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Disturbing Photos Reveal How the U.S. Treated Japanese-Americans During WWII

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. rounded up roughly 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry (62% of whom were U.S. citizens) and forced them into internment camps. The executive order was issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942.

Before they were detained, Japanese Americans had to register themselves. They were then forced to follow strict rules including curfews and travel restrictions. Soon after, thousands of Asian Americans were forced to close their businesses, leave their work, and abandon their homes to be relocated to internment camps called “relocation centers”.
Following evacuation orders, this store was closed. The owner, a University of California graduate of Japanese descent, placed the “I AM AN AMERICAN” sign on the store front the day after Pearl Harbor. Oakland, CA, April 1942. Dorothea Lange. (WRA) Exact Date Shot unknown NARA FILE #: 210-G-2A-35 WAR & CONFLICT #: 772
Following evacuation orders, this store was closed. The owner, a University of California graduate of Japanese descent, placed the “I AM AN AMERICAN” sign on the store front the day after Pearl Harbor. Oakland, CA, April 1942. Dorothea Lange. (WRA)

FBI agents raided homes of the Issei (first-generation immigrants from Japan). The U.S. government also froze the assets of anyone connected to Japan. Those whose assets weren’t frozen had to immediately sell their businesses and property.

Japanese family heads and persons living alone, form a line outside Civil Control Station located in the Japanese American Citizens League Auditorium at 2031 Bush Street, to appear for “processing” in response to Civilian Exclusion Order Number 20.
A number of local schools with a larger number of Japanese students were also affected. The photos below show before and after the executive order was issued.

Once evacuated, Japanese-Americans were only allowed to take what they could carry. Detainees would be gathered at assembly centers to await processing and would then be moved to relocation centers across the U.S.

Persons of Japanese ancestry from San Pedro, California, arrive at the Santa Anita Assembly center in Arcadia, California, in 1942. Evacuees lived at this center at the Santa Anita race track before being moved inland to other relocation centers.

Racetracks and fairgrounds were typically used as assembly centers. Internees stayed in animal stables and stalls where livestock had been recently kept. The stench of manure was fresh and they were literally forced to live like animals.
A scene during one of many transfers of Japanese American evacuees from Assembly Centers to War Relocation Centers in 1942.
A scene during one of many transfers of Japanese American evacuees from Assembly Centers to War Relocation Centers in 1942.

Salinas, California, 1942. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry identify their luggage at this Assembly center, prior to their transfer to a War Relocation Authority center.

Evacuees of Japanese ancestry were not permitted to use their automobiles at War Relocation Authority centers. Cars brought to this camp, the Manzanar Relocation Center in California, have been impounded for the duration. Photo taken on April 2, 1942
Living quarters were shared with strangers with little to no privacy. Some couldn’t even dress themselves privately. There were no bathrooms in the barracks, so everyone had to line up outside to use the communal outhouses. Showers were also taken in open areas. Because of the close proximity to so many people, sickness was prevalent and numerous people died from the lack of proper medical treatment.

Anyone who attempted to escape or failed to obey orders could be killed. Guards faced little punishment for killing without cause.

A number of Americans were opposed to the the policy including photographer Ansel Adams. During the summer of 1943, he visited the Manzanar War Relocation Camp in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to document the living conditions.

“The purpose of my work was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and dispair [sic] by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment,” he said.
adams-works-showed-the-humanity-of-people-living-at-the-camps-here-ryie-yoshizawa-center-teaches-a-class-on-dressmaking
Ryie Yoshizawa (center) teaches a class on dressmaking.
The Manzanar War Relocation Camp was relatively self-sustainable and included livestock and farms.


While they were in dark times, detainees managed to keep themselves together through recreational activities like reading and playing sports.



Adams also took portraits of the different types of people who were detained in the camps.






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