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The USA is hailed to be the “Land of the Free,” which makes it an attractive country for many people running from oppressive regimes and economic inequality. The rights of its citizens are guarded by the Constitution, with ten Amendments outlining the most crucial of civil rights. These rights are considered to be the basis of the American state and are ingrained in its culture. However, as history shows, these rights are not considered absolute and can be repealed whenever the situation calls for drastic measures.
The story of American-Japanese internment is one of many dark pages in American history, which serves as a cautionary tale for all non-white Americans and any other ethnic or religious minorities present in the country. It was a tremendous act of violation of many Amendments, such as the right of freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, search and seizure, prosecution, fair trial, cruel punishment, and others.
Japanese-Americans and Japanese aliens were effectively reduced to the position of prisoners of war despite having committed no crime. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the internment of Japanese-Americans in Idaho as well as events that happened prior in order to understand how such a violation of civil rights came to pass without being opposed by the general population.
Attitudes Towards Japanese-Americans in Idaho Before the War
In the first half of the 20th century, the US exhibited numerous racist tendencies towards any non-white American or non-European American minorities. The major targets for domestic and institutional racism were African-Americans, who were considered second-class citizens; Latin-Americans, who were stereotyped and ostracized based on racist stereotypes promoted in the media; Indian-Americans, who were forced to live in reservations; and Asian-Americans.
According to Sims (1986), the reasons for racism and hate towards Japanese-Americans in Idaho differed from hate towards other minorities. Indians, Mexicans, Blacks, and Chinese, in public opinion, were associated with unemployment, violent crime, and the drug trade (heroin, marijuana, and opium). Japanese-Americans, on the other hand, were viewed as overly industrious. Predisposed towards hard labor and promoting collectivist businesses and communities over individualistic ones like the majority of American farms, they were perceived as a threat by the local working and business folk. This led to the adoption of unconstitutional laws in various states.
An example of such a law is the Californian Law of 1913 which prohibited individuals ineligible for citizenship from owning agricultural enterprises. In Idaho, similar legislation was passed in 1923 (Sims 1986). The reasoning for passing such a law was to suppress the rights and liberties of those who, while living in the country and enjoying its liberties and freedoms, refused to become subject to “Americanism,” as vague as the formulation of the term was (Sims 1986). Thus, it is possible to identify several traits that determined the attitude towards Japanese-Americans in Idaho:
- Jealousy and inability to compete fairly;
- Economic reasons.
Internment of Japanese-Americans
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, attitudes towards Japanese-Americans on the mainland changed considerably. The press and the general public painted them as the “enemy race,” which was followed by ostracizing and, sometimes, by violent outbreaks (Sims 1986). In February 1942, President Roosevelt signed the controversial Executive Order 9066, under which all people of Japanese ancestry as well as “enemy aliens” were ought to be deported away from coastal areas, military bases, and strategic objects of industry and relocated deeper into the country. Factually, it was an incarceration order for more than 100,000 Japanese citizens and aliens who were branded traitors without a trial or provocation (Sims 1986). This policy spread across the west coast, claiming all the states in the surrounding periphery.
Attitudes towards Japanese-Americans in Idaho were mixed. While the majority of the population fully supported the internment due to various socio-economic reasons mentioned above, they were apprehensive about the relocation of the prisoners into the state. Many members of the house congress stated that Idaho had no more use of them there than people in the coastal areas did. However, certain businesses, such as plantations, railroad construction companies, and other heavy-labor facilities, sought the Japanese out as the source of cheap labor. In the end, the Japanese were relocated to Minidoka War Relocation Center, which housed over 10,000 Japanese internees (Sims 1986).
Other smaller camps were present as well, one of them being Kooskia Internment Camp. The conditions in camps varied. Minidoka was famous not only for the poor conditions of the barracks where Japanese internees were held but also for various extortions that workers suffered from their employers in the local Idaho industries. Many Japanese-Americans were asked to “prove their loyalty” by working overtime or after their contracts have ended while being underpaid (Sims 1986).
The internees’ children also suffered from institutionalized racism in the education sector that charged parents for permitting their children access to primary education. Instances of violence towards prisoners, while infrequent, were present. The governor of Idaho, fearful of possible sabotage of the Magic Valley’s irrigation system, warned against showing empathy towards prisoners as well (Sims 1986).
The situation in Kooskia was slightly better. This was largely due to the smaller size of the camp (265 people) that permitted for greater personal contact between prisoners and their wards, more liberal governance, and increased the importance of volunteer effort for the construction of the railroad system. Because of this, the rights of Japanese-American internees were not violated as harshly since they were allowed greater freedoms, fairer payments, and better living conditions (Sims 1986).
The attitude towards Japanese-American internees began to change by the beginning of 1943 when the American government realized the need for additional recruits to bolster the war effort. The issue of Minidoka Irrigator (“War Dept’s Action” 1943) shows an advertisement for Nisei leaders to volunteer in the army as means of “proving their loyalty to America.” Over 800 recruits were drafted from Minidoka alone, forming one of many regiments to fight for the USA in the European and Pacific theaters of war.
According to Aiken, Marsh, and Woodworth-Ney (2006), the oppression of minorities in Idaho can be associated with extensive levels of government involvement. The story of Joe Garry and the Indian reservation points out the connection between the poor economic state of the reservations and various federal policies that prevented political and economic self-determination in favor of an extensive government apparatus. These practices were transmitted upon the interned Japanese-Americans when it was required to pass and implement federal laws aimed at their incarceration.
The story of Japanese-American Internment camps reflects several realities that exist in modern-day America. As long as there are extensive administrative apparatus and a racist majority that support pre-emptive action towards minorities that are declared “enemy,” be that Japanese-Americans, German-Americans, Muslims, or anybody else that falls under the description, their civil rights can be easily and relatively safely revoked without causing major protests among the population. It is a cautionary tale against allowing government influence to expand beyond reasons as well as letting the fate of the minorities being decided by the unsympathetic majority.
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Aiken, Katherine, Kevin R. Marsh, and Laura Woodworth-Ney. 2006. Idaho: The Heroic Journey. Boise: Idaho State Historical Society.
Sims, Robert C. 1986. “Japanese Americans in Idaho.” In Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress, edited by Roger Daniels, Sandra C. Taylor, and Harry H. L. Kitano, 103-110. Utah: University of Utah Press.
“War Dept’s Action Hailed by Local Nisei Leaders.” 1943. The Minidoka Irrigator.