliance with the internment orders, several Japanese Americans protested and/or deliberately violated one or more of the evacuation orders. These violations were attempts to test the legality of the evacuation in the courts.

Introduce perspectives on the question of “loyalty.”

In February 1943, after the internment of Japanese Americans from the West Coast had been completed, the War Department and the War Relocation Authority required all internees 17 years of age and older to answer a questionnaire. This questionnaire presumably tested their “loyalty” to the United States. Two questions proved to be particularly vexing. Question #27 asked, “Are you willing to serve in the armed services of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?” Question #28 asked, “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign government, power, or organization?” Response to this questionnaire was mixed. Out of this confusion emerged three noteworthy groups of individuals: those who answered “yes-yes” and served in the armed forces, those who answered “yes-yes” (or provided qualified responses) but refused to serve in the military from concentration camps, and those who answered “no-no.” Introduce not only the experiences of the Japanese Americans who served in the military in Europe (100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team) and those who served in the Pacific War (primarily in the Military Intelligence Service as translators and interrogators of Japanese prisoners of war), but also those who answered “no-no” and those who became known as “draft resisters of conscience.” The “draft resisters of conscience” refused to serve in the military until their rights as U.S. citizens were restored. Most of those who answered “no-no” were segregated at Tule Lake concentration camp; many “resisters” were sent to prison from the camps.

Introduce redress and reparations.

The redress and reparations movement refers to efforts by the Japanese-American community to obtain an apology and compensation from the U.S. government for wrongful actions towards Japanese Americans during World War II. Arguments for and against this movement should be presented as well as the final outcome. Redress payments of $20,000 along with letters of apology (signed by President George Bush in 1990) were presented to approximately 60,000 survivors of the Japanese-American internment.

Present diverse perspectives on the Japanese-American internment experience.

Extensive primary and secondary sources exist on Japanese-American internment. Consider incorporating some of the following as a way of expanding upon the limited coverage of internment in textbooks.

  • utilizing a U.S. government newsreel called Japanese Relocation from 1943 that presents the government’s rationale for internment
  • accessing information from the Japanese American National Museum
  • incorporating art and poetry from the concentration camps
  • showing the video, Days of Waiting, which analyzes the internment experience of a Caucasian woman married to a Japanese American
  • incorporating literature, such as No-No Boy by John Okada or Journey Home by Yoshiko Uchida
  • examining Japanese-Latin American perspectives on internment (2,264 members of the Japanese community in Latin America were deported to and interned in the United States during World War II)

Recommended Sources:

Crost, Lyn. Honor by Fire: Japanese Americans at War in Europe and the Pacific. Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1994.

Daniels, Roger, Sandra C. Taylor, and Harry H. L. Kitano, eds. Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1986. Rev. ed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.

Days of Waiting, a film by Steven Okazaki, 1990. Available from: NAATA Distribution, http://www.naatanet.org/

Gardiner, C. Harvey. Pawns in a Triangle of Hate: The Peruvian Japanese and the United States. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981.

Hill, Kimi Kodani, ed. Topaz Moon: Chiura Obata’s Art of the Internment. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2000.

Ichioka, Yuji. The Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants, 1885-1924. New York: Free Press, 1988.

Japanese American National Museum, Manabi and Sumi Hirasaki National Resource Center, http://www.janm.org/nrc/

Japanese Relocation, newsreel, 1943. Available from: Zenger Media, http://www.zengermedia.com/

Okada, John. No-No Boy. Tokyo: Charels E. Tuttle Company, 1957; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981.

Uchida, Yoshiko. Journey Home. New York: Atheneum, 1978.

Weglyn, Michi. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1976.

Gary Mukai is Director of the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE), and an advisory board member of the National Clearinghouse for U.S.-Japan Studies.

Portions of this Japan Digest were summarized from the curriculum module “Civil Rights and the Japanese- American Internment,” SPICE, Stanford University, 2000.

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