This timeline details historical events surrounding Japanese Americans and their struggles in the United States
1868: Beginning of Japanese immigration to the United States
1882: Chinese Exclusion Act
1924: Immigration Act of 1924
1941: Attack on Pearl Harbor
1942: Executive Order 9066
1944: Korematsu v. United States
1945: Atomic Bombs
1960s-80s: Redress Movement
1988: Civil Liberties Act
The Meiji Restoration and Japanese Immigration
The Meiji Restoration was a shift in power in Japan back to the Emperor. Previously, the government of the Japanese Empire had been under the control of military leaders called shoguns. The new Emperor Meiji's government was partially modeled on the western systems that had contacted Japan and was focused on industrializing the country. This led to social and cultural disruptions as the transformation from traditional Japanese life gave way to modern cities and factories. Many farmers were put out of work, and looked to America as a new place where they could live and farm. Many Japanese immigrants settled in Hawaii and along the West Coast.
The Meiji emperor moving from Kyoto to Tokyo. Source:"Le Monde Illustre", February 20, 1869.
The Chinese Exclusion Act and Asian Prejudices
Chinese workers had also been migrating to the United States, at first during the California Gold Rush in 1848 and then later to work on large projects like the Transcontinental Railroad. These Chinese immigrant workers were nearly all healthy adult men and provided a cheap labor source, at one point making up nearly a quarter of California's work force. Fueled by fears of immigration and racial prejudices, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all immigration from China for ten years.
Chinese workers in Utah, late 1800s
Photo courtesy of Canyonlands Natural History Association
Ban on Japanese Migration
At first, the Japanese immigrants profited by the ban on Chinese laborers because it provided them with more jobs. However, eventually similar fears and prejudices would lead to a ban on new Japanese immigrants in 1924.
One effect of the ban was the creation of an unusually sharp divide between generations. There were the initial immigrants, the Issei, which included everyone who had moved from Japan to the United States before 1924. After 1924, the only new members of the Japanese American community were those born from Issei parents already within the United States. These of the second generation were called the Nisei, and they were very separate from their parents in terms of age, citizenship, and even English-speaking ability.
Japanese-American children pledge allegiance to the American flag in a photo taken on April 20, 1942, in San Francisco
Attack on Pearl Harbor
On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese Empire launched a surprise air attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Many American battleships and aircraft were destroyed, and 2,403 Americans were killed.
Prior to the attack in 1937, Japan had aggressively invaded China and ignored the warnings sent by the League of Nations. In 1940, the Empire of Japan joined a treaty with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.
While the United States had been assisting Britain and France in World War 2 with money and supplies, they did not enter the war until Pearl Harbor. After the attack, the U.S. immediately declared war on Japan, and then quickly entered the war against Germany and Italy as well.
The USS Arizona burning after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor
Executive Order 9066 and Japanese Internment
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed and issued an executive order on February 19, 1942. This order allowed the U.S. government to set aside land for internment camps and led to the imprisonment of Japanese Americans.
Japanese Americans were viewed as foreigners and not "real" Americans. The FBI at the time reported that “It is said, and no doubt with considerable truth, that every Japanese in the United States who can read and write is a member of the Japanese intelligence system.” They were seen as potential enemies and a threat to the country
Fred Korematsu and the Supreme Court
Fred Korematsu was a Japanese American who refused to follow the orders of the U.S. Army under Order 9066 by refusing to be relocated to an internment camp. He was arrested and convicted, but claimed that the executive order was unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment. The Fifth Amendment requires someone to be convicted in a court of law if they are going to be imprisoned. His case was picked up by the U.S Supreme Court.
In the court case Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the executive order was, in fact, constitutional, and that the need to protect against espionage outweighed the rights of Americans of Japanese descent. Korematsu, along with the rest of the Japanese Americans, remained in the camps until the end of the war.
Fred Korematsu. Photo by Lia Chang
The Atomic Bombs and the End of World War II
On August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped the uranium atomic bomb "Little Boy" on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and then three days later on August 9th they dropped the plutonium atomic bomb "Fat Man" on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. The bombs immediately and completely destroyed the cities. Japan surrendered to the United States six days after the bombing of Nagasaki, putting an end to World War II. This remains the only use of nuclear weapons in the history of warfare.
Following the end of the war, all of the Japanese internment camps were shut down by early 1946.
The mushroom cloud of the atomic bombing of the Japanese city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Photo by Charles Levy
The Redress Movement and the CWRIC
Beginning in the 1960s, a younger generation of Japanese Americans, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, began what is known as the "Redress Movement". This movement wanted an official apology and repayment from the federal government for incarcerating their parents and grandparents during the war. Instead of focusing on lost property, they based their arguments on the broader injustice and mental suffering caused by the internment. The movement's first success was in 1976, when President Gerald Ford proclaimed that the internment was "wrong," and a "national mistake" which "shall never again be repeated"
The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) was established in 1980. This Congressional committee determined that the internment camps were unnecessary, unjust, and motivated by racism.
National Coalition for Redress/Reparations banner outside of the redress hearings, 1981, Los Angeles, California.
The Redress Movement and the CWRIC
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. It provided financial redress of $20,000 for each surviving detainee, totaling $1.2 billion. The question of to whom reparations should be given, how much, and even whether monetary reparations were appropriate were subjects of debate within the Japanese American community and Congress.
On September 27, 1992, an amendment to the Civil Liberties Act appropriating an additional $400 million to ensure all remaining internees received their $20,000 redress payments, was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush. He issued another formal apology from the U.S. government on December 7, 1991, on the 50th-Anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act of 1988