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[Detail] See America. Alexander Dux

Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: Depictions of the Japanese in WPA Posters and Japanese-American Internment Camps During World War II

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 galvanized the United States to enter World War II. A search on Japanese war produces posters promoting the effort against the Japanese. "Careless matches aid the Axis" depicts a glowering Japanese soldier behind a tree while the war bond poster, "Stamp 'Em Out", features Emperor Hirohito alongside Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler. Other posters in the collection, however, represented the Japanese as animals such as the snake in "Salvage Scrap to Blast the Jap," a rat in "Alaska - Death-Trap for the Jap," and a Japanese submarine as a shark in "Smoking Stacks Attract Attacks."

As artists fought a propaganda war against the Japanese, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 forced most Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to sell many of their possessions and to move to internment camps under the auspices of national security. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such confinement was constitutional but many government officials believed that such camps were unnecessary and fueled doubt about the national loyalty of all Japanese immigrants in the United States. In 1988, the Civil Liberties Act offered a presidential apology and $20,000 in compensation to each survivor of the internment camps. Photographs chronicling the experience of detainees are available in the American Memory collection, America from the Great Depression through World War II.

  • How did the war posters exaggerate physical characteristics of the Japanese?
  • How do you think that these posters might have influenced the public's feelings about the Japanese?
  • How might such feelings have affected attitudes toward Japanese Americans?
  • Why do you think that Japanese American citizens were placed in relocation camps but Italian-American citizens and German-Americans citizens, originally from the other nations at war with the U.S., were not detained?