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Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

Rebuilding a Community

Mary Higeko Hamana teaches Japanese flower arranging, 1977

For Japanese Americans, the aftermath of the Second World War was a time of difficult challenges as well as great triumphs.

For the Issei, the years of internment represented an unmitigated disaster. During the war, they lost their hard-earned homes, businesses, and farms, along with the status and sense of achievement that these assets had brought them. The Issei had to struggle for years to gain even partial compensation for their losses; it was not until the 1980s that they received official acknowledgement of the injustice that had been done them.

The Nisei, similarly, had to deal with the disruption of the community that they had grown up in, and with the uncertainty of the post-internment era. At the same time, however, they had to cope with their new position as the leaders of the Japanese American community during a time of tremendous change, as well as with their role as the parents of the Sansei—the third generation of Japanese Americans.

In the public sphere, meanwhile, the postwar years saw dramatic improvements in the status of Japanese Americans. Increasing public awareness of the hardships of internment, along with recognition of the distinguished military service of the Nisei, led to new levels of acceptance by non-Japanese Americans. The closing of the internment camps was followed by a rapid series of watershed legislative victories. In 1946, President Truman honored the 442nd Regimental Combat Team at the White House, and in that same year the Japanese American Citizens League led a successful campaign to repeal California's Alien Land Law. In 1948, Truman signed the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act, which, though deeply flawed, was intended to provide some compensation for the financial losses of evacuation. In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act canceled the 1924 Immigration Act and made immigration from Japan legal once more. Just as significantly, McCarran-Walter also made the Issei eligible for naturalization, allowing the aging pioneers of the first generation to finally swear their loyalty as citizens of the United States.

Isamu Noguchi

Today, the Japanese American community is hundreds of thousands strong, and can be found in all corners of the nation, as well as in prominent roles in most fields of endeavor. In an ironic reversal, the concentration camps of the internment era led to the dispersal of Japanese Americans, as uprooted internees chose to try their fortunes in different areas of the country. Similarly, the generations since the war have sought success in the full range of American career fields, from politics, academia, and the arts to business and the skilled trades—as well as farming, which first drew the Issei across the Pacific more than 100 years ago. Meanwhile, the achievements of public figures such as U.S. Senators S.I. Hayakawa, Spark Matsunaga, and Daniel Inouye (a veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team), as well as General Eric Shinseki, architect Minoru Yamasaki, figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, and sculptor Isamu Noguchi have kept Japanese Americans squarely in the public eye. At the same time, for generations of Americans the Japanese American internment of World War II has come to serve as a model of community survival in the face of adversity, as well as a cautionary tale of the dangers of unfettered authority, and of the fragility of human rights.