Racism Against Japanese American Citizens

May marks the 66th anniversary of the eradication of Portland, Oregon’s thriving Japantown business district when the area’s entire population of Japanese and Japanese Americans was forced into a makeshift WWII internment camp.   Today, Japanese American businessman Sho Dozono is a major player in the city’s mayoral campaign (the primary is May 20), and with Dozono’s political campaign,  “an incredible local cycle of racism, exile, and endurance has finally come full circle,” writes Lawrence Maushard for Portland Indie Media.  Although Dozono himself was not in the camps, over 110,000 Japanese American citizens were.    

In February, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order  9066, gave the military broad powers to ban any citizen from a fifty to sixty-mile wide coastal area that extended from California north to Washington State and inland into Arizona.  Although the internment of Japanese Americans is often portrayed as “war-time hysteria,” Maushard it actually followed a consistent pattern of systemic racism against Asian Americans.  Maushard interviewed Executive Director June Arima Schumann of the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center in Portland, and she put it this way:

“Well, if you look at the history of intolerance in this country, including Oregon, Pearl Harbor simply acted as an excuse to take action against Japanese to remove them from our community, because of this whole chain of activities that had been hostile towards Chinese, and later Japanese.”

Once the internment began operations it was closely followed by —  and supported by the newspapers of the day.  Evacuation and detention notices were then posted in public places such as store walls and telephone poles, as well as constant articles and commentary in the major newspapers.  The local paper, The Oregonian, ran almost daily updates on evacuation information, instructions, and photos (like the one here, from The Oregonian, 1942).

Of course, when Executive Order 9066 was first issued and the process started most Japanese Americans thought they would be safe because they were citizens.  One woman, Harue “Mae” Ninomiya now 89, detained with her family, recalled:

“My brother and I, we thought we would be able to stay home and run the (family grocery) store because we were citizens. I didn’t think they would take citizens away.  I knew that my mother and father beings aliens would be [put in camps], but it was really a shock to hear that we all had to go.”

And, it is shocking…especially given the deplorable conditions in the camps.    Again quoting Executive Director Schumann about the conditions in Maushard’s piece:

“What they did was take away the partitions of the animal stalls, swept away the manure on the dirt floor, laid rolls of 2x4s, and then put 1×10 or 12×10 boards across to make the floor. So people lived on top of what used to be where the manure was…”

This is remains a seldom acknowledged part of American history.  Most of the time when I teach about this in my college classes, fewer than 5% of students have ever even heard about the internment camps, and almost none of them has any depth of knowledge about racism against Japanese Americans.


  1. Seattle in Texas

    To the people in the East, don’t feel bad about a lack of knowledge on this, or the lack of likely knowledge of Chinese slavery and lynchings either during the late 20th century. It’s not discussed or taught on the Westcoast either ( “we are beyond all that stuff now” *cough*–I guess our excuse???) And also in line with the interviews above, it would be interesting to interview folks from all backgrounds who lived during that time back on the Westcoast. The stories are interesting–though I have only heard few firsthand and only fairly recently because only recently have questions on this topic began to emerge. Most of the memories during those times are related to the safety drills the schools had to help prepare the students for attacks. But I just recently learned from somebody I have known for a couple of decades that during those years she lived near Coos Bay, Oregon. At night she and her husband, as well as all who lived along the West Coast were ordered by the government to keep their lights off in fear of attacks–they had to keep their windows heavily covered and use candles for light at night. Also, only fairly recently did I learn that the U.S. government had seized all the property owned by Japanese communities during this time and never returned it, or re-paid them for their property and everything virtually stolen, including their dignity…the way of the West…as other communities well know…. And, as some people know back in Washington State, there is most certainly racism alive and well against Japanese American citizens (as well as others) in all institutional settings….

  2. Seattle in Texas

    I guess I just wanted to quickly add that the whole Pearl Harbor event and time era seems to have been something that shook up the entire West Coast severely for a long time. One of my grandfathers was in the Navy and in Pearl Harbor during the time of the attacks. But it was something even he never talked about. He had his tattoos and other things that brought him memories. So there are still yet other perspectives that will never be revealed. But the U.S. Government has the dominant and most authoritative perspective that is shown on the History Channel on some occasions and in some books. Yet so much is untold from a variety of standpoints, and particularly from I will go on further to include both the Chinese and Japanese communities in general who lived back then on the West Coast….

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