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Chapter 11: Internment of Japanese Americans During World War II

Hirabayashi v. United States (1943), Korematsu v. United States (1944)

A Nation at war with a formidable enemy is a nation at risk. National security becomes a paramount concern of the government, which may, under certain conditions, decide to subordinate the constitutional rights of some individuals to the collective safety of the people. But in the United States, a primary purpose of the government has always been to provide equal protection for the constitutional rights of all the nation’s people. So, during a wartime crisis, critical questions about individual liberty and collective security are inevitable.

Can strong war powers, which the national government may need to defeat a fearsome foreign enemy, be reconciled with the immutable constitutional rights of individuals? Or must the liberty of some persons be sacrificed temporarily to the exigencies of national survival? These questions were raised in the United States after an attack by Japanese aircraft against Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. And they were associated with two cases brought to the U.S. Supreme Court within the context of World War II: Hirabayashi v. United States and Korematsu v. United States.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a disaster for the United States. The American naval forces on Hawaii, stunned and surprised, suffered a devastating defeat. The Japanese disabled or destroyed five American battleships and three cruisers, and they killed 2,355 military personnel and wounded 1,178. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, speaking by radio to a shocked and scared nationwide audience, said that the American people would remember this “date which will live in infamy” and exact revenge for Japan’s “sneak attack” against the United States. Congress declared war against Japan. Germany and Italy, military allies of Japan, then declared war on the United States. Thus, the United States entered World War II.

Within three months, Japanese forces invaded and occupied nearly all of Southeast Asia and had taken the U.S. territories of Guam and the Philippines. Americans feared a Japanese invasion of the Hawaiian Islands and the states along their country’s Pacific coast, California, Oregon, and Washington.

General J. L. DeWitt, who was responsible for defending the Pacific coastal region, felt threatened by the more than 112,000 people of Japanese ancestry who lived on the West Coast. More than two-thirds were U.S. citizens, and most others were long-settled resident aliens. General DeWitt wanted to relocate all of them to the interior of the country, where they could be prevented from having contact with the enemy.

Members of President Roosevelt’s cabinet debated General DeWitt’s national security recommendations, which were supported strongly by top political leaders in California, including the state’s attorney general, Earl Warren, a future chief justice of the United States. However, U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle urged caution; he believed that forcible relocation of the Japanese Americans would violate their due process rights under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. Other Presidential advisers stressed that military necessity and national survival were the paramount concerns of this moment, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed with them.

On February 22, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, providing authority for military commanders to establish special zones from which civilians might be excluded for reasons of national defense. The President based his order on the Espionage Act of 1918 and statutes enacted by Congress in 1940 and 1941 to enhance the chief executive’s wartime powers. On March 18, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9102 to establish the War Relocation Authority. This executive agency was empowered to relocate the people identified by military commanders under the provisions of the previously issued Executive Order 9066.

On March 21, the President signed a law, enacted unanimously by Congress, that supported the previously issued executive orders pertaining to national security. The way was cleared for military commanders to remove Japanese Americans from the Pacific Coast to regions within the interior of the United States.

On March 24, General DeWitt announced a daily curfew. From 8:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m., all persons of Japanese ancestry living within Military Area 1, which comprised the entire Pacific coastal region, were required to stay indoors. This command was a prelude to the exclusion order that came on May 9, when General DeWitt directed the removal of all persons of Japanese ancestry from Military Area 1. They had to check in at “civilian control centers” from where they were sent to internment camps in the interior of the country.

The internment camps were forbidding places of confinement, ringed by barbed-wire fences and guarded by armed soldiers. The internees came to their sparsely furnished dwellings with few possessions, having been forced to sell or leave behind most of what they had owned. Homes, farms, and places of business were mostly sold on short notice for a small percentage of their true value.

Most of the relocated people were citizens of the United States, who had been born and raised in America and were thoroughly American in their beliefs and behavior. They considered themselves to be loyal citizens of their country, with little or no allegiance to Japan, which most of them had never visited. They were incarcerated because some government officials and military commanders suspected them of sympathy with a wartime enemy, even though no hard evidence was ever produced that any of them had acted disloyally against the United States.

During 1942, the Office of Naval Intelligence commissioned an investigation on the loyalty of Japanese Americans. An official report based on this study, written by Navy Commander Kenneth Ringle, concluded that fewer than 3 percent of Japanese Americans could be considered possible threats to national security. Further, most of those suspected of disloyalty had already been arrested. Thus, the Ringle Report strongly advised against any kind of mass relocation and internment of Japanese Americans as unnecessary and most likely unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the policy makers who mandated the internment and the federal judges who allowed the legislation to stand disregarded this report.

The internment of the Japanese Americans certainly raised serious issues about constitutional rights. For example, the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment says, “No person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Had the federal government deprived the interned Japanese Americans of their Fifth Amendment rights? Or did the wartime emergency justify the federal government’s placement of extraordinary limitations on the constitutional rights of a particular group of Americans? Federal courts soon confronted these critical issues about the government’s use of war powers and the constitutional rights of Japanese Americans.

Hirabayashi v. United States

  • 320 U.S. 81 (1943)
  • Decided: June 21, 1943
  • Vote: 9–0
  • Opinion of the Court: Harlan Fiske Stone
  • Concurring opinions: William O. Douglas, Frank Murphy, and Wiley Rutledge

The first Japanese American internment case to come before the U.S. Supreme Court concerned Gordon Hirabayashi, a U.S. citizen born and raised in Seattle, Washington. Prior to his problems with the federal government, he was a highly regarded student at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Hirabayashi had been arrested and convicted for violating General DeWitt’s curfew order and for refusing to register at a control station in preparation for transportation to an internment camp. His noncompliance with federal regulations was based strongly on principle. Hirabayashi believed that the President’s executive orders, and the federal laws enacted in support of them, were racially discriminatory violations of the U.S. Constitution. He later said: “I must maintain the democratic standards for which this nation lives . . . I am objecting to the principle of this order which denies the rights of human beings, including citizens.”

The Court unanimously upheld the curfew law for Japanese Americans living in Military Area 1 and ruled that the federal government had appropriately used its war powers under the Constitution. It did not directly confront the issue of whether the exclusion and internment order violated Hirabayashi’s Fifth Amendment rights, as the Court focused on the constitutional justifications for the curfew law during a wartime crisis, a law that Hirabayashi clearly had violated.

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone recognized that discrimination based upon race was “odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.” In this case, however, Stone ruled that the need to protect national security in time of war compelled consideration of race and ancestry as reasons for confinement of a certain group of people. The chief justice wrote, “We cannot close our eyes to the fact . . . that in time of war residents having ethnic affiliations with an invading enemy may be a greater source of danger than those of a different ancestry.”

Although the Court’s decision in Hirabayashi was unanimous, Justice Frank Murphy did not wholeheartedly endorse it, and he wrote a concurring opinion that verged on dissent. In fact, Murphy had at first decided to write a dissenting opinion, but Chief Justice Stone, with help from Justice Felix Frankfurter, talked him out of it. Frankfurter argued that in a socially sensitive case like this one, it was important for the Court to present an appearance of unity. Nonetheless, Murphy’s concurrence was sprinkled with sharply stated reservations about the Court’s opinion. For example, Murphy expressed great concern that “we have sustained a substantial restriction of the personal liberty of citizens of the United States based on the accident of race or ancestry . . . In my opinion, this goes to the very brink of constitutional power.”

The tenuous unity of the Hirabayashi opinion was broken in the next Japanese American internment case to reach the Supreme Court, Korematsu v. United States.

Korematsu v. United States

  • 323 U.S. 214 (1944)
  • Decided: December 18, 1944
  • Vote: 6–3
  • Opinion of the Court: Hugo L. Black
  • Concurring opinion: Felix Frankfurter
  • Dissenting opinions: Owen J. Roberts, Frank Murphy, and Robert H. Jackson

Born and raised in Oakland, California, Fred Korematsu was, like Gordon Hirabayashi, a U.S. citizen of Japanese ancestry who was thoroughly American in culture and loyalty to the United States. In June 1941, more than five months before the United States entered World War II, Korematsu volunteered to join the U.S. Navy. Although actively seeking enlistments, the Navy recruitment officials rejected Korematsu’s application for reasons of poor health. He then found employment as a welder at a shipyard in northern California, a job related to national defense.

On the day he was ordered to report at an assembly area for his likely relocation and internment, Korematsu refused to go, and for good reasons. He wanted to marry his girlfriend and move to Nevada. She was not a Japanese American and thereby not affected by the removal order. Furthermore, Korematsu could not imagine that he in any way threatened the security of the United States. Federal government officials thought otherwise. They arrested and convicted him of violating the law requiring him to report to the assembly center and sentenced him to five years in prison. Then the court paroled Korematsu, who was taken to an internment camp in Utah. From there, he appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided his case on December 18, 1944.

The Supreme Court upheld the federal law requiring Japanese Americans in the Pacific coastal region to report to an assembly center for likely relocation and internment in another part of the country. The war powers of the federal government, provided by the Constitution, were the Court’s justification for upholding the federal law under which Korematsu had been arrested and convicted.

In his opinion for the Court, Justice Hugo Black began by noting “that all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect. That is not to say that all such restrictions are unconstitutional. It is to say that courts must subject them to the most rigid scrutiny. Pressing public necessity may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions, racial antagonism never can.” Thus, Justice Black recognized that the type of intentional racial classification applied against Japanese Americans in this case would normally be ruled unconstitutional. It was justified in this instance, according to Black’s opinion for the Court, only by the compelling interest of the federal government to protect the nation during a wartime emergency.

Justice Black recognized that Japanese American citizens of the United States, such as Korematsu, had endured severe hardships because of the federal order at issue in this case. “But hardships are a part of war,” wrote Black, “and war is an aggregation of hardships.” Justice Black said the federal government’s orders at issue had not been directed against Japanese Americans because of race or ancestry, but for reasons of national security and military necessity.

The Court’s ruling did not directly address the constitutionality of the federal law authorizing the internment of Japanese Americana. It sidestepped that sensitive question, emphasizing the national crisis caused by the war as justification for the extraordinary actions of the federal government. Further, Justice Black’s opinion separated the law requiring Japanese Americans to report to an assembly center from the law forcing them to be excluded from the Pacific coastal region and relocated to an internment camp. As Korematsu had been convicted only for not reporting to an assembly center, the Court did not directly consider the constitutionality of the orders forcing Japanese Americans into the internment camps.

Black concluded:

Korematsu was not excluded from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race. He was excluded because we are at war with the Japanese Empire, because the properly constituted military authorities feared an invasion of our West Coast and felt constrained to take proper security measures, because they decided that the military urgency of the situation demanded that all citizens of Japanese ancestry be segregated from the West Coast temporarily, and finally, because Congress, reposing its confidence in this time of war in our military leaders—as inevitably it must— determined that they should have the power to do just this.

Three justices—Owen Roberts, Frank Murphy, and Robert Jackson— strongly dissented from the Court’s decision. Roberts thought it a plain “case of convicting a citizen as punishment for not submitting to imprisonment in a concentration camp solely because of his ancestry.”

Murphy claimed that the exclusion orders violated the right of citizens to due process of law and were a “legalization of racism.” He wrote, “Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life.” Murphy admitted that the Court majority’s argument citing military necessity carried weight, but he insisted that such a claim must “subject itself to the judicial process” to determine “whether the deprivation is reasonably related to a public danger that is so immediate, imminent, and impending.” Finally, Murphy concluded that “individuals must not be left impoverished in their constitutional rights on a plea of military necessity that has neither substance nor support.”

Jackson expressed grave concern about the future uses of the precedent set in this case. He wrote:

A military order, however unconstitutional, is not apt to last longer than the military emergency . . . But once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution . . . the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedures and of transplanting American citizens. The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.

On December 18, 1944, the very day of its Korematsu decision, the Court also reported its ruling in Ex parte Endo, a related case. A writ of habeas corpus had been filed on behalf of Mitsuye Endo, an American of Japanese ancestry, who had been sent in May 1942 from her home in California to an internment camp by order of the War Relocation Authority. Unlike Korematsu, Endo had obeyed the relocation order and so had not violated a federal law. Like Korematsu, she was a loyal American citizen. The Court unanimously agreed that Endo “should be given her liberty” because there was no evidence that she had done anything to justify her detention.

The gates of the internment camps were opened in January 1945, less than one month after the Endo decision. Major General Henry C. Pratt, commander of Military Area 1 at that time, suspended the exclusion orders, and more than fifty thousand Japanese Americans were set free. The war against Japan was in its final phase, and there no longer was any threat to the U.S. mainland from Japanese military forces. More than thirty thousand internees, however, continued in their confinement until the end of World War II, because military authorities remained skeptical of their loyalty to the United States.

Among those returning to civilian life after the war were more than 1,200 members of a U.S. Army brigade comprised entirely of Japanese American volunteers who were Nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans. This Nisei Brigade fought heroically against the German military occupiers of Italy during the U.S. Army’s invasion in 1943. Soldiers of the Nisei Brigade won more medals for bravery in action than any other military unit in American history.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Japanese Americans who had been relocated to internment camps filed grievances with the federal government to seek compensation for unjust treatment. In 1948, Congress responded by enacting the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act, which provided compensation to internees who had evidence to prove the amount of their property losses. However, no more than $37 million was paid in compensation, despite estimates that Japanese Americans had suffered property losses totaling more than $400 million. Furthermore, compensation was not provided for losses of income or profits that they would have earned during the period of detention in the relocation centers.

In 1980, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to investigate the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II and to make recommendations about financial compensation to the victims. After careful examination of the evidence, including testimony from 750 witnesses, the commission issued a report on February 25, 1983. The commission found no evidence of espionage or sabotage by any of the Japanese Americans. In addition, it noted that officials of both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of Naval Intelligence had opposed the exclusion and internment orders because they believed the Japanese Americans collectively posed no threat to the country’s security. The report concluded: “A grave injustice was done to American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry who, without individual review or any probative evidence against them, were excluded, removed, and detained by the United States during World War II.”

In January 1983, Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu petitioned the federal judiciary to vacate and overturn their criminal convictions. They claimed procedural errors and faulty use of information had influenced the judicial decisions against them. First Korematsu and later Hirabayashi achieved reversal of their convictions, which were erased from federal court records.

In 1988, on the basis of the 1983 report by the federal government commission, Congress officially recognized the wrongs done to Americans of Japanese ancestry by the exclusion and relocation policies. It enacted legislation to provide twenty thousand dollars in compensation to each person still living who had been detained in a relocation center or to the heirs of deceased victims. More than forty-six years after the fateful executive orders that had victimized them were issued, the Japanese American community received a belated token of compensatory justice.

Gordon Hirabashi Remembers His Conviction and Its Reversal

From the beginning of his ordeal, Gordon Hirabayashi protested the injustice of the federal regulations forcing the exclusion and removal of Americans of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific Coast, and he refused on principle to comply with them. Consequently, Gordon spent more than three years in county jails and federal prisons; but he never accepted the legitimacy of the judgments against him and resolved to overturn them.

Following World War II and his release from federal custody, Hirabayashi completed work for his undergraduate degree at the University of Washington, and continued on at the university to earn his Ph.D. in sociology in 1952. He later worked as a professor at the University of Alberta in Canada, until he retired in 1983.

Two years before his retirement, Professor Peter Irons of the University of California at San Diego contacted Hirabayashi and advised him to reopen his case. While doing research for a book on the Japanese American internment cases, Irons discovered information that could be used to help Hirabayashi achieve justice. Irons became Hirabayashi’s legal adviser and assisted him in filing a petition in a federal district court seeking a reversal of his long-ago conviction on grounds of an erroneous and invalid use of evidence by the prosecutors in this case.

Hirabayashi won complete vindication in 1987, when the federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in his favor. His convictions for violating both the curfew and exclusion orders were overturned. In the course of his research, Irons interviewed Hirabayashi about his case, and Hirabayahsi recounted his courageous effort to achieve justice.

After the Curfew order was announced, we knew there would be further orders to remove all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West coast. When the exclusion orders specifying the deadline for forced removal from various districts of Seattle were posted on telephone poles, I was confronted with a dilemma. Do I stay out of trouble and succumb to the status of second-class citizen, or do I continue to live like other Americans and thus disobey the law?

When the curfew was imposed I obeyed for about a week . . . I think if the order said all civilians must obey the curfew, if it was just a nonessential restrictive move, I might not have objected. But I felt it was unfair, just to be referred to as a “non-alien”— they never referred to me as a citizen. This was so pointedly, so obviously a violation of what the Constitution stood for, what citizenship meant . . .

After that, I just ignored the curfew. But nothing happened. And it became a kind of expression of freedom for me to make sure that I was out after eight . . .

When the exclusion order came, which was very close to that time, I was expecting to go along. I had dropped out of school at the end of the winter quarter, which was the end of March. I knew I wasn’t going to be around very long, so I just didn’t register for spring quarter . . .

Eventually, I wrote out a statement explaining the reasons I was refusing evacuation, and I planned to give it to the FBI when I turned myself in . . .

The day after the University district deadline for evacuation, Art [Gordon’s lawyer] took me to the FBI office to turn myself in. At first, I was only charged with violating the exclusion order. They threw in the curfew count afterward . . .

My trial in October lasted just one day. It started in the morning and they took a noon recess and continued in the afternoon until my conviction . . .

Two days after I was sentenced, we appealed, and I continued to remain in jail because the judge and I couldn’t agree on bail conditions. He said that if my backers put up the bail he would release me to one of the barbed-wire interment camps. And I said, If my backers put up the bail, I should be released out the front door like anybody else. He said, There’s a law that says you’re not allowed out in the streets, so I can’t do that . . .

When the Supreme Court decision in my case came down in June 1943, I expected I would have to serve my sentence . . .

When I came out of prison, the war had just finished, and so I was released to Seattle . . .

After the Supreme Court decided my case in 1943, there was always a continuous hope and interest on my part that the case could be reviewed at some point. Not being a lawyer, I didn’t know exactly what my options were . . .

It wasn’t until Peter Irons called me from Boston in 1981, saying that he had discovered some documents that might present an opportunity under a rarely used legal device to petition for a rehearing, that I felt there was a chance. I said to him, I’ve been waiting for over forty years for this kind of phone call. So he arranged to fly to Edmonton, and eventually we got a legal team organized that filed a petition in the federal court in Seattle to vacate my conviction.

My petition was filed in January 1983 and we had a two-week evidentiary hearing in June 1985. Judge Donald Voorhees, who presided over the case, impressed me as a very fair judge. He was obviously interested in the case and well-informed about the evidence. Naturally, I was delighted that he ruled that my exclusion order conviction had been tainted by government misconduct. But I was disappointed that he upheld the curfew conviction, and we appealed that. The government also appealed on the exclusion order. We had arguments before the appellate judges in March 1987, and they handed down a unanimous opinion in September, upholding Judge Voorhees on the exclusion order and also striking down the curfew conviction. So I finally got the vindication that I had wanted for forty years, although I’m a little disappointed that the Supreme Court didn’t have a chance to overrule the decision they made in 1943.

When my case was before the Supreme Court in 1943, I fully expected that as a citizen the Constitution would protect me. Surprisingly, even though I lost, I did not abandon my beliefs and values. And I never look at my case as just my own, or just as a Japanese American case. It is an American case, with principles that affect the fundamental human rights of all Americans.