We were captives in our own country

The incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II

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Columnists

December 8, 2021 - 9:56 AM

The Manzanar Internment Camp in California. Ansel Adams/Library of Congress

On Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, Aiko Yoshinaga, a 17-year-old Los Angeles High School student, was headed home from a party with classmates when she heard a shocking radio report: Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. Even at her young age, Aiko immediately realized that with a U.S. declaration of war against Japan, her Japanese immigrant parents, legally precluded from becoming naturalized citizens, would not just be considered aliens — they would be enemy aliens.

An American-born citizen, Aiko didn’t think she had cause to be concerned. She thought she’d be protected by the U.S. Constitution. She, along with my grandparents and parents, would soon find out how wrong she was. My father, then a 14-year-old freshman at Huntington Beach Union High School, later recalled: “People couldn’t or wouldn’t make the distinction between Americans who happened to have Japanese parents and people from Japan.”

The Pearl Harbor attack intensified anti-Japanese sentiments that had existed since the first wave of immigrants from Japan arrived in the 1880s. Against the backdrop of decades of discriminatory policies, the Japanese American community was vulnerable as an appalled and angry nation considered anyone who looked like the enemy to be the enemy.

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