How do you prove you are loyal?: Japanese Americans and WWII


How do you prove you are loyal?: Japanese Americans and WWII delves into the complex history of Japanese Americans during World War II, following the issuance of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This order led to the forced relocation and internment of approximately 122,000 Japanese Americans, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens, under the guise of military necessity. The resources below explore the impact of this policy, the challenges to civil liberties, and the paradox of loyalty faced by those who were both incarcerated and yet called upon to serve in the U.S. armed forces, with 30,000 Japanese Americans eventually serving. It examines the broader historical context of immigrant loyalty in America and scrutinizes the government’s methods of assessing loyalty, including a controversial loyalty oath. The narrative is supported by personal accounts, historical documents, and multimedia resources, providing a multifaceted perspective on this dark chapter in American history.

Executive Order 9066

On February 19, 1942, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which authorized the government to evacuate all persons deemed a military threat from the West Coast of the United States, including Arizona and relocate them into concentration camps further inland. While the order was primarily applied to people of Japanese descent, it was also used to force the evacuation of smaller numbers of people whose families came to the U.S. from Italy of Germany.

The video about is Kodachrome footage from a 1944 Japanese American concentration camp from Timeline on Vimeo. The footage is narrated by Saburo Masada, who spent two years in the camp starting in 1942.

Executive Order 9066 came two and a half months after the Japanese Military attacked the US base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7. The authors of the Our Documents website describe what happened next:

After encouraging voluntary evacuation of the areas, the Western Defense Command began involuntary removal and detention of West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry. In the next 6 months, approximately 122,000 men, women, and children were moved to assembly centers. They were then evacuated to and confined in isolated, fenced, and guarded relocation centers, known as internment camps. The 10 relocation sites were in remote areas in 6 western states and Arkansas: Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Tule Lake and Manzanar in California, Topaz in Utah, Poston and Gila River in Arizona, Granada in Colorado, Minidoka in Idaho, and Jerome and Rowher in Arkansas.

Nearly 70,000 of the evacuees were American citizens. The government made no charges against them, nor could they appeal their incarceration. All lost personal liberties; most lost homes and property as well. Although several Japanese Americans challenged the government’s actions in court cases, the Supreme Court upheld their legality

Despite the policy of incarceration, many children of Japanese immigrants who were born in the U.S. were encouraged to enlist in the U.S. military. Some were even drafted. By the end of the war, 30,000 Japanese Americans had served in the U.S. armed forces. 

Questioning Loyalty

Underlying Executive Order 9066 were questions of loyalty. Why did government leaders believe Japanese in the United States could not be trusted? Why did many Americans support that decision? And, what could Japanese Americans do to prove their loyal

Questioning the loyalty of immigrants, and newcomers did not begin with WWII. History is filled with episodes in which newcomers, or people who were perceived as different, are asked to prove their loyalty. For example, after the French revolution, Napoleon gathered Jewish leaders in France and directly asked them whether they would be loyal to France of Jews living in other countries if a war were to break out.

The website for the Smithsonian Exhibition A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the US Constitution explains that one way the government decided to test the loyalty of Japanese Americans was by designing a loyalty oath:

In 1943, every resident in the internment camps was required to complete one of two questionnaires misleadingly entitled “Application for Leave Clearance” to distinguish whether they were “loyal” or “disloyal”…

The first form was aimed at draft-age Nisei males [the American born children of Japanese immigrants], the second at all other residents. Many feared that even satisfactory completion of this second form might jeopardize them. If they were accepted as loyal, they might be forced to leave camp. Forbidden by law to return to their homes in the West Coast military zones, and with little or no money and virtually no hope of finding work, many internees chose to remain in camp.

On both forms, Question 27 asked if an individual would be willing to serve as a combat soldier, nurse, or in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. This test of loyalty was by no means objective. For internees, military service would mean leaving parents and family behind in the harsh conditions of the camps. Japanese men had also been told they would serve in a segregated combat unit, a prospect many found distasteful. Finally, when the draft came to camp, many believed they should resist the draft as long as their constitutional rights were being violated.

…Question 28 was even more complex: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States… and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?”

Members of the 442 in Europe

Below are two examples of the questionnaire:

Unfounded Fears

Despite fears about Japanese American loyalty, historians working for the National Park Service note:

According to one author, the only act of “sabotage” by a Japanese American was a product of the relocation process. When told to leave his home and go to an assembly center, one farmer asked for an extension to harvest his strawberry crop. His request was denied, so he plowed under the strawberry field. He was then arrested for sabotage, on the grounds that strawberries were a necessary commodity for the war effort. No one was allowed to delay evacuation in order to harvest their crops and subsequently, Californians were faced with shortages of fruits and vegetables. Japanese Americans grew 95 percent of the state’s strawberries and one-third of the state’s truck crops.

Even though the justification for the evacuation was to thwart espionage and sabotage, newborn babies, young children, the elderly, the infirm, children from orphanages, and even children adopted by Caucasian parents were not exempt from removal. Anyone with 1/16th or more Japanese blood was included.* In all, over 17,000 children under 10 years old, 2,000 persons over 65 years old, and 1,000 [disabled] or infirm persons were evacuated.

Resource links

Below are resources you might use to provide additional context or to extend the ideas in this collection:

*The language describing Japanese blood in this excerpt describes thinking during the period of internment. Scientists are clear that different nationalities and ethnic groups do not have different blood. In fact, the consensus is that racial categories do not explain meaningful differences between human beings. Race, however, has social consequences due to human attitudes and prejudice.

Teaching Suggestions

Discussing Loyalty

  • To start you might want to frame the discussion with an open-ended or essential question about loyalty. For example, Who is asked to prove their loyalty and why? One way to begin the discussion is to use the think-pair-share strategy.
  • Keep the discussion moving in a large group by asking, “Under what conditions are people asked to prove their loyalty?” This discussion can transition into an opportunity to build the context for teaching about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Consider sharing the first episode of the executive order 9066 series to build context and engagement.
  • Introduce the 1942 photograph of the Wanto Grocery Story from Oakland, California. Photograph shows the Wanto Co. store located at 401 – 403 Eighth and Franklin Streets in Oakland, California. The business was owned by the Matsuda family. Tatsuro Matsuda, a University of California graduate, commissioned and installed the “I am an American” sign on December 8, 1941, the day after the Pearl Harbor attacked by the Japanese military.

The photograph shows the Wanto Co. store located at 401 – 403 Eighth and Franklin Streets in Oakland, California. The business was owned by the Matsuda family. Tatsuro Matsuda, a University of California graduate, commissioned and installed the “I am an American” sign.

  • Why do you think the grocer felt compelled to commission the sign?
  • The description notes that the sign went up on December 8, just after the Pearl Harbor attack. What message was the grocer trying to send?
  • Who do you think was his intended audience?

Use Primary Sources.

Introduce Executive Order 9066 and the instructions for the incarceration of Japanese Americans.

  • Executive Order 9066 from Our Documents
  • Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry
  • Ask students to underline words or phrases that the government uses to explain the decision to intern Japanese Americans. Compare the explanations in the two documents. Who is the intended audience for each document?  How are they different?
  • Consider that the instructions poster was placed in public and written in English. How do those choices impact your understanding of the audience? Imagine you stumbled upon the poster, what factors might influence how you responded to it?

The owner of the store pictured in the above photograph, a University of California graduate, was forced to leave his home alongside approximately 122 thousand Japanese American children, women, and men who would be incarcerated in concentration camps during the war and the store was closed. (See the map above for locations)

Life in the Internment Camps

To help students get a sense of what life was like for incarcerated Japanese Americans, consider screening the video we embedded in this page. The narrator, Saburo Masada, describes his childhood in a concentration camp for Japanese Americans. You might also consider streaming additional episodes of the Executive Order 9066 podcast.

Proving Loyalty

After the film, introduce the two versions of the loyalty questionnaire and use your favorite protocol for examining primary sources to your students.

After reading the questionnaires, discuss what the questions tell suggest about the ways that government officials were assessing loyalty? What could a Japanese American do to prove that they were loyal? What dilemmas might they face as they sought to prove their loyalty?

One choice was to join the military. While that choice was not open to everyone in the camps, over 30,000 Japanese American men and women did enlist. The most famous Japanese American regiment was the 442. Ask students to consider the choice eligible Japanese American faced with regard to joining the military.

  • Was it a real choice?
  • What options did they have?
  • What were the benefits of joining the military?
  • What were the downsides?

You can introduce students to the story of Japanese American WWII veterans on this page for Ken Burn’s documentary series The War.

Based on what students have learned, ask them to consider why many more Japanese Americans were incarcerated than Italian Americans or  German Americans. How do they explain the differences in treatment? Follow up with a broader reflection, once a group is perceived as disloyal, what needs to happen for those stereotypes to be broken down? Consider a few additional questions to consider as you close :

  • Ask students to think about which groups are asked to prove their loyalty today and why?
  • What are the dangers when entire groups of people are perceived as disloyal?
  • And, whose responsibility is it to counter those negative perceptions?

Civil Liberties in Times of War

Japanese internment was justified as a military necessity to keep the country safe. Discuss why people, including the Supreme Court in Korematsu v. the United States, might have been willing to set aside civil liberties during wartime?

In a controversial decision announced in June 2018, the US Supreme Court ruled that the President had the right to impose a travel ban restricting people from several Muslim majority countries, alongside resides from a few other non-Muslim majority nations including North Korea and Venezuela, from traveling to the United States. While some argued that the President Trump’s campaign rhetoric was evidence that the intent of the ban was to discriminate, in a 5-4 decision, the majority ruled that the President has the authority to make national security judgments in the realm of immigration. Despite ruling in the President’s favor, the court’s decision also struck down the 1944  Korematsu v. the United States decision. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote:

“The forcible relocation of U.S. citizens to concentration camps, solely and explicitly on the basis of race, is objectively unlawful and outside the scope of presidential authority,” he wrote. Citing language used by then-Justice Robert H. Jackson in a dissent to the 1944 ruling, Chief Justice Roberts added, “Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and — to be clear — ‘has no place in law under the Constitution.’”

Research both decisions.

Why do you think the courts connected the two cases in their ruling? In what ways are the cases similar? What differences do you see? How do you explain the court’s decision to uphold the travel ban while condemning the Korematsu ruling? Why might some people argue that the rulings are inconsistent? What do you think? What evidence do you have to support your position?

Extensions: How can the government atone for an injustice? Does the government have a responsibility to demonstrate its loyalty to those they have wronged? Have students research the apology issued to Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during WWII and watch President Reagan’s address before signing H.R. 442. You will find links to both resources above. After students research the apology, have them develop their own list of questions that are raised by the apology. To learn strategies for facilitating this exercise, explore resources from the Right Question Institute.