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[OPINION] A Witch-Hunt Case: Japanese Concentration Camps in the USA


No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation. In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation.” (US Constitution, Amendment, V and VI).

Being regarded among the most significant articles in protecting individual rights and freedoms, the provisions above are seen as fundamental in restricting the authority of the state against the individual, and in protecting the individual against the state which has the potential to exert unlimited power over the individual. Since they were added into the American Constitution after many historic experiences and long–time struggles, these provisions have always been taken as example and referred most. What follows below is an event witnessed in the US, which is recorded as one of the most striking historic cases about the individual rights vs. the state. In order not to suffer similar pains, it is highly important to refresh the memory of societies about such experiences especially in the present circumstances where democratic values and the rule of law are under real threat and destructive moves find support of masses as a result of populism pumped by biased and black propaganda.

The War Setting and Incorporating the Perception of Enemy

Despite the fact that Japan’s Pearl Harbour attack, remembered as one of the most critical events of the World War II that caused the US to wage war against Japan is widely known; its effects on the Japanese Americans who were living in the USA at the time are not very well known. The struggle of these American citizens of Japanese ancestry is regarded as one of the most significant incidents for the protection of individual rights and freedoms.

Pearl Harbour is a naval base situated on Oahu, Hawaii, the closest US territory to Japan. On 7 December 1941, Japanese Air forces bombed the harbour, killed about 2400 and wounded many more American soldiers. The USA responded this attack by declaring war against Japan on 8 December 1941.

According to the census of 1940, the number of Japanese Americans living in the USA were 127,000, and most of them were residing in western coastal states of the USA such as California, Oregon and Washington, which are geographically close to Japan. Following Japan’s Pearl Harbour attack in the tense environment provoked by the media with rumours fed by the existing prejudices against the Japanese people, and a hearsay claiming that Japanese Americans can sabotage the US–Japan war started to spread. Soon after the Pearl Harbour attack, the American Government froze all assets and accounts of Japanese Americans in American banks. More over, radio receivers, cameras and all the belongings that the Government perceived as “illegal”, including antique swords and guns of those who were living in the western states of America had been confiscated. The Japanese Americans had been subjected to night–time curfew and travel restrictions.

Meanwhile, in the first 48 hours following the attack, 1,291 leading figures from the Japanese Americans were detained and kept away from their families throughout the war. These detentions later have been widened to cover other people who are identified as having connections with the Japanese Americans. The propagandas of the American press that demonised, ostracised and provoked the people of Japanese origin during that particular time period were very striking.

Americans of Japanese ancestry who are waiting to be taken to internment camps, 1942

Especially the posters depicting the Japanese people in very ugly ways, which were put up at most visible places, were among the hard realities of that time. In this way, a hatred and enmity was tried to be instigated and spread within the society against the people of Japanese ancestry and it had been successful.

Loss of Humanity: Domestic Politics and Pool of Interests

On 19 February 1942, to be able to gain the support of the farmers who did not want Japanese Americans to compete with them in the Western coasts –the most fertile lands of the USA– American President Roosevelt signed the Executive Order No. 9066 under the influence of both the widespread fear anticipating that American citizens of Japanese origin will sabotage the US operations in the war and the rather inhumane views of the military authorities. This Executive Order gave the Secretary of War the authority to create military zones to which unauthorised people may not enter or reside in. This order also authorised the military commanders to be able to give decisions to exclude, namely to exile, civilians from certain areas, and furthermore, these decisions were immune from any kind of judicial investigation. Overall, the Executive Order 9066 was written in a way that it seemed as if it did not directly target a certain ethnic community, but in practice, it was mainly applied to the Japanese Americans. It was stated that the fundamental aim of the order was to provide protection against espionage and keeping people of Japanese origin away from any harm that may arise from the anti–Japanese movement that was widespread within the American community at the time.

As required by the Executive Order No. 9066, about 120,000 Japanese Americans who were living on the Western coastal states of California, Oregon and Washington were decided to be relocated and transported to about ten internment camps built in inland areas of the USA. Before they are transported to the internment camps, these people had to sell all their belongings including their lands, houses, shops, farms, boats, and workplaces, for very low prices.

The local people have supported the process of demonising and exiling the Japanese Americans, quite naturally because they were both getting rid of a rivalrous community, and were obtaining goods, properties and status under very favourable conditions.

Although the US was also favourable war with Germany and Italy during the World War II, the same procedures were not implemented so much on the German and Italian Americans, may be because it was considered that American citizens of German and Italian origin would not be as submissive as the Japanese Americans. As also stated by an internment camp survivor, the aim of the relocation –protecting the American citizens with Japanese ancestry from illicit public attacks– has been questioned when they saw that the guns of the guarding soldiers were always pointed, not towards outside, but towards the internees.

Living conditions in the internment camps, which were mostly located in far uninhabited inland areas, were very harsh. The internees had to produce their own food collectively on the arid lands, bearing the bitter cold of the winter and the scorching heat of the summer. They were eating their meals altogether, and meet their needs of shower and toilet in open public areas which were designed regardless of privacy.

A view from the Manzanar Internment Camp, 1942

Those who ever thought of escaping from the camp surrounded with barbed wires were aware that they would be shot dead by the armed guardsmen. Meanwhile, the internees had to endure some social problems too. Since only the Nisei (the second-generation Japanese people who were born with American citizenship) were allowed to have authority in the camps, their parents, the Issei (the first-generation immigrants) were deprived of the traditional respect they normally see from their children and this caused their traditional status to be shaken.


The Usual Collaborator of Violations: State Driven Judiciary

An example of the posters depicting the Japanese people in gruesome ways, which were put up at most visible places throughout the World War II

In cases of Hirabayashi v. United States and Korematsu v. United States, the American Supreme Court decreed that the relocation of Japanese Americans under the Executive Order 9066 was legal and constitutional. Quite strikingly, the Supreme Court of the time, despite many views argued that the relocation of American citizens of Japanese ancestry is against the American Constitution, saw the relocation as a military necessity. In other words, according to the Supreme Court, the circumstances were claimed to be emergency and presented to the public as such were sufficient reasons to commit serious human rights violations.

This shameful incarceration and mass internment, which had continued a considerably long time compared to a human life span, gradually ended when the war started to turn in favour of the Allies. The American Supreme Court then started to issue decrees that such executive orders were unconstitutional for the reason that such precautions could only be taken during war time. However, the process of demonising and alienating the American citizens with Japanese ancestry that showed them as potential spies, traitors and state/public enemies, did not end at once, and they were expected to prove their loyalty in other ways. For example, in order to test the loyalty of American citizens with Japanese origin, the American Army recruited these people in regimental combat teams and sent them war fronts in Europe and Africa. Among these teams, especially the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was composed of only the Nisei, won the highest number of decorations. It was very meaningful when American President Truman at his speech addressing the team after the combat said that they were fighting and won the battle against, not only the enemy, but also the prejudices.


The Bill Paid and the Remaining Social Shame

Toward the end of the war at the beginning of 1945, some of the Japanese origin Americans, who were subjected to the test of loyalty and commitment, and received positive impression, were permitted to leave the camps and return their homes. Nevertheless, the last camp was closed in March 1946. With the “American Japanese Claims Act” issued in 1948, property losses of those stayed in the camps were compensated.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed an act which admitted that incarcerating 120,000 people in internment camps was unlawful. Later a former apology was issued and each surviving internee was compensated with $20,000. The total amount of financial compensation has reached $1.6 billion. Taking into account the damages caused by the loss of labour force and productivity and the previous payments, the financial burden of this treatment has revealed to be much higher.

Although not as cruel as the German Nazi camps, it is still stated that the Japanese internment camps in America, which had been kept open during the World War II, has passed into the American history as a disgrace in respecting the individual rights and freedoms.

It is not surprising at this point, to see that the American citizens of Japanese ancestry are drawing a correspondence between the executive orders of President Donald Trump that bring travel bans to the citizens of some Muslim countries, and the Japanese internment camps.

One of the people whose family members were forced to reside in the World War II camps is US Democrats Representative for California Mark Takano. At a speech he gave in Congress, “How you react to Muslim ban today, is how you would have reacted to the imprisonment of my grandparents and parents 75 years ago,” he said.

Lessons for Today

An example of the posters depicting the Japanese people in gruesome ways, which were put up at most visible places throughout the World War II

The lesson that the case of Japanese internment camps put forward is very clear; The tactless politicians and governors who go out of the legal boundaries with the decisions they give under the influence of their political passions and ambitions, and the masses of people who blindly follow and support them, will eventually have to bear the consequences and costs of what they had done. It is normal when people with political identities go into political struggle and run for governing their country within democratic rules in accordance with the rule of law. However, to carry out this struggle in an unlawful, undemocratic way that undermines and violates the fundamental rights and freedoms of opponents and competitors –whether they be individuals or groups– with the strong drive of attaining the ruling power for an indefinite period of time, can never be accepted or tolerated. If the politicians or governors, who want constantly to widen their ruling and political power and exploit the public forces for this cause, will not be confronted by effective and influential democratic institutions, deliberate judicial control and public oversight, the area of individual rights and freedoms shall be tightened.

The proof that the American society has drawn lessons from the history and showed proper reaction against violations of individual rights and freedoms committed by feckless traits and actions of politicians was revealed when a vast part of the American society and big crowds of people have objected and protested the travel ban that President Trump wanted to impose on citizens of some Muslim countries. The American society is acting under the awareness suggesting that objecting violation of rights and freedoms of any persons or groups has the same meaning as protecting one’s own rights and freedoms.

Indeed, every society which has high level of democratic maturity and respect for human rights is aware that the rulers’ unlawful decisions that breach individual rights and freedoms will have a social cost, and that cost will, at the end of the day, be paid by themselves.

In the USA –where the legislative, the executive and the judicial powers are evenly distributed and control each other, and the system of checks and balances is implemented nearly in the best case– even the President himself does not enjoy the authority to act on his own devices. The orders of the President which are breaching the law and the principle of protecting individual rights and freedoms can be made ineffective by the judiciary or may not receive approval of the legislative branch (the Congress or the Senate) –a good example of an effectively working system based on democratic rules and the principles of the rule of law. If the separation of powers is not achieved and the three powers cannot challenge each other, those who capture the ruling power may disregard the individual rights and freedoms, seek unlawful ways to intimidate or undermine the persons or groups they consider as rivals, and even make living in the country unbearable for some persons they target. Moreover, when a satisfactory level of checks and balances is not achieved, inevitably, a medium where all other people are also going to lose their rights and freedoms will emerge, and the financial and social costs of any likely violations and victimisations will eventually be paid by the whole of the society.

Turkey: Repeated, but not still learnt lessons

It is a well–known fact that Turkey’s history of individual rights and freedoms is not bright at all. Nearly in every political term of its history, Turkey had individuals, social groups or sects, whose rights and freedoms have been violated, or who have been banished by the state that acted with the support of some part of the society reacting under the influence of intense propaganda. Changing according to the political conditions and the sought-after expedience, these groups were/are consisted of thousands, or millions of people who have been demonised, ostracised, or alienated by the state and the large masses of people supporting the state.

Depending on the conditions of the period of time, based on their religious, political, cultural background or different life styles; Kurds, Alawites, leftists, communists, religious sects, Islamists, or nationalists have been the target of the state/public oppression, separately or at the same time. These victimisations, however, from which, except very few, nearly all parts of the society had suffered, have never turned into a struggle of human rights and freedoms in Turkey.

What is more, this trait, which is seen in throughout the society, is also reflected on the intellectuals and institutions of the society –a situation shows that feelings of enmity and hatred suppress logic, reason, and every kind of humanistic emotions, and this has always been the greatest cause of unbearable suffering for the country’s citizens who are respectful for democracy and human rights.

The latest victims of this situation in Turkey, where fundamental rights and freedoms, and the rule of law are easily profaned and violated, are the members and devotees of Fethullah Gulen Movement also known as the Hizmet Movement. The thoughts and actions which both the governments and the public in many countries of the world would support and applaud would be shown as an exemplary movement and promoted for reaching more civilised manners and attitudes are presented as if they are evil offences for strange reasons which can never be regarded legal in a normal judiciary system. In the process of this mass destruction, many vile treatments, including depriving hundreds of thousands of people of their freedom, unlawfully confiscating their assets, dismissing them from their professions for which they had spent many years, all of which are against human rights, universal norms, common ethics and conscience are deemed proper for this part of the society. The way the children, women, elderly and the disabled –who are inviolable in all judicial systems, including the Islamic law– are subjected to unlawful and cruel treatments in Turkey today, reveals how massive and unbounded the current human rights violations are in this country.

It is a case in point that the society remains silent although they are witnessing so many unjust treatments exercised in front of their eyes and the eyes of the whole world and seeing that many illicit acts and human rights violations are committed to annihilate a group of people with certain thoughts and world–views. What is the reason for the Turkish public, who although very well know that not a single evil action would come out from these people and who only a short while ago were wholeheartedly entrusting their most beloved children to the education of these people, being very sure that their children will be at trustworthy hands, safe from any kind of abuse, to remain silent about the unjust treatments these people are subjected to? We leave this matter, which require deeper analyses, to sociologists and social psychologists. However, we find it proper to remind that the numerous violations of freedoms and human rights which are committed for mainly political greed and anger, will later load a heavy cost on the society, as seen in many examples lived in history.

On the other hand, it is another cause of embarrassment the way the judicial system in Turkey, with all its high courts and branches, has stepped out of the legal system and remained indifferent before the severe violations, breaches of rights and freedoms and the destruction of the principles of the rule of law and separation of powers, and let itself to be misused for unlawful purposes and to be made a tool of confirmation and implementation of unjust and illegitimate acts of the executive. This really embarrassing situation that the judiciary has now come to after about the fourth of which have been chunked out with dismissals and detentions, worth to pass into history as an admonitory case. In today’s Turkey, all institutions, including the judiciary, are eviscerated, and are made cardboard, subservient bodies that are unable to produce any added value to the global context. Actually, the point that the society has come today is nothing other than the bare display of the disposition that has not got a single positive aspect to offer and is fed sometimes by fear, and sometimes by rancour and grudge –the disposition reflexes and attitudes of which are always directed by these hard feelings. For the real face of this situation, which is applauded or ignored by all the cowards to be revealed, it will be enough for a little child to come up and shout, “The King is Naked!” It will be then a period of time when human rights and freedoms for all parts of the society will respect, and the rule of law will be the only prevailing value.


  6. A lesson in American History, the Japanese American Experience, Curriculum and Resource Guide, 5th Edition, Japanese American Citizens League.
















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