World War II Internment of Japanese Americans in Washington

  • By Eleanor Boba
  • Posted 5/20/2024
  • Essay 22995
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On May 5, 1942, with the United States at war with Japan, the U.S. War Defense Command announced the forced removal of Japanese and Japanese American families from the West Coast. Within months, some 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry – including about 13,000 people living in Washington – had been incarcerated at camps in California, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Arkansas, Arizona, and Utah. The exclusion orders were lifted more than two years later, on December 17, 1944, but the affects would be felt for decades. Many Japanese never reclaimed the lives they knew before the war. 

Anti-Japanese Rumblings

Many terms have been used to describe the people rounded up for confinement during World War II, including Japanese, Japanese Americans, people of Japanese ancestry, Issei (first generation immigrants), Nisei (second generation), and Nikkei (Japanese living outside of Japan). In this essay we'll often say simply "Japanese." Similarly, many names have been given to the camps where the Japanese were held: "internment camps," "relocation centers," and more recently, "incarceration camps" or even "concentration camps." We'll use the terms "incarceration" and "internment."

Like other West Coast states, and the United States in general, Washington experienced anti-Japanese sentiment during the early decades of the twentieth century, particularly in areas where Japanese were seen as economic competition, such as among farmers in the Yakima and Puyallup-Kent valleys and in Bellevue. With the build-up to war in the 1930s, this sentiment turned to hysteria. The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by forces of imperial Japan set off an avalanche of anger and hatred. President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) declared war on Japan on December 8, 1941, the day following the attack. Two months later, on February 19, 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, giving military commanders authority to create areas of exclusion in the interest of protecting the country from sabotage or invasion. The executive order did not use the word "Japanese," but was clearly targeted at them. The actions that followed affected only those of Japanese heritage, not Germans or Italians, even if they were technically "enemy aliens."

Dividing the Country

On March 2, the army issued Public Proclamation No. 1, which created two Military Areas, Nos. 1 and 2. Military Area 1 was effectively half of the coastal states from Washington down through California, as well as the southern counties of Arizona. This was considered to be the area most vulnerable to Japanese attacks or sabotage. Military Area 2, which encompassed the remaining counties of each of the four states, was proclaimed safe from exclusion – at least at first. In 1943, all of California’s Area 2 was added to the exclusion zone. Different types of edicts affected Japanese living in Hawaii, where martial law had been declared shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, and Alaska.

After establishment of the miliary areas, the army further divided the exclusion region into 108 smaller exclusion zones, transforming the West Coast into a crazy quilt of geographic units, each with unique logistical plans. In the first months, a series of 18 "assembly centers" were set up to hold the evacuees until long-term camps could be established. Evacuees were not told where they were to be taken, nor were they necessarily taken to the center closest to their home.

Dividing the State

Washington was divided roughly in half along a north-south divide, approximately along the eastern foot of the Cascade Range; the major population centers were nearly all in Area 1, the area of exclusion. The latter was further divided into 18 exclusion areas from which the Japanese were to be "evacuated." Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound had the dubious honor of being the first exclusion area in the country, due to the island’s proximity to naval facilities on the Kitsap Peninsula. A total of 227 Japanese men, women, and children were transported directly to the Owens Valley in California’s desert county, to a place that would come to be known as Manzanar, the first internment camp.

For most of the rest, evacuation meant a first stop at one of several hastily-fitted assembly centers while the long-term camps were being set up. Washington had one assembly center – Camp Harmony, the state fairgrounds at Puyallup, which were commandeered for the duration of the war. However, not all Washingtonian evacuees went to Puyallup.

The exclusion orders were announced via posters taped to telephone poles, buildings, and other structures. Each order provided instructions for registering at "civil control stations," typically community gathering places, and for reporting to collection points from where they would be transported to unnamed assembly centers. The posters provided somewhat confusing geographic descriptions and a map of the targeted area. In each instance, families were given only a week or two to dismantle their lives, giving up homes, businesses, friends, pets, and belongings.

In Washington, the largest concentrations of Japanese families were in the urban areas of Puget Sound and the farming valleys of King and Pierce counties, as well as in the Yakima Valley east of the Cascades. Those in the cities and farming communities of Puget Sound were divided into several exclusion orders. Exclusion Order 98 covered the Yakima Valley and included the counties of Okanogan, Chelan, Kittitas, Klickitat, and Benson, although nearly all persons affected were in Yakima County.

Smaller numbers of Japanese were moved out of Kitsap County and Vashon Island (Exclusion Order 68); Pacific, Wahkiakum, Clark, Lewis, and Cowlitz counties (Exclusion Order 88); Mason, Grays Harbor, Clallam, Jefferson, and Thurston counties, including a group of Japanese oystermen in Olympia (Exclusion Order 89); and Skagit, Snohomish, and Whatcom counties (Exclusion Order 90). Those under exclusion orders 88, 89, and 90, among the last groups to be removed, were taken directly to the newly opened Tule Lake camp on California’s Oregon border in the first days of June.

Spokane had a sizeable Japanese population, but was considered far enough inland to be outside the exclusion zone. A very brief period following Executive Order 9066 in which voluntary evacuation was encouraged brought an increase in the number of Japanese in Spokane. However, in a rapid about-face, the government banned voluntary evacuation only a few weeks later. By June 6, virtually all Japanese persons had been removed from Military Area 1 up and down the coast. The handful remaining were inmates of jails, tuberculosis sanatoria and hospitals, and women close to giving birth.

Places of Infamy

Washington was not assigned any long-term internment camps. As we have seen, it did have one assembly center – the fairgrounds at Puyallup in Pierce County, optimistically named Camp Harmony by army public relations. The Puyallup Assembly Center, designed to hold up to 8,000 internees, became the destination for all Japanese from Seattle, the largest Japanese population group in the state. In addition, some 200 Japanese living in Alaska found themselves at the Puyallup Assembly Center. The Alaskans included a number of part-Native and full-Native people married to, or otherwise related to, Japanese.

Most Washington evacuees outside Seattle were transported out-of-state on long train rides to the assembly centers in Portland (Portland Exposition Grounds) and Pinedale near Fresno, California. Residents of Tacoma proper were sent to Pinedale, although a group from Fife and adjacent areas was moved a much shorter distance to Puyallup.

As the army prepared to relocate Japanese from the Yakima Valley, it set up an assembly center in Toppenish in what had been a camp for migrant workers. Ultimately, the facilities proved inadequate and the plan was abandoned. Japanese from Yakima and adjacent counties were shipped to the Portland Assembly Center. Another assembly center was planned for Longacres Race Track in Renton. This project, too, was abandoned.

Once the 10 long-term internment camps had been (at least partially) set up, the Japanese from Washington were dispersed even farther from home. Most of those from the western counties were sent to Minidoka in Idaho or to Tule Lake in California. Those from Yakima and the other eastern counties were sent to Heart Mountain in Wyoming. The one Japanese family from the San Juan Islands was sent to Minidoka. Families from Bainbridge Island, originally sent to Manzanar, were later given the option to join those at Minidoka. Among Seattle residents imprisoned at Minidoka were teacher and peace activist Aki Kurose (1925-1998), newspaperman James Sakamoto (1903-1955), dance instructor Martha Nishitani (1920-2014), and Ruby Inouye Shu (1920-2012), the city's first Japanese American woman doctor. Sadako Moriguchi (1907-2012), who co-founded Seattle Asian grocery Uwajimaya, was imprisoned at Tule Lake. Her brother, famed artist George Tsutakawa (1910-1977), was drafted into the U.S. Army and served briefly in the 442nd Japanese American combat team. 

Other sites associated with Japanese incarceration included the Seattle Immigration Detention Center on Airport Way. It was here that the FBI brought a number of Issei rounded up right after Pearl Harbor. These men had been under surveillance for some time due to their involvement with Japanese cultural organizations or because of trips made to their homeland. After several weeks at the immigration center, most were shipped to a stretch of imprisonment at Fort Missoula, Montana, before being allowed to join their families in internment camps. McNeil Island Penitentiary was used to house Japanese draft resisters from the Heart Mountain and Minidoka camps.

Challenging Exclusion

While exclusion was widely accepted by the country at first, once the war turned in favor of the American side, more voices were raised in opposition to the imprisonment of the Japanese, many of whom were American citizens. Among the loudest voices of dissent came from Washington State Senator Mary Farquharson (1901-1982), who worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Fellowship of Reconciliation to oppose the internment. Another dissident, University of Washington professor Floyd Schmoe (1895-2001), eventually gave up teaching and research to work full time aiding Japanese Americans interned during the war. 

Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012), a Washington-born Japanese American, was studying at the University of Washington when war broke out. He was one of the few to challenge the government’s exclusion and curfew orders, earning him several stints in jail, including time on McNeil Island. When his case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in May 1943, the judgment was unanimous against him. Some 40 years later, in 1986 and 1987, Hirabayashi appealed again and saw his convictions overturned, although the Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the laws stood.

Gradually, the camps were allowed to parole inmates on work release and even free those who had found jobs or had been admitted to schools away from the exclusion zone. A number of Nisei were allowed to join the army in segregated units.

The exclusion orders were lifted on December 17, 1944. This however, did not lead to an immediate return to normal. Many of the younger Nikkei had moved on with their lives, enrolling in colleges or taking jobs outside the exclusion area. The older Issei, who had lost nearly everything of their old lives, had little to go back to. All were aware of continuing hostility to their presence on the West Coast. Some families did return and were helped by friends and service organizations to regain some semblance of their old lives, even if this meant sleeping in church basements for a while. For others, fears of yet another upheaval in their lives made decisions on relocation difficult. This meant that some camps did not close until well after the war ended; many Issei waited out their days, separated from family members. The last internment camp, Tule Lake, closed in March 1946.

The communities that had existed in Washington before the war would never be the same. Economic change and urban development squeezed out many small farmers, even those who had been able to reclaim their land. Internment looms large as the principal cause of the disruption of a way of life.

Washington and the Redress Movement

As Hirabayashi found, the 1970s and 1980s held a much different climate of opinion on the incarceration. Many Americans who had been largely unaware of this episode in history were shocked to discover that American citizens had been summarily detained without charges for years due only to their racial heritage. As Martin W. Sandler writes in Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans During World War II, "By the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of the Sansei had entered college. There, for the first time, they learned what had happened to their parents and grandparents during WWII. And they became outraged" (Sandler). The redress movement was born.

A number of Washington Asian activists shepherded the drive for reparations. After years of lobbying, Congress created the Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) with the aim of investigating the origins and effects of internment. Seattle was one of eight cities around the country in which hearings were held with former internees, their descendants, and others touched by the ordeal. In Seattle, local organizers held workshops and a mock hearing to prepare witnesses to testify. The commission’s conclusions, published as Personal Justice Denied, laid the groundwork for the reparations to come.

After years of debate, on August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which provided payments of $20,000 to each surviving internee, as well as an official apology. Separately, in March 1984, the City of Seattle approved reparations of $5,000 to former employees who had been forced to resign during the war. On May 18, 2008, the University of Washington in Seattle awarded honorary degrees to 450 Japanese students who had been forced to leave their studies in 1942. Only 65 of the number were able to attend the ceremony. UW President Mark Emmert (b. 1952) noted that the event was a long time coming: "A great injustice was committed in 1942, and we have come to acknowledge that injustice and pay tribute to those who triumphed so brilliantly over it" ("Degrees Atone ...").


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