On December 7, 1941 Japan’s military struck Pearl Harbor, the Malay Peninsula, Hong Kong, Wake Island, Midway Island, and the Philippines. This year marks the 75th anniversary of these military strikes.
Officials in Washington, DC foresaw the growth of Japan’s military and by 1940 understood that an attack by Japan was possible. Vague warnings through a bureaucratic machine were issued. Shortly after the attack, the US entered the war already being fought in Europe and Asia.
But our relationship with Japan and its people began long before 1941.
As the country and the world remember the military strikes of December 7, 1941, let us also remember everything that came before and everything that has come afterward.
Over the next few months I will share some of my research that went into the writing of Write to Me: A Story of Friendship, War, Letters, and Books, a picture book biography of librarian Clara Breed and the work she did during World War II. Some of the following has made its way into the book, but much of it didn’t. The confinement of the picture book format is tricky!
Late 1800s Japanese people emigrate to the Americas in hopes of a better economic life. They are welcomed in Hawaii and California because of the labor shortages in fishing and farming communities. The Japanese immigrant farmers turn the barren Central Valley into thriving agricultural acreage. Existing California farmers do not want to compete with Japanese farmers.
Early 1900s Earlier anti-Chinese discrimination is applied to Japanese people. California policies and laws restrict further Japanese immigration, and the right to own land or become citizens.
Meanwhile, during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) Japanese military makes advances in China and Russia. These surprising victories fuel American fears and hostilities toward Japanese living in the U.S. because Americans fear Japan could mobilize Chinese and Russian armies and take over the Pacific Coast of the United States. Fear of a war with Japan spreads and is promoted through films, magazines, and newspapers.
1920s–1930s Japanese immigrants and American-born Japanese (about 60,000) now make up 2% of California’s population. Even with these small numbers, their success and influence is feared by West Coast business leaders and politicians who hope to hold on to their own power and influence.
The U.S. Supreme Court rules that only Europeans and Africans can become naturalized citizens. Asians cannot.
Tensions between the United States and Japan increase as both nations want to control trade across the Pacific Ocean. Japan’s military continues to grow and advance. Concern that some Japanese immigrants might be spies grows into a great fear that enemy agents are everywhere.
What began as racial discrimination against Japanese immigrants now accelerates into larger fears about the success of U.S. economy and threats to U.S. national security.
December 8: US Treasury Department seizes all banks and businesses owned by people of Japanese descent.
December 9: Japanese Language schools are closed.
December 27: All suspected “enemies” on the west coast of the US are ordered to surrender cameras and short-wave radios.