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Between 1942 and 1945, thousands of Japanese Americans were, regardless of U.S. citizenship, required to evacuate their homes and businesses and move to remote war relocation and internment camps run by the U.S. Government. This proved to be an extremely trying experience for many of those who lived in the camps, and to this day remains a controversial topic.
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” declared President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his address to a joint session of Congress.
The repercussions of this event in the U.S. were immediate. In cities and towns up and down the West Coast, prominent Japanese Americans were arrested, while friends and neighbors of Japanese Americans viewed them with distrust. Within a short time, Japanese Americans were forced out of their jobs and many experienced public abuse, even attacks.
When the president issued Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, he authorized the evacuation and relocation of “any and all persons” from “military areas.” Within months, all of California and much of Washington and Oregon had been declared military areas. The process of relocating thousands of Japanese Americans began.
The relocation process was confusing, frustrating, and frightening. Japanese Americans were required to register and received identification numbers. They had to be inoculated against communicable diseases. They were given just days to divest themselves of all that they owned, including businesses and family homes. Bringing only what they could carry, they were told to report to assembly centers: large facilities like racetracks and fairgrounds. These centers became temporary housing for thousands of men, women and children. Stables and livestock stalls often served as living and sleeping quarters.
There was no privacy for individuals – all their daily needs were accommodated in public facilities. Internees waited, for weeks that sometimes became months, to be moved from the assembly centers to their assigned war relocation centers.
These hardships continued when internees reached their internment camp. Located in remote, desolate, inhospitable areas, the camps were prison-like, with barbed wire borders and guards in watchtowers. Many people, not always family members, shared small living spaces and, again, public areas served internees’ personal needs. Eventually, life in the camps settled into routines. Adults did what they could to make living quarters more accommodating. Schools were established for the educational needs of the young. Residents performed the jobs necessary to run the camps. Self-governing bodies emerged, as did opportunities for gainful employment and for adult teaching and learning of new skills. Evidence of normal community living appeared as newspapers, churches, gardening, musical groups, sports teams, and enclaves of writers and artists emerged. The barbed wire and watchtowers, however remained in place.
Despite this treatment, Japanese Americans did their best to get through the internment experience and serve their country during a time of war. More than 30,000 Japanese American men enlisted in the armed forces. The all Japanese American 442nd Regiment became the most decorated unit of its size in U.S. history.
First generation Japanese immigrants were hardest hit by the internment. Many lost everything - homes, businesses, farms, respect, status and sense of achievement. Their children and grandchildren also experienced disruptions to their lives, but they emerged after the war with lives that, while changed, were not destroyed. These second- and third-generation Japanese American citizens began to shoulder responsibility for leadership in the Japanese American community.
Select and analyze one image of life in a relocation center. What can be learned from the image? What questions does the image raise? Analyze additional images from the set to see what questions can be answered, and what new questions come up. Students might organize their thinking into categories such as living conditions, recreation, or work. If time permits, select one or two questions for further research using primary or secondary sources.
Ask students to study a selection of items related to life in a relocation center and form a hypothesis about how the people shown reacted to being interned, and then list details from one or more primary sources to support the hypothesis. Alternatively, give students a hypothesis, a selection of items from the set, and ask some students to find evidence to support the hypothesis, and others to find evidence that refutes it. Compare photographs by two or more photographers. Consider purpose, style, intended audience, and the impact of each image.
Watch the oral history clip from Norman Ikari. Ask students to write a brief retelling of the oral history in their own words, and then allow time for students to compare their writing with a partner’s. What aspect of the oral history did each student emphasize? What is the significance of this oral history? Ask students to think about how this oral history supports, contradicts, or adds to their understanding of the period or events. How does encountering this history firsthand change its emotional impact? (For more questions and ideas, consult the Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Oral History.)
This primary source set also provides an opportunity to help students understand that different times shape different cultural values and mores. The set may also provide impetus for discussions that compare and contrast the unfair treatment of other segments of the U.S. population, in America’s past and today.