History of the Incarceration

Forced Mass Removal

After the outbreak of war between the United States and Japan, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese immigrants, who had been denied the right to become U.S. citizens by racist U.S. naturalizations laws, became enemy aliens and were viewed with great suspicion. They and their U.S. citizen children were subject to a myriad of restrictions. Some Issei community leaders were immediately arrested by the FBI and after processing at temporary detention stations were placed in Department of Justice camps run by the Immigration and Naturalization in places such as Fort Missoula, Montana, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Crystal City, Texas or placed in U.S. Army facilities such as Camp Lordsburg, New Mexico. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 (E.O. 9066), which authorized the Secretary of War, and military commanders he designated, to prescribe military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded” and led to the forcible mass round-up, removal, and incarceration under armed guard of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans who were held without trial in inland concentration camps.

Civilian exclusion orders followed which moved persons of Japanese ancestry “alien and nonalien” first to temporary detention centers, called “assembly centers.” The term “nonalien” was a euphemism for U.S. citizen. Always considered foreign because of their race even the U.S.-born, American citizen, second generation Japanese Americans, the Nisei, were incarcerated in inland concentration camps during the war along with the immigrant, first generation, the Issei, who were “aliens ineligible to citizenship.”


Japanese Americans were told that they could bring only what they could carry. They were then moved from the temporary detention centers located on existing public fairgrounds and racetracks to permanent inland concentration camps built specifically for this purpose. Bainbridge Island Japanese Americans were the first to be removed and were sent to Manzanar in California. Seattle Japanese Americans were first moved to Puyallup Fairgrounds (“Camp Harmony”) then to Minidoka in Idaho. Those living outside Seattle were sent to Pinedale, California then to Tule Lake in northern California and some later were moved to Heart Mountain in Wyoming. For some, wartime incarceration lasted almost four years.

In all, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were all forcibly rounded up, removed from their homes on the West Coast and incarcerated under armed guard in barbed wire enclosures located in California, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Arkansas. Two-thirds of those incarcerated were U.S. citizens and the rest resident aliens who had been denied the right of naturalization on the basis of race. The exclusion, forcible mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II marked the culmination of a century of a racist policy of discrimination and exclusion of Asians in the United States. The exclusionists’ ultimate goal of physical removal had been achieved.

Incarceration Sites

Incarceration Sites Map

Image Courtesy of the National Parks Service


Almost a half a century later, the U.S. government recognized that this mass violation of civil liberties of Japanese Americans in World War II was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” and in 1988 President Ronal Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which awarded monetary redress and apology to Japanese American survivors of the concentration camps and created a public education fund to educate the public about the World War II wrongful incarceration of Japanese Americans in order to prevent similar violations of civil liberties in the future.