Historical background on the Nisei

The Second Generation - The Nisei

By Russ Nakatsu (Kent School 1995-2001)

The Nisei were the second generation of Japanese to call America home. This generation was both Japanese and American in attitude and cultural heritage. Many of the young Nisei worked alongside their parents on family farms, in store front businesses, and in the timber mills while attending the local public school. In order to preserve their language and culture they often attended Japanese language school on Saturdays and watched Japanese cultural plays at the Nipponkai theater.

Not all of the Nisei were raised in the United States. Some of them returned to Japan with their parents or were sent back to Japan to live with their relatives. Raised and educated in Japan, this group of Japanese Americans are closer in attitude and cultural heritage to native Japanese than their Nisei counterparts. This group is referred to as the Kibei.

The discrimination which the Issei [First Generation] faced was also blatant against the Nisei. It was difficult for many Nisei to accept being treated as less than equal when they were American citizens by birth. The Nisei formed organizations after World War I to assert their citizenship rights and to address the rights of both Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants. In San Francisco they formed the The American Loyalty League and in Seattle the Progressive Citizen's League. In 1939, the Nisei, who by now comprised about half of the Japanese living in America, founded the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) by merging the two earlier organizations. Its goals were to combat racism and to promote Americanism. The JACL was too young and poorly organized to achieve much success in improving the social and economic stature of the Nisei before the war, but it did provide an association separate from the Issei.

On December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor found the Nisei and their parents in a difficult situation. Fear of an attack by Japanese naval forces on the West Coast and resentment against them in California led some people to clamor for people of Japanese ancestry to be removed. Although Japanese American leaders had denounced the attack on Pearl Harbor and some civilian and military leaders voiced their support towards the Japanese Americans, political pressure from California congressmen, the media and the public to remove the Japanese from the West Coast was growing stronger.

Lieutenant General John DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Command (WDC), a proponent of removing the Nikkei designated the western half of Washington, Oregon, California as well as the southern half of Arizona as Military Area Number One. People of Japanese ancestry were encouraged to "voluntarily" move out of this area. The voluntary evacuation failed for several reasons. Women and children unaccustomed to handling monetary transactions were ill equipped to settle family financial affairs. Voluntary evacuation came at a bad time for farmers, too. Evacuation orders came when harvest was not far off, and most would face financial ruin if their crops were left unattended. In addition to these economic considerations, the ethnic Japanese were unsure of the reception they would receive in new areas. The voluntary evacuation failed. DeWitt then decided on February 13, 1942 to recommend to the War Department and to President Roosevelt of the necessity to remove people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast on the grounds of "military necessity".

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This decree gave the military the authority to exclude people from designated areas to prevent sabotage and espionage, but President Roosevelt knew that it would be used to remove people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. The army and the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA), the civilian branch of the Western Defense Command headed by Milton Eisenhower, brother of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, began the process of notifying and rounding up all persons of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast into sixteen assembly centers for processing and placement into ten internment camps.

The Nisei were outraged at the evacuation order, but the JACL encouraged its members to obey the evacuation order peacefully. Judged guilty by reason of race in the media, the American born Nisei, along with the Issei and Japanese aliens, were gathered into the assembly centers before being relocated to one of the ten internment camps. Locally in Washington State, the Puyallup Fair grounds, dubbed Camp Harmony was converted into a processing center by the military. About 13,400 persons of Japanese ancestry were evacuated from Washington State. In Portland, Oregon, the Pacific International Livestock Exposition Pavilion was used as an assembly center while in California, the Santa Anita racetrack was utilized as the assembly center.

Some of the Japanese Americans were able to get sympathetic neighbors and friends to take care of their homes, farms and businesses. Many of the Nisei and Issei lost a lifetime of hard work as they quickly sold their homes, farms, businesses and possessions. They were allowed to take one trunk full of clothes and possessions, but certain personal items such as radios and cameras were forbidden.

The government built the ten relocation camps in remote areas of Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah. These internment camps were located away from West Coast cities in desolate locations like Minidoka, Idaho and Tule Lake, California. Quickly constructed with crudely built barracks, barbed wire fences and armed guards the internment camps appeared more like prisoner of war camps. Over 120,000 people were moved into the camps. An interesting sidebar to this incident is that many Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not forced to go to mainland relocation camps because they were needed to fill jobs in Hawaii! Only Japanese aliens and those people who were considered security risks were sent to mainland internment camps, primarily in Tule Lake, California. Less than 2,000 Nikkei in Hawaii were taken into custody during the war. Approximately one-third were American citizens, mostly Kibei. Though thousands of miles closer to the enemy and strategic to America's defense, Hawaii needed every available laborer. As a result, the ethnic Japanese in Hawaii, while they were looked upon with suspicion, they fared better than those on the mainland and had their constitutional rights upheld to a far greater degree.

Anxious to prove their loyalty to the United States the Nisei reluctantly accepted internment. One of the few Japanese Americans who tried to use the legal system to oppose internment was Gordon Hirabayashi, who was a student at the Univeristy of Washington. Hirabayashi resisted curfew laws and to register for evacuation. He was arrested, but appealed his case to the Supreme Court and was turned down. The Supeme Court adamently refused to declare the evacuation order unconstitutional.

Further complicating matters for the interned Nikkei occured in February, 1943, when teams of Army officers and enlisted men visited the relocation centers to register draft age men for military service and others for non-military duty such as the Army Nurse Corps and WACs. Two questions on the survey would prove to be difficult for some internees to answer. The questionaires sought background information, but asked two leading questions. Question 27 asked draft-age males: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?" Question 28 was the loyalty question: "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obediance to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power or organization"?

In all 77,957 residents had been eligible to register, of whom 68,018 (87%) had answered the loyalty question with an unqualified "yes". Many Nisei in Hawaii and from the relocation camps volunteered to served in the Army to prove their loyalty to the United States. Over 33,000 Nisei soldiers served in the American army during the war. Nisei soldiers were used in the Pacific Theater as interpreters as well as in combat in North Africa, Italy and France. The principle units in which the Nisei served were the 100th Infantry Battalion, which was formed in Hawaii, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, formed from volunteers from the internment camps, and the secret Nisei Military Intelligence Service, whose members served with army and navy units from the Aleutians to the far reaches of the south Pacific. The Nisei soldiers became famous for their heroism and the high number of casualties they sustained in combat. In June 15, 1944 during the Italian campaign the two Nisei units were merged. The 442nd/100th sustained 9,486 wounded and over 600 killed suffered, the highest casualty rate of any American unit during the war. For their heroism, the men of the 442nd/100th won fifty-two Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars and the Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded posthumously to Pfc Sadao Munemori. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team also won seven coveted Presidential Unit Citations for its performance. The men in the 100th Battalion alone had earned 900 Purple Hearts, thirty-six Silver Stars, twenty-one Bronze Stars, and three Distinguished Service Crosses.

On December 18, 1944, the Supeme Court finally declared the the detention of loyal citizens illegal. Gradually the camps were emptied beginning in January, 1945, and by December, 1945 the camps were nearly abandoned. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) gave each departing evacuee twenty-five dollars and a train ticket. Some of the displaced evacuees returned to their homes in California and Washington to face open hostility and bigotry. To prevent the return of the Japanese, some whites formed organizations such as No Japs Incorporated in San Diego and the Home Front Commandoes in Sacremento. Others decided to settle in new places in the United States trying to start over and about 8,000 people chose to permanently leave the United States. Life was difficult for the returning evacuees and hostility from the war would remain in mainstream America for years to come.

Despite the harassment and discrimination, the Nisei were relatively successful in rebuilding their lives. Working hard like their Issei parents they were able to build homes and businesses, attend college, and provide a better life for their children, the Sansei. The painful memories of relocation were buried, but not forgotten.

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