Explore History ›

Why So Many People Are Saluting Japanese Americans

(Getty Images)

The Day of Remembrance honors those who fought for the nation even though it feared them.

Over the course of World War II, some 14,000 soldiers served in the U.S. Army's 442nd Infantry Regiment. What was so remarkable about the 442nd? To answer that question, we flash forward to the weekend of Feb. 18-19, 2017, when a crowd of Los Angelenos gathered at the Japanese American National Museum alongside a host of musicians, poets, elected officials, and neighbors. Across the country, similar events unfolded in major cities: a candle ceremony at New York City's Japanese American United Church; historical film screenings in San Francisco and Chicago; a Seattle Center panel discussion titled "Never Again."

Officially, there’s no national holiday on Feb. 19. Unofficially, though, that’s the day that, for years, has been commemorated by Japanese Americans as the Day of Remembrance. It marks a dark time not so very long ago in U.S. history — a time when the nation targeted and upended the lives of tens of thousands of innocent Americans, incarcerating them as security risks based on nothing but their ethnic heritage.

It was Feb. 19, 1942, two months after the Japanese military's attack on Pearl Harbor, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast — not just recent immigrants, but their children and even those who had only 1/16 Japanese ancestry — to evacuate their homes and relocate to internment camps.

This was a lot of people: 120,000, in fact, most of them U.S. citizens, who were given just a week to settle their affairs and pack only what belongings they could carry before being transported to one of ten camps scattered throughout the West.

Why? The premise was as simple as it was fearful: Who knew, the argument went, which Japanese Americans might be loyal Americans and which might be spies and saboteurs for the Japanese government? And yet the reasoning was flawed in a basic way that will be familiar to Americans of non-European descent, in that the same level of concern somehow didn’t seem to apply to the vast majority of German or Italian Americans, whose ancestral nations were also at war with the U.S.

The camps where the Japanese Americans were forced to live were essentially prisons. President Roosevelt himself called them concentration camps. That’s a term we're more likely to associate with the Holocaust that was occurring across the ocean — and yet, here at home, Japanese-Americans were kept for more than three years in military-style camps with scanty heat, no plumbing, and overcrowded conditions.

If you didn’t hear much about this in high school history class, you're not alone. It's a chapter of our history that’s rarely been emphasized. Maybe that’s because, in hindsight, it's obvious just how shameful it was. 

Privacy in the camps was all but nonexistent, with up to 25 people living in spaces designed for four, and bathrooms with no partitions between toilets. Close quarters and unsanitary conditions led to increased illness, and some camps saw major outbreaks of diseases including dysentery and malaria. Families were often separated into different camps, and armed guards watched the perimeter from towers and shot escapees.

It sounds unconstitutional — and, in fact, the courts ultimately ruled that it was. But until that ruling began restoring sanity to the lives of those imprisoned, there they stayed.

There they stayed, that is, except — in a twist that made the whole massive violation of their rights all the more insulting — for the Japanese Americans who fought in the U.S. Army, where they were honored as some of the military’s most loyal and steadfast soldiers.

Today, their comrades want to make sure we remember all of them.

Echoes of Silence

The 442nd Infantry Regiment, made up of thousands of Japanese American men, was the war's most decorated unit, known for its bravery in fighting the enemy and in rescuing men from other units who were in dire situations.

Jimmy Yamashita was a soldier of the 442nd — one of the lucky ones who made it home. Hundreds didn't, killed in action fighting for the country that was incarcerating their families and friends at home. Jimmy's Army buddies were among those lost in battle, and when he got home to the States in 1946, he couldn't forget them. He's 92 today, and he still can't forget.

"I lost one of my buddies,” Jimmy says, “and I thought, I can hear an echo that I can use to tell someone a little bit about him.” That echo became a roar as Jimmy got to work telling the stories of his friends and all the other Japanese-American soldiers who served in the 442nd. That storytelling eventually turned into a formal project he calls Echoes of Silence: a massive database in which he strives to catalog each and every Japanese-American soldier who served in World War II and died, whether in action or after the war.

Jimmy isn't alone in working on Echoes of Silence. He has a team working on it alongside him. One of those volunteers is Roger Eaton, whose father-in-law, George Yamada, served as a combat engineer with the 232nd company of the 442nd. Roger treats Echoes of Silence as a full-time job, working about eight hours a day tracking down information on Japanese-American veterans of World War II.

Much of that information is gleaned from obituaries. The very youngest veterans of World War II are in their late 80s, and their numbers dwindle every day. Roger uses Legacy's ObitFinder service, along with other research, to locate their obituaries and update their records. The veterans are listed by military serial number, with other information when it's available: year and place of birth, date of death, and where they lived at the time of their death.

Jimmy calls it "just a skimpy little record," but points out that anyone wanting to learn more about an individual soldier can track down his military record using his serial number. The records feel a lot less skimpy when you see them in the full context of the project, too. The database is huge, collecting info for thousands of men.

And there’s much more to it than lists of names. Obituaries are often included, offering at least a hint of a soldier’s deeper life story. Medal of Honor recipients are singled out in a special section. There are descriptions and photos of each internment camp, and of the military cemeteries where many Japanese-American veterans are buried. A section of personal memoirs, stories, and poems offers a glimpse into soldiers’ experiences and emotions.

For those who came to the military from the internment camps, their camp is listed whenever that information is available. But the greater number of Japanese-American soldiers were not interned prior to their service. Many came from Hawaii, where internment wasn't a widespread practice. Others came from other parts of the country, from large East Coast cities to small towns in Middle America.

Jimmy himself wasn't interned — though in an echo of what was to come, his family had nonetheless been pushed out of their California home years before the war.

"Enemy Aliens"

The California Alien Land Law of 1920, directed almost exclusively at Japanese immigrants but also affecting others of Asian ancestry, prohibited "aliens ineligible for citizenship" from owning land in the state. That included Jimmy's parents, who were farming in Irvine Ranch alongside many other Japanese immigrants when, suddenly, they found they weren't allowed to continue there.

The Yamashitas were well aware of the racist sentiment behind the law; as Jimmy put it, the law was passed "primarily because Japanese were successful farmers and were cutting in on some of the farming that was done by other races."

Jimmy’s family packed up and relocated to southern Nevada, where they worked to turn poor soil into good farmland. They weren't the only Japanese in their area, but they were among the few. A couple decades later, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and war was declared, young first-generation Japanese Americans (Nisei) like Jimmy had plenty of reason to worry about their status. Already second-class citizens in the American West, how would they be treated in wartime?

President Roosevelt soon answered that question with his declaration of the internment, a policy that was heavily pushed by West Coast newspapers and landowners who were motivated in part by their own interests. With successful Japanese farmers out of the way, white farmers could prosper with much less competition. The racism was hard to miss: Very few German or Italian Americans were incarcerated during the war, despite the enemy status of Germany and Italy. Only a tiny percentage of their numbers were interned, in comparison to the vast majority of Japanese Americans banned from the West Coast.

As far removed from the coast as Jimmy’s family were, they were able to avoid the camps. His future wife was interned, though. "Her liberties were cut short by being at the camp,” he says, “and I think that was a grave mistake." As for Jimmy, he kept going to high school, where his friends and classmates began being drafted and joining up. As they got their calls and left for basic training, they asked over and over, "Hey, Jimmy, when are you going in?"

What Jimmy didn't tell them was that, for the moment, he couldn't. He wasn’t allowed to enlist. "Our first classification given by the military was 4c, which is enemy alien,” he recalls. “So until they righted that, I sat around home, worked on the farm, and everybody kept asking me, 'Hey, when are you going in?' I didn't tell them I was an enemy alien."

The enemy alien status was eventually dropped. Jimmy was drafted in 1943. So were thousands of young Japanese American citizens interned in the 10 concentration camps dotted throughout the West. And despite frequently conflicted feelings about their incarceration by the country of their birth, most of them cooperated and went to war for America.

Most — but not all. A group of 326 incarcerated Nisei refused the draft on principle in 1944, declaring they'd only serve when their constitutional rights were restored. They were jailed, along with several thousand other draft resisters from other areas of the country. The internees who resisted were pardoned in 1947, but not before the damage to their lives had been done, notably in the form of resentment from others in their home communities and deep distrust of their government.

For the Japanese Americans who were drafted and did serve, like Jimmy, their war was as difficult as it was for their counterparts of other races. Not all Nisei served in the 442nd: Some were drafted to the Military Intelligence Service, where they provided translation, interpretation, and interrogation of enemy forces in Japan. They were as essential as the men of the 442nd as they conducted undercover operations, translated key documents from the Japanese forces, and interrogated Japanese POWs.

In the 442nd, though, thousands of soldiers fought on the front lines, and hundreds of them did not make it through the war. It's the ghosts of these lost men that still haunt Jimmy today.

"The terrible thing is," he says, "I'd kind of like to forget, but I can never forget. Guys would cry out for their mom. The Japanese have a word, 'okasa,' it's 'mom.' Those were the last words I'd hear. 'Okasa, okasa.' I just can't get rid of those [cries]. They're forever in my mind. It's one of the reasons I thought those who got back needed to tell about our comrades who didn't. Who gave their lives for us.”

At 92, making sure those memories live on is all the more urgent for Jimmy. “I'm about at the end of my trail,” he says, “but I hope and pray that my buddies will never be forgotten."

How We Remember

Jimmy, Roger, and the others who work on Echoes of Silence are ensuring that even after they're gone, the men of the 442nd will be remembered. Their extensive research is available free of charge on a CD-ROM that can be ordered through the Japanese American Living Legacy project.

Exploring the library of Echoes stories is one way to remember the Japanese-Americans who fought for their country. Another is to observe the Day of Remembrance for Japanese-American internment. It's not yet officially recognized by the federal government, but slowly it’s becoming more widely known as more cities observe the day each year. And if you're not in one of the cities around the country that have planned large events to mark the 75th anniversary of the internment, you can still find ways to reflect on our history and honor those who were affected by Japanese-American internment.

I asked Roger how he hopes people will observe the Day of Remembrance. He says, simply: "I hope all Americans will remember the mistakes that America made during WWII and never even come close to repeating them."

He also notes some online and real-world destinations for people who want to learn more about Japanese-Americans in World War II as part of their observation:

The Nikkei Veterans Honor Roll lists Japanese-American veterans killed in action in U.S. wars from World War II to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Japanese-American Veterans Association is a fraternal and educational organization that maintains the legacy of Japanese-American veterans. Go For Broke National Education Center has a mission to "educate and inspire character and equality through the virtue and valor of our World War II American veterans of Japanese ancestry." Densho works to preserve the stories of the Japanese-Americans who were interned. And Japanese American Living Legacy, which offers copies of Echoes of Silence, specializes in recording oral histories of the Japanese-American experience.

Offline, there are prominent memorials and monuments to Japanese Americans, most notably the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II, located in Washington, DC. In Los Angeles, the Japanese American National Museum tells the full story of the Japanese living in the U.S., in which internment and World War II service just form a prominent chapter. The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Memorial offers a story wall and other remembrances in the spot where the first Japanese-Americans to be detained were loaded on a ferry to be shipped away from their homes.

To teach the story of internment in the most direct way possible, the National Park Service has created national historic sites out of some of the internment camps. You can visit Manzanar in Independence, California; Minidoka in Hagerman, Idaho; Tule Lake in Tulelake, California; and others. Exhibits, walking trails, and the preserved barracks and other remnants of the camps' 1940s history help bring home the reality of this dark time in our history.

What Our Leaders Said

The U.S. government began attempting to atone for its wrongdoing when, in 1976, President Gerald Ford declared Japanese-American internment a "national mistake." He went on to assure Americans that such a mistake "shall never be repeated."

The atonement was made more official 12 years later, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, offering a formal apology and guaranteeing $20,000 in reparations to each surviving victim of the camps.

President George H.W. Bush offered a third apology in 1991, on the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, stating: "In remembering, it is important to come to grips with the past. No nation can fully understand itself or find its place in the world if it does not look with clear eyes at all the glories and disgraces of its past. We in the United States acknowledge such an injustice in our history. The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated."

President Bill Clinton sent personal letters to each survivor of the camps in 1993, personally apologizing and asserting: "We must learn from the past and dedicate ourselves as a nation to renewing the spirit of equality and our love of freedom."

President George W. Bush spoke directly to Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, himself a former internee, in the days after the 9/11 attacks as anti-Muslim fear swept the nation: "We know what happened to Norm Mineta in the 1940s, and we're not going to let that happen again."

And President Barack Obama renewed our leadership's commitment to remembering our history when he spoke at a naturalization ceremony: "During World War II, German and Italian residents were detained, and in one of the darkest chapters in our history, Japanese immigrants and even Japanese American citizens were forced from their homes and imprisoned in camps. We succumbed to fear. We betrayed not only our fellow Americans, but our deepest values. On days like today, we need to resolve never to repeat mistakes like that again."

In the decades since World War II and the internment of Japanese Americans, we've seen the light. Let's continue to shine it into this dark corner of our history as we honor the pledges of President Reagan and his four successors never to repeat it.