‘Alien Enemies’: How Pearl Harbor Changed the Lives of Japanese-Americans | History Hit

‘Alien Enemies’: How Pearl Harbor Changed the Lives of Japanese-Americans

Lily Johnson

10 Oct 2022
Japanese Americans in front of posters with internment orders.
Image Credit: Dorothea Lange / Public Domain

On 7 December 1941, the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was attacked by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service. The attack shook America to its core. In a speech to the nation the following day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared: “There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.”

But while the USA prepared for war on the Pacific front, another war began at home. People of Japanese ancestry living in the US were declared ‘alien enemies’, despite the majority being American citizens. A programme to forcibly transport Japanese-American communities to internment camps then began on 19 February 1942, irrevocably changing the lives of thousands.

Japanese immigration to the US

Japanese immigration into the United States began in 1868 following the Meiji Restoration, which suddenly reopened Japan’s economy to the world after years of isolationist policies. Seeking work, around 380,000 Japanese citizens arrived in the United States between 1868 and 1924, with 200,000 of these moving to the sugar plantations of Hawaii. Most that moved to the mainland settled on the West coast.

As America’s Japanese population grew, so did community tensions. In 1905 in California, a Japanese and Korean Exclusion League was started to campaign against immigration from the two nations.

In 1907, Japan and the US reached an informal ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’, in which the US promised to no longer segregate Japanese children in Californian schools. In return, Japan promised not to continue issuing passports for Japanese citizens heading to the US (strongly reducing Japanese immigration to America).

Parallel to this, the early 20th century saw a wave of southern and eastern European immigrants arrive in the US. In response, America passed the Immigration Act of 1924. The bill sought to reduce the number of southern and eastern Europeans moving to America and, despite the opposition of Japanese officials, it also officially prohibited Japanese immigrants from entering the US.

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By the 1920s, 3 distinct generational groups of Japanese-Americans had emerged. Firstly, Issei, first-generation immigrants born in Japan who were ineligible for US citizenship. Secondly, Nisei, second-generation Japanese-Americans born in America with US citizenship. And thirdly Sansei, the third-generation children of Nisei who were also born in America and held citizenship there.

A Japanese-American unfurled this banner in Oakland, California the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. This Dorothea Lange photograph was taken in March 1942, just prior to the man’s internment.

Image Credit: Dorothea Lange / Public Domain

By 1941 thousands of US citizens of Japanese descent viewed themselves as American, and many were horrified by the news of the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor.

The attack on Pearl Harbor

Prior to the attack, tensions between Japan and America had been mounting, with both countries vying for influence over the Pacific. Seeking to wipe out America’s Pacific Fleet in a series of short, sharp attacks, at 7:55 am on 7 December hundreds of Japanese aircraft launched their deadly assault on the US naval base at Oahu Island in Hawaii.

Over 2,400 Americans were killed, with a further 1,178 injured, 5 battleships sunk, 16 more damaged and 188 aircraft destroyed. In contrast, under 100 Japanese were killed.

This offensive effectively declared war on the United States, and the following day President Roosevelt signed his own declaration of war against Japan. By 11 December, Germany and Italy had also declared war on the US, sealing their entry into World War Two.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill telephoned Roosevelt from Chequers, informing him: “We are all in the same boat now.”

The Niihau incident

In the hours following the attack on Pearl Harbor, an incident on the nearby island of Niihau was unfolding that would have damaging repercussions. While planning the offensive, the Japanese had dedicated the island to serve as a rescue point for aircraft too damaged to return to their carriers.

Just 30 minutes flying time from Pearl Harbor, this island indeed became of use when Petty Officer Shigenori Nishikaichi landed there after his plane was damaged in the attack. Upon landing, Nishikaichi was helped from the wreckage by one of the native Hawaiians, who took his pistol, maps, codes and other documents as a precaution, though was completely unaware of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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In an attempt to recover these items, Nishikaichi enlisted the support of three Japanese-Americans living on Niihau, who seemingly obliged with little protest. Though Nishikaichi was killed in the ensuing struggles, the actions of his Japanese-Americans conspirators stuck in the minds of many, and were referenced in an official Navy report dated January 26, 1942. Its author, Navy Lieutenant C. B. Baldwin, wrote:

“The fact that the two Niihau Japanese who had previously shown no anti-American tendencies went to the aid of the pilot when Japanese domination of the island seemed possible, indicate[s] [the] likelihood that Japanese residents previously believed loyal to the United States may aid Japan if further Japanese attacks appear successful.”

For an increasingly paranoid US, the Niihau incident only furthered the idea that anyone of Japanese descent in America was not to be trusted.

The American response

On 14 January 1942, Roosevelt’s Presidential Proclamation 2537 declared that all ‘alien enemies’ of the US carry a certificate of identification at all times. Namely those of Japanese, German and Italian ancestry, they were not allowed to enter restricted areas on pain of imprisonment.

By February, the move towards transportation to internment camps was ratified by Executive Order 9066, with particularly racist undertones directed at Japanese-American people. Leader of the Western Defense Command Lt. General John L. DeWitt declared to Congress:

“I don’t want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty… It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty… But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.”

Despite the majority actually holding citizenship in America, anyone with even the faintest Japanese heritage was at risk of relocation to concentration camps inland, with California asserting that anyone holding 1/16th or more Japanese ancestry was eligible.

Colonel Karl Bendetsen, the architect of the program, went so far as to say that anyone with “one drop of Japanese blood…must go to camp.” These measures far surpassed any taken towards Italians or Germans, who were almost all non-citizens.

The baggage of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, at a makeshift reception centre located at a racetrack.

Image Credit: Public domain


During World War Two, about 120,000 people of Japanese descent were forcibly relocated and interned in concentration camps in the US. Given 6 days to dispose of their possessions and sell their property, they were boarded on trains and sent to 1 of 10 concentration camps in California, Oregon or Washington.

Surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, and usually situated in isolated locations where weather conditions were harsh, life could be bleak at the camps, which were poorly built and not suited to long-term occupation. 

Throughout the entire war and beyond, internees remained inside these makeshift camps, forging a sense of community through establishing schools, newspapers and sports teams.

The phrase shikata ga nai, loosely translated as ‘it cannot be helped’, became synonymous with the time spent by Japanese-American families in the camps.

Dust storm at the Manzanar War Relocation Center.

Image Credit: National Archives at College Park / Public Domain

The aftermath

Once the war was over, only 35% of Americans believed people of Japanese descent should be released from the camps.

As such, the camps stayed open for a further 3 years. On 17 December 1944 Japanese evacuees were at last given a ticket and a mere $25 to return home. When they did, many found their properties looted and work almost impossible to come by, with no assistance offered by the government.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that US President Jimmy Carter opened an investigation into whether the camps were justified, and in 1988 Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, officially apologising for US conduct towards their Japanese-American citizens.

This legislation admitted that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership”, and promised to give $20,000 to each former internee still alive. By 1992, they had disbursed more than $1.6 billion in reparations to 82,219 Japanese-Americans once interred inside the camps, who today continue to speak out about their experiences.

Japanese-American actor and former internee George Takei is a particular spokesperson for the injustices he suffered, once stating:

“I spent my boyhood behind the barbed wire fences of American internment camps and that part of my life is something that I wanted to share with more people.”

Lily Johnson