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Internment and Paroled Work Release

Internment and Paroled Work Release

The anti-Japanese sentiment that led to internment did not appear overnight. Since the nineteenth century, white Americans had made reference to the “Yellow peril,” which characterized Asian immigrants as invaders who came to take jobs and were unassimilable to “American” values. This discourse conflated Asian ancestry with perpetual foreignness. With the 1870 Naturalization Act, the 1907 “Gentlemen’s Agreement” between the United States and Japan, and the 1913 California Alien Land Law Act, as well as other federal and state legislation, Japanese immigrants faced legal barriers to citizenship, immigration, and property ownership respectively. In the late-1930s, representations of Japanese “otherness” fueled sensationalist journalism and stoked fears about espionage as tensions between the United States and Japan increased. Newspapers and magazines, especially on the West Coast, argued that Japanese Americans were to be seen as enemies if war broke out.

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor provided the immediate justification for the internment of more than 120,000 Issei and Nisei. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, giving military authorities the power to forcibly evacuate Japanese families from their homes on the West Coast for “national security” purposes. Under the auspices of defense, the Western Defense Command (the branch of the War Department responsible for the Pacific Coast) detained American citizens without any concrete evidence – a violation of their constitutional right to individual due process. After putting Issei and Nisei through what future Seabrook resident Iddy Asada called “the horrible stages of the evacuation bit” – a process in which nearly 75 percent of incarcerated families lost all of their assets, often to neighbors – the military sent detainees to internment camps farther inland. The policy of Japanese internment spread throughout the Western hemisphere. The Justice Department coordinated with countries such as Panama and Peru the incarceration of more than two thousand Latin Americans of Japanese ancestry as “enemy aliens,” who were then sent to the United States and stripped of their rights, property, and legal documents.

Internment proved controversial, from both a legal and propaganda standpoint, with the United States fighting a global campaign against fascism. Liberal and leftist Americans decried and protested the policy as an abject and unprecedented violation of the civil liberties of citizens, as did certain Protestant religious organizations. Moreover, the growing need for workers in the wartime economy prompted the government officials to question whether Issei and Nisei labor was being wasted as a wartime resource. From 1943 until the end of the war, the War Relocation Authority, the federal agency created to administer internment, gradually began a process of releasing internees. After swearing “unqualified allegiance to the United States” in a loyalty questionnaire, Issei and Nisei became eligible for supervised work release to locations east of the Mississippi River. (Nisei also became eligible for conscription.) The relocation of more than 2,500 internees to Seabrook Farms was supervised by the WRA’s Philadelphia office, who worked with already released individuals like Ellen Nakamura, to expand recruitment.

Even though released detainees were thoroughly vetted by both the WRA and the military through the loyalty questionnaire, paroled internees continued to encounter racism and suspicion. At Great Meadows in Warren County, New Jersey, local residents protested after farmer George Kowalick agreed to accept five Japanese American laborers from the WRA and, as the Newark Evening News reported in 1943, formed a “secret and self-styled ‘reception committee’ dedicated to keeping the Japs out.” After a barn on his property suspiciously went up in flames, Kowalick asked the WRA to take the laborers back. The mayor of Great Meadows, John Kane, blamed the parolees themselves for the unrest: “We have no objection to the nationality of these men, but we do object to their character if they instigate animosity or infringe upon law and order.”

Gila River Relocation Camp, Arizona.

The Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona, which was built on the Gila River Indian Reservation, held Issei and Nisei internees until it was closed in 1945. Most internment camps were far inland in arid, remote locations. Like detention centers and carceral sites today, relocation camps were far away from major metropolitan centers and mostly hidden from the public eye. Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, New Jersey Digital Highway

Map of 10 relocation centers.

This map shows the location of the ten internment camps in relationship to the Military Zone on the West Coast where "evacuation" was mandatory. The military believed that the West Coast, which contained the majority of Issei and Nisei residents, was the area most likely to be attacked by Japan. Executive Order 9066 relied on misplaced fears of Japanese American espionage to justify the incarceration of Issei and Nisei for "security" purposes. Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, New Jersey Digital Highway

Transcript of Memorandum to the Peruvian ambassador

A memo from the U.S. Embassy in Peru to the Peruvian Ambassador in Washington exemplifies widely-held beliefs that ethnic Japanese in the Americas were unassimilable. The letter contends that as "an Oriental people with language and customs almost unknown in the West," Japanese residents in Peru were "dangerous" and had remained loyal to Japan. The memo recommends that the Peruvian government expel Japanese community leaders and encourage propaganda to alert the Peruvian people of the Japanese menace. The full transcription of the memo can be found on Densho: Courtesy of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians

Ellen Nakamura photograph

Ellen Nakamura, who had been interned at the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas, served as a recruitment scout for Seabrook Farms. She regularly communicated with H. Leon Yager, the WRA official in charge of the Philadelphia office, about the working and housing situations of relocated internees at Seabrook, and on the numbers of additional detained Nisei and Issei who might be brought to New Jersey. Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, New Jersey Digital Highway

Ellen Nakamura, Notice of Assignment and Discharge Papers

As a Relocation Guidance Committee Secretary, Nakamura received $19 a month in wages. Courtesy of the Nakamura Family

Representatives from the Jerome Relocation Commission in Arkansas

Ellen Nakamura, featured in the center of this photograph. The brick buildings and greenery of Seabrook Farms presented a sharp contrast to the barracks and desert-like conditions of the internment camps. Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, New Jersey Digital Highway

Letter from H. Leon Yager to Ellen Noguchi Nakamura, December 26, 1944

By December 1944, 817 internees had been released to Seabrook Farms. The total number would exceed 2,500, although many Issei and Nisei returned to California after the war's end. Courtesy of the Nakamura Family

John Nykun posing with 'Little Tokio' sign, Great Meadows, New Jersey, April 13, 1944

Paroled internees had to contend with hostile receptions in many places. White residents of Great Meadows, NJ, including the soldier shown here, protested farmer George Kowalick's decision to hire five Japanese American laborers after they were granted release. Residents' violent reaction eventually forced the WRA to take the laborers back. With animosity against the Nisei still running high, WRA officials argued on behalf of released internees by citing the work that federal agencies had done vetting their loyalty. Japanese Americans' citizenship was not proof enough of their right to live and work in the town freely. Courtesy the Queens Borough Public Library, Archives, New York Herald-Tribune Photograph Morgue Collection