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Dust swirls amid a cluster of huts, with mountains in the background and an American flag flying in the center.
Dust storm on July 3, 1942, at the Manzanar War Relocation Authority Center in California. Dorothea Lange/Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

The shameful stories of environmental injustices at Japanese American incarceration camps during WWII

When Japanese fighter pilots bombed the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Thomas S. Takemura was raising vegetables and raspberries on his family’s 14 ½-acre farm in Tacoma, Washington.

It wasn’t long after the United States declared war on Japan that Takemura and other people of Japanese ancestry were stripped of their rights and shipped off to incarceration camps scattered in small remote towns like Hunt, Idaho, and Delta, Utah. Scorching heat and dust storms added to the day-to-day misery.

Takemura’s incarceration began on May 12, 1942, just a week before he could harvest his lettuce.

“What a shame,” he later said. “What a shame.”

Takemura gave this detailed account in 1981 when he testified before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. This commission investigated the wrongful imprisonment of Japanese Americans, one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in American history.

All told, Takemura estimated he lost at least $10,000 in farm profits for each of the four years he was gone. But the total costs were not just about the money, he told the commission.

Takemura also lost “love and affection,” he testified, “and much more when a person is ordered to evacuate and leave his home without knowing where he is going or when he can return. … To me, words cannot describe the feeling and the losses.”

Wartime hysteria

Takemura’s wartime tragedy was the result of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, 80 years ago this month. The order allowed for the creation of military areas from which people could be excluded.

It did not mention any specific racial group but Japanese Americans were the clear target because of widespread fear that they would become spies for the Japanese government or commit acts of sabotage within the United States.

A crowd of men gathers behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt as he signs a paper.
On Dec. 8, 1941, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the U.S. declaration of war against Japan. Bettmann/GettyImages

On March 2, Gen. John L. Dewitt, head of the Western Defense Command, created Military Area 1, which encompassed western Washington, Oregon and California and southern Arizona, and Military Area 2, which included the rest of these states. By the end of summer 1942, roughly 110,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were United States citizens, had been expelled from their homes in Military Area 1 and the California portion of Military Area 2.

They were confined in 10 hastily constructed camps in California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and Arkansas. While some were allowed to leave camp for military service, college or jobs, many lived in these desolate places until the war ended three years later.

Japanese Americans’ wartime experiences have been the subject of numerous books, essays, memoirs, novels, films, museum exhibits and podcasts – all of which highlight their fortitude in the face of this blatant violation of their civil liberties. Because many survivors tried to move on with their lives quickly, the postwar period does not figure prominently in most of these narratives.

A black-and-white photo shows a woman standing in the doorway of one of a series of connected huts bordered by a muddy ditch.
Japanese American families lived in these converted horse stalls at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, shown in this April 29, 1942, photograph. Dorothea Lange/Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

But there was a gathering wave of discontent among some Japanese Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. With the backdrop of the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests, leaders of the Japanese Americans Citizens League and many other activists began to push for redress. They sought the restoration of civil rights, a formal apology and monetary compensation from the U.S. government.

With the support of U.S. Sens. Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga and U.S. Reps. Norman Mineta and Robert Matsui, the league’s redress committee, led by John Tateishi, successfully lobbied Congress to create the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1980.

Its nine appointed members were tasked by Congress to review Executive Order 9066 and other military directives that required the detention of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens. In addition to conducting archival research, they traveled across the country to take testimony from over 750 witnesses, including Takemura, between July and December 1981.

Over 20 days of hearings, Japanese Americans’ poignant stories of freedoms extinguished and indignities endured poured out like a flood and coursed through the hearing rooms.

Environmental hazards

As Takemura’s story suggests, many testimonies made clear that Japanese Americans’ wartime anguish was embedded in the natural environment, from the temperate lands of the Pacific coast to the arid deserts of the inland West.

In other words, the impact of Executive Order 9066 was not just political, economic and cultural. It was also environmental. When former farmers spoke of their displacement, they referred to specific plots of land and specific crops, their years of tending the soil lost to neglect or rapacious speculators.

Like Takemura, Clarence I. Nishizu, whose family farmed in Orange County, California, kept on planting vegetables after the war started, “since I thought that I, as an American citizen, would not be subject to evacuation and internment,” Nishizu later testified.

He was proved wrong, and his family members lost their crops and land. “I was uprooted just at the time when the bud of the rose started to bloom,” he testified.

A black-and-white photo depicts seven people squatting in a strawberry field holding harvesting boxes, with mountains and farm buildings visible behind them.
In this April 5, 1942, photograph, a Japanese American family harvests strawberries near Mission San Jose, California, just a few days before their forced removal. Dorothea Lange/Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Japanese Americans’ despair was also tied to the harsh environmental conditions of the camps, from blistering heat to blinding dust storms. In describing the trip to Manzanar, a “barren and desolate” camp in eastern California, Dr. Mary Oda recalled, “My first reaction to camp was one of dismay and disbelief.”

In addition to the emotional toll wrought by the bleak surroundings, the physical toll was considerable. Oda said her older sister developed bronchial asthma, “a reaction to the terrible dust storms and winds,” and died at the age of 26. Her father had “constant nasal irritation” and later died of nose and throat cancer.

Oda was not alone in enduring the untimely deaths of beloved family members. Toyo Suyemoto testified about the environment’s devastating impact on her son’s health. Starting at the Tanforan Assembly Center, a racetrack where horse stalls housed humans, infant Kay developed asthma and allergies and struggled with these conditions until his death in 1958 at the age of 16.

Her voice cracking ever so slightly, she concluded, “I simply wonder, members of the commission, what my son, Kay, who would have been 40 years old this year, might be able to tell you today had he lived, for he was a blessing to me.”

A formal US apology

One year after the hearings, the commission published Personal Justice Denied, a nearly 500-page report that concluded Executive Order 9066 was driven by “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

Even former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson admitted, “to loyal citizens this forced evacuation was a personal injustice.”

The testimonies validated this point hundreds of times over, but they demonstrated that the incarceration was also an environmental injustice.

Japanese Americans’ losses and suffering did not emerge in an environmental vacuum. The federal government’s decision to wrest them away from their land and place them in unfamiliar and unforgiving places contributed to and amplified wartime inequities.

Based on the commission’s recommendations, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, giving every living victim a formal presidential apology and $20,000. All told, 82,219 people received redress.

The success of the redress movement, however, did not mark the end of political action. Takemura spoke about his wartime experiences in local high school history classes for several years before his death in 1997, recognizing that many young people were “completely ignorant” about the incarceration.

Survivors and their families, activists and scholars also remain vocal, and they continue to draw attention to the environmental dimensions of the Japanese American incarceration. Most years, they make pilgrimages to the former camp sites, some of which are administered by the National Park Service as national historic sites, landmarks and monuments.

As they speak about the fragility of civil rights, then and now, they gaze at the same lonely vistas as their forebears and feel the wind kick up the dust or the sun beat down on their faces. They experience, even for a brief moment, the isolation and devastation of exile and confinement.

Eighty years after Executive Order 9066, amid a sharp increase in Asian hate crimes, the fight for justice remains as urgent as ever.

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