A Raw Deal (Part 1) – Japanese American Internment Camps (5/20/2022)

How would you like to own a thriving farm, have a crop soon to be harvested but the government comes in, forces you to leave the farm and puts you on a train to a distant location and then puts you in a fenced compound with guard towers! No, I am not describing Nazi Germany. I am describing what happened in the United States in 1942 to people who had last names like Tanamura, Yamaguchi, and Tanaka. Over 120,000 Japanese Americans were relocated to internment camps during World War II Many were farmers, gardeners, or owned agricultural businesses. They got a raw deal.

Figure 1. A U.S. Internment Camp for Japanese Americans. The prisoners  evacuees are looking for friends and relatives on the arriving train. Source: History.com

 Executive Order 9066

On February 19, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order No 9066. This order called for the forced removal of resident “enemy aliens” from the West Coast. Japanese people were considered to be “enemy aliens” even though two-thirds were American citizens. The order prohibited the Japanese Americans from living, working, or traveling on the west coast. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor there was fear that the Japanese living in America were spies or could perform acts of sabotage, especially on the west coast in Washington, Oregon, and California. [Curator’s Note: There was not a single documented act of espionage or sabotage committed by an American citizen of Japanese ancestry or by a resident alien on the West Coast during World War II.)

Japanese people, regardless of citizenship status or the length of time they had lived in America, were rounded up and placed in prison camps (even though they were called internment centers, they were basically prison camps). Anyone with 1/16th or more Japanese lineage was required to be relocated. Approximately 15,000 Japanese Americans voluntarily complied and moved to the assigned locations. In March of 1942 the Army began forcibly removing people, giving them just six days’ notice. People being relocated could take only what they could carry with them. See the poster displayed in areas inhabited by Japanese families at the end of the Footnote notifying them of their removal.

Thought Question: If you owned a farm and knew you were going to be imprisoned in six days for who knows how long, what would you do regarding your farm? More later.

The first stop for Japanese Americans who were displaced were to “assembly centers.”. There were 17 assembly center sites typically located at fair grounds or race tracks along the West Coast. When a critical mass of evacuees was assembled, they were shipped to “relocation centers” (a kinder term than internment camps).

Figure 2. Japanese families loading on trains for the internment camps. Image from the National Archives.

The Internment Camps

A federal agency, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) was created to implement Executive Order 9066. This agency was to work with the War Department to develop policies and procedures for the relocation. One of the first tasks was to select sites for the permanent internment camps. The War Department wanted the camps to be a safe distance from “strategic locations” such as power lines and water reservoirs. The WRA had plans to create large-scale agricultural operations at each center. Thus, the camps could rely on the farming expertise of the Japanese and help the centers to become more self-sustaining. Many of the WRA officials had previously been working in the United States Department of Agriculture.

After considering 300 proposed sites and negotiating with state and local government officials, ten sites were selected. In general the internment camps were inland, at remote locations, were desolate, and often had poor soil (more next week). The camps were surrounded by barbed wire and were guarded by military police. There were ten major internment camps operated by the WRA (See Figure 3).

Figure 3. Location and capacity of WRA Internment Camps. Source: Personal Justice DeniedChapter 6 The Relocation Centers, p. 157.

Figure 4 Map of WRA Internment Centers. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

There were other smaller internment camps across the county operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

What was life like in the Internment Camps? People were housed in tar-papered barrack rooms no more than 20 by 24 feet. Each room housed a family, regardless of family size. Construction was shoddy. Privacy was impossible and furnishings were sparse. Eating and bathing were in mass facilities. Mass living prevented normal family communication and activities. Heads of families, no longer provided food and shelter, found their authority to lead and to discipline diminished (Personal Justice Denied, p. 11).

Figure 5. The Internment Camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

The Real Problem

Even though the stated rationale for the forced removal of the Japanese was in the pretext of winning the war, prejudice was a major undercurrent leading to the relocation effort. There was a long history of racism on the West Coast. The success and hard work of the Japanese was a source of jealousy. Many of the Japanese were successful farmers.

In 1980 Congress created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. The Commission held 20 days of hearings and received testimony from 750 individuals with knowledge of the internment. The Commission was charged with examining the facts and circumstances regarding the Interment. The following comes from the Commission’s Report Personal Justice Denied (p. 4):

Antipathy and hostility toward the ethnic Japanese was a major factor of the public life of the west coast states for more than forty years before Pearl Harbor. Under pressure from California, immigration from Japan had been severely restricted in 1908 and entirely prohibited in 1924. Japanese immigrants were barred from American citizenship, although their children born here were citizens by birth. California and the other western states prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning land. In part the hostility was economic, emerging in various white American groups who began to feel competition, particularly in agriculture, the principal occupation of the immigrants. The anti-Japanese agitation also fed on racial stereotypes and fears: the “yellow peril” of an unknown Asian culture achieving substantial influence on the Pacific coast or of a Japanese population alleged to be growing far faster than the white population. This agitation and hostility persisted, even though the ethnic Japanese never exceeded three percent of the population of California, the state of greatest concentration.

The ethnic Japanese, small in number and with no political voice …had become a convenient target for political demagogues, and over the years all the major parties indulged in anti-Japanese rhetoric and programs. Political bullying was supported by organized interest groups who adopted anti-Japanese agitation as a consistent part of their program: the Native sons and Daughters of the Golden West, the Joint Immigration Committee, the American Legion, the California State Federation of Labor and the California State Grange.

Krebs wrote in The Washington Post in 1992:

Only hours after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7. 1941, Austin E. Anson, managing secretary of California’s powerful Salinas Valley Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, was dispatched to Washington to urge federal authorities to remove all individuals of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. In an interview for the May 1942 Saturday Evening Post, Anson told how he drew a frightful scenario for the War and Navy departments, the attorney general and every congressman he could get to listen to him: an invading army coming ashore in Monterey Bay and advancing into the Salinas Valley while Japanese residents blew up bridges, disrupting traffic and sabotaging local defenses.

In the same 1942 Saturday Evening Post article Anson admits to the Post writer (Taylor, 1942): “We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work and they stayed to take over… we don’t want them back when the war ends, either.”

Figure 6. A Picture Speaks Louder than Words, Source: Discover Nikkei

The Japanese Agriculturists

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (a ten year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to the United States, when it expired the Geary Act extended it for 10 more years ) left a serious labor shortage in California. To fill this void, young unmarried Japanese men came to California. The types of jobs they filled were basically farm labor. Farming was a respected occupation in Japan and compared to other types of work, paid well.

Before World War II nearly two-thirds of West Coast Japanese Americans worked in agriculture (Personal Justice Denied, p, 122). In Los Angeles County in 1910 nearly 80% of the strawberry farmers were Japanese Americans. The Central California Berry Growers Association, which was founded in 1917, had bylaws requiring half of the board of directors to be Japanese American. Japanese American farmers on the pre-war West Coast produced 40% of California’s commercial vegetable crops.

At the start of World War II Japanese American farmers raised at least half of California’s artichokes, snap beans, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, garlic and many types of onions, as well as at least a quarter of asparagus, lima beans, cabbage, cantaloupe, carrots, and lettuce, according to a USDA report. They also dominated in strawberries, apples, peaches, and sugar beets (Guilford, 2018).

A June 1942 federal report Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast 1942 noted that “the Japanese people were the most important racial minority group engaged in agriculture in the Pacific Coast region. Their systems of farming, types of crops and land tenure conditions were such that their replacement by other farmers would be extremely difficult…”

Karl Lillquist, a professor at Central Washington University, published an article in Agricultural History in 2010 that described the involvement of Japanese Americans in agriculture (2010, pp, 75-76):

Japanese Americans have a long tradition of involvement in western US agriculture. Individuals of Japanese descent began to immigrate in significant numbers to North America’s West Coast in the late nineteenth century. Most of the first generation Japanese or Issei settled in California, Washington, and Oregon where they toiled in the fishing, timber, and agricultural industries. Within agriculture, they began as workers in the labor-intensive vegetable and fruit crops. The Issei were well suited for this handwork because their traditional culture embodied both respect for the soil and hard work. Many also came from rural agricultural settings in Japan, bearing strong similarities to American truck gardening and sugar beet work. By 1910 intensive agriculture in the West, especially sugar beet cultivation, employed more than thirty-six thousand Japanese Americans. Over time, Issei progressed to lease, act as share-tenants, and eventually own their own farms, all while introducing new crops and farming practices.

As Japanese-American populations controlled more agricultural land, their successes fueled anti- Asian sentiment that had existed since the influx of Chinese laborers in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1913 California passed the first alien land law forbidding those ineligible for US citizenship from owning land or engaging in leases longer than three years. Other western states soon followed suit. However, second generation Japanese Americans or Nisei, as US citizens, were not impacted by these laws thus allowing Japanese Americans to continue to purchase land.

What’s Next? A Preview

Now we know more about the Japanese American Internment Camps and their occupants. This Footnote was designed to provide the foundation knowledge for the next several Friday Footnotes. Next week in Part 2 we will examine the agricultural operations at the Internment Centers. Some questions to think about for next week’s Footnote are:

  1. Did the Japanese-American evacuees have a say in the agricultural operations at the Centers?
  2. Did the Japanese-American evacuees introduce new crops to the communities in which they were located?
  3. Was agriculture taught at the schools at the Centers? If so, did they have FFA chapters or 4-H clubs?
  4. Were state vocational education agencies or the Cooperative Extension Service involved in educational programming at the Internment Centers?

So stay tuned for Part 2.

In Part 3 we will examine the thought question raised in this Footnote and explore what the Japanese American farmers found when they were released from the internment camps.

In case you are wondering about the timing and significance of this Footnote, one week ago there were two underlying reasons for the Footnote. Now there are three.

Reason 1 – May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. So, it is appropriate to publish Footnotes recognizing this fact.

Reason 2 – The Friday Footnotes are designed to focus on the history of agricultural education and rural America. Agricultural practices and agricultural education in the World War II internment centers certainly aligns with this mission.

Reason 3 – The recent mass shooting in Buffalo, NY brings thinking about racial prejudice to the forefront. But as this Footnote and the following ones will show, racial prejudice is an on-going issue that needs attention. It is not something new.


Guilford, Gwynn (February 13, 2018). The Dangerous Economics of Racial Resentment During World War II. Quartz.

Krebs, A. V. (February 2, 1992). Bitter Harvest. Washington Post.

Lillquist, Karl (Winter, 2010). Farming the Desert: Agriculture in the World War II-Era Japanese-American Relocation Centers. Agricultural History, Vol. 84, No. 1.

National Archives. Personal Justice Denied. (1982). https://www.archives.gov/research/japanese-americans/justice-denied

Taylor, Frank (May 9, 1942). The People Nobody Wants: The Plight of Japanese Americans in 1942. Saturday Evening Post.

Figure 7. The Relocation Notice. Photo: National Archives.