A Profile

Why were Japanese Americans interned during World War II? German-Americans weren't. Italian-Americans weren't. There is no doubt that the constitutional and civil rights of this one group of Americans - citizens and alien immigrants alike - were violated. Why? Justifications at the time ranged from protecting the Japanese themselves from reprisals after Pearl Harbor and possible future attacks or acts of sabotage to the defense of the country from a massive fifth column of enemy subversives. Simply put - and in contemporary terms - Japanese Americans were racially profiled.

Many of the materials in this unit provide a sense of the profile. In the example and the exercises that follow you will explore specific aspects of the portrait that many Americans, particularly those on the west coast, held. You will examine opinions expressed at the time in public documents and Congressional testimony within the context of census-like information gathered by the War relocation Authority (WRA) from the nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans who were interned.

"The area lying to the west of Cascade and Sierra Nevada Mountains in Washington, Oregon and California, is highly critical not only because the lines of communication and supply in the Pacific theater pass through it, but also because of the vital industrial production therein, particularly aircraft. In the war in which we are now engaged racial affiliations are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become "Americanized," the racial strains are undiluted. To conclude otherwise is to expect that children born of white parents on Japanese soil sever all racial affinity and become loyal Japanese subjects, ready to fight and, if necessary, to die for Japan in a war against the nation of their parents. That Japan is allied with Germany and Italy in this struggle is no ground for assuming that any Japanese, barred from assimilation by convention as he is, though born and raised in the United States, will not turn against this nation, when the final test of loyalty comes. It, therefore, follows that along the vital Pacific Coast over 112,000 potential enemies, of Japanese extraction, are at large today. There are indications that these are organized and ready for concerted action at a favorable opportunity. The very fact that no sabotage has taken place is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.1"

The passage above comes from a report on the evacuation of Japanese Americans prepared by General John DeWitt, commander of the Western Theater of Operations in San Francisco at the start of World War II. Clearly, General DeWitt was concerned by the threat of "Americanized" Nisei, second generation Japanese Americans. By implication, though, the Issei, or first generation immigrants, also posed a serious threat and it is on this group that we will focus to get started.

Open the Internment map. The most important feature of this map is the data base of information contained in the WRA Census layer. Zoom in on the San Francisco Bay Area and select this layer. The information in the census file is a random sample of the nearly 110,000 records collected by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) from every individual interned during the war. The points on the map are the cities from which the 2485 individuals in the sample came. Notice that there may be many individuals from any one city as you explore the pop-up records.

Click map to enlarge

General DeWitt's concerns focused on the degree of loyalty the Japanese Americans felt for their mother country. He made inferences about this population based on information such as:

Birth place
Total length of time in Japan
Number of times in Japan



To Start You Thinking -

To... Click...
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• Display data in a table
• Open a feature's pop-up window
• Use a bookmark
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• Filter data
• Measure distance/area
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Do the data support the General’s conclusions?

  • 1) What was the percentage of the Japanese born Issei among the California immigrant population, for example? Select to show the table of census data. Filter the data to select all of the records in which the place of birth contains Japan. What percentage does this group represent of the 2485 in the sample?

  • 2) Add to the filter and determine what percentage of these individuals were not able to read or write English.

  • 3) How old were the group of Issei who were not fluent in English? Scroll over to their Year Born and sort the values. The information was collected in 1942 so numbers lower than 42 indicate that the person was born in the 20th century (e.g. - 6 means born in 1906). Numbers higher than 42 mean that the year of birth was in the 19th century (e.g. - 89 means born in 1889). When were the majority of these individuals born?

    4) Continue to explore the information about the Issei looking particularly at the data related to Total Length of Time in Japan, Number of Times in Japan, and Age at Time in Japan. What does this information suggest about the degree of loyalty these people might have felt towards Japan?

    5) What other information in the data base could give you a sense of the loyalty of the individuals involved from General DeWitt's point of view? Explain.

  • 6) Assess the threat posed by this group of Japanese immigrants.

  • 7) Complete the Profile worksheet.

1 from Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942, Headquarters Western Defense Command and Fourth Army, Office of the Commanding General, Presidio of San Francisco, California, (Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Office, 1943) as found at The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco.
Last modified in July, 2008 by Rick Thomas