Center for Japanese studies events examine the wrongful internment of Japanese Americans

Feb. 19 marks the 70th anniversary of the forcible relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II

The Portland State Center for Japanese Studies will host a series of events in February and March to honor the Japanese American victims and survivors who were forcibly detained during World War II.

Feb. 19 marks the 70th anniversary of the forcible relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II

The Portland State Center for Japanese Studies will host a series of events in February and March to honor the Japanese American victims and survivors who were forcibly detained during World War II.

On Feb. 19, 1942, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the implementation of Executive Order 9066, which led to the wrongful detainment of approximately 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry. Nearly two-thirds of the detainees were American citizens who were imprisoned solely because of their Japanese heritage.

Though the internment is often portrayed as a panicked response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, scholars now agree that Japanese Americans were forced to evacuate their homes on the West Coast primarily because of pre-existing racial prejudices.

“There are some people who would like to explain away the internment as the unfortunate result of wartime hysteria,” said Ken Ruoff, professor of history and the director of the Center for Japanese studies. “It is more accurate to interpret the war as having compounded nasty pre-existing prejudices among many West Coasters against individuals of Japanese descent.”

Prior to World War II, there was a great deal of prejudice against Asian immigrants— particularly on the West Coast, where the majority of Japanese Americans resided. In the early 1900s, Japanese Americans faced restrictions on owning land, and endured segregations in classrooms and laws that prohibited marriage between Caucasians and Asians. Japanese immigrants were denied the opportunity to obtain American citizenship.

“One good way to think about the prejudice against Asian Americans at that time is to imagine the kinds of prejudice that African Americans faced in the South before the Civil Rights movement,” said Robert Hegwood, a PSU alumni who will be speaking at the 70th anniversary event on Feb. 22.

Hegwood, currently a doctoral candidate in University of Pennsylvania’s history department, focused his thesis for his master’s degree on the internment survivors that returned to Portland after they were released and the reception that they received from the community. He hopes that the discussions at the events will allow PSU students to realize that the federal government was not solely responsible for wrongful internment; racial prejudices against Japanese immigrants were prominent in America—even in local communities in Portland.

“The idea of local involvement is not very present. There is also an idea that even if there was local support, that it was only from people out in the ‘sticks’—a bunch of racist, crazy old farmers. That just wasn’t true in Portland. It was people in the business community who supported it. It was people in the highest level of Portland’s government,” Hegwood said.

Hegwood explained that even the Mayor of Portland was particularly adamant about detracting any claims that Japanese Americans were loyal to the United States. And early in the war, before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Portland’s chapter of the American Legion (a veterans organization formed after World War I) was actively proposing restrictions for Japanese Americans, at both the federal and local level. “There was this idea that the Columbia River belonged to the white members of Oregon. They saw Japanese Americans as a sort of racial competitor” said Hegwood.

Economic concerns had significant influence on efforts to have people of Japanese ancestry interned. The perceived competition for land, natural resources and business caused many Caucasian Americans to resent the presence of the Japanese, long before the events at Pearl Harbor.

“Many who were in favor of internment made equally clear that they wanted to be rid of the Japanese Americans for eternity, not just for the duration of the war,” notes Dr. Ruoff, who is currently teaching a course at PSU that focuses on the Internment and Redress of Japanese Americans.

“There can be a tendency, on the West Coast, to act as though racism was mainly a problem in the American South, but racism was very much woven into the fabric of mainstream society on the West Coast, too” said Ruoff.

One of the goals of the event series is to raise more awareness about the internment and the events that led up to it. “What surprises me, especially since so many of PSU’s students come from the West Coast, is how little introduction to the history of internment the majority of students have typically received in the K-12 system,” Dr. Ruoff said.

Professor Hilary Jenks of PSU’s honor’s program notes that even if students are aware that the internment took place, they still often do not realize the harsh realities of the forced relocation: “There are many misconceptions about who was actually interned (that citizens were interned alongside aliens), for what reasons, and under what conditions,” wrote Jenkins in an email interview. “People aren’t really aware that so little notice was given, that families had to abandon their possessions or sell them for next to nothing, that they were kept in horse stalls at many of the Assembly Centers, and so forth.”

The importance in understanding the internment, however, isn’t necessarily about who has amassed the most blame. It is about learning from mistakes to ensure that they are not repeated.

“Many Japanese American groups have been at the forefront of protecting the civil liberties of Muslim and Arab Americans following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, for example,” said professor Jenks, “and this past year the Day of Remembrance activities in Portland were done in conjunction with LGBTQ groups in order to highlight the issues of discrimination they face. So the way now to address the suffering caused by internment is to make sure no one else has to undergo a similar experience.” 

Dr. Ruoff agrees: “Understanding where these hatreds took us in the past, such as the tragedy of internment, perhaps reminds us of what is at stake in trying to bridge contemporary differences and to solve contemporary social problems.”