Ken Burns Classroom

Japanese Americans and Internment

Ken Burns Film: The War

Collections: The Great Depression and WWII (1929-1945)

Subject: English Social Studies US History

Grade Level: 9-12

Run Time: 1-2 class periods

And when we went to the internment camp, guard towers, double security fence and all that, I really  wondered what’s going to happen to us. You know, that this is just the beginning and they may very nwell send us back to Japan. And that, to me, was horrible. I, in my heart, knew my loyalty belongs to America. I went to school, pledged allegiance every morning in grammar school. And for me to think that I may be sent to Japan was horrendous. And so that was sort of a nightmare.
– Susumu Satow, THE WAR

Lesson Overview

On February 19, 1942, just two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Its tone was carefully nneutral: it authorized the War Department to designate “military areas” that excluded people considered to be a danger to the United States. But the order nactually had a specific target: 110,000 Japanese Americans living along the West Coast of the United States.

While approximately 10,000 Japanese Americans were able to relocate to other parts of the country, the remainder was sent to hastily constructed camps called “War Relocation Centers” in remote portions of the nation’s interior. Many would spend the next three years living under armed guard, behind barbed wire.

Thousands of German and Italian aliens were also locked up, but millions of German- and Italian-American citizens remained free to live their lives as they always had. Only Japanese Americans on the West Coast were singled out.

While they represented a tiny portion of the population, Japanese Americans on the West Coast had long been special targets of white hostility. Laws and customs shut out Japanese Americans from full participation in economic and civic life for decades. Japanese immigrants – known as Issei -could not own land or become naturalized citizens. But the American-born descendants of Japanese immigrants – called Nisei – were citizens by birthright, and many had become successful in business and farming. Pearl Harbor gave whites a chance to renew their hostility toward their Japanese neighbors – it also offered white growers and business interests an opportunity to agitate anew for the elimination of unwanted competitors.

All across the West Coast, relocation notices were posted on April 30, 1942. All people of Japanese ancestry – including those with only 1/16th Japanese blood – were given as little as one week to settle their affairs. Farmers desperately looked to neighbors to help take care of their crops, but along with many other Japanese-American business owners, they faced financial ruin. Families lost everything, forced to sell off homes, shops, furnishings, even the clothes they couldn’t carry with them, to buyers happy to snap them up for next to nothing. In 1944, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion, removal and detention, arguing that it is permissible to curtail the civil rights of a racial group when there is a “pressing public necessity.”

Nearly 45 years later through the efforts of leaders in the Japanese-American community, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which acknowledged that the internment camps had been a “grave injustice” and mandated Congress to pay each victim of internment $20,000 in reparations.

Lesson Objectives

Students will:

  • Analyze Executive Order 9066 and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
  • Research and identify potential legal conflicts with Executive Order 9066, including the government’s role in national security, the writ of habeas corpus, citizen and civil rights and the role of presidential powers.


Lesson Procedure

  1. Provide students with some historical background on the Japanese-American experience pre-World War II, including how Japanese Americans and other Asian groups were treated at the time and the consequences of the Immigration Act of 1924.
  2. Then show students the video segment, “Made into an Enemy,” which contains personal reflections from Japanese Americans interviewed in THE WAR.
  3. After viewing as a class, ask the students to respond to and discuss the following questions:
    • Why do you think only the Japanese Americans on the West Coast were affected by Executive Order 9066?
    • Why didn’t fellow Americans object to the internment of Japanese Americans in 1942?
    • What were the social, economic, and personal impacts of the internment – for those sent to camps and those left behind?
    • Was the government justified in sending Japanese Americans to relocation camps purely on the basis of ethnicity? Why or why not?
    • What would other options have been?
  4. Now have students imagine they are Japanese Americans living on the West Coast at the start of World War II, protesting the internment order on legal grounds. Divide students into groups and have each group research potential legal conflicts with Executive Order 9066, including the government’s role in national security, the writ of habeas corpus, citizen and civil rights and the role of presidential powers.
  5. During the research process each group should prepare a list explaining which rights were violated by the relocation and why it was unconstitutional. Then have the groups compare lists and discuss as the class:
    • How should a country at war balance its citizens’ civil liberties with the need for national security?
    • What are a citizen’s responsibilities in an American democracy, to ensure that their civil liberties and/or the civil liberties of others are not infringed upon during times of war?
    • Could a government-mandated act such as the internment happen today? Why or why not?

Extension Activities

  • Research reparations that were given to Japanese Americans interned during World War II in 1988 and why and how the government made that decision.
  • Research the locations of internment camps in the U.S. Have students identify how many centers existed and in what states they were located.
  • Ask students:
    • Why might the particular locations of the internment camps have been chosen?
    • Explain the difference between the following: Assembly Centers, Internment Camps, Justice Department Camps, Isolation Centers, and Temporary Detention Facilities.
    • What difficulties might Japanese American internees have faced while living in these camps? Students can the, using Google Maps , create their own maps of internment locations citing the number of internees within each camp.


Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel) at (

United States History
Level III (Grades 7-8)
Standard 25: Understands the causes and course of World War II, the character of the war at home and abroad, and its reshaping of the U.S. role in world affairs
Benchmark 8: Understands how minority groups were affected by World War II (e.g., how minority groups organized to gain access to wartime jobs and discrimination they faced, factors that led to the internment of Japanese Americans)

Historical Understanding
Standard 1: Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns.
Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective.

Level IV (Grades 9-12)
Standard 18: Understands the role and importance of law in the American constitutional system and issues regarding the judicial protection of individual rights
Benchmark: Knows historical and contemporary instances in which judicial protections have not been extended to all persons and instances in which judicial protections have been extended to those deprived of them in the past.

Language Arts
Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts
Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes

Life Skills: Thinking and Reasoning
Standard 1: Understands and applies the basic principles of presenting an argument
Standard 3: Effectively uses mental processes that are based on identifying similarities and differences.
Standard 5: Applies decision-making techniques.

Handout: Executive Order 9066: Resulting in the Relocation of Japanese (1942)

View original

Executive Order No. 9066
The President
Executive Order Authorizing the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas

Whereas the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national defense premises, and national-defense utilities as defined in Section 4, Act of April 20, 1918, 40 Stat. 533, as amended by the Act of November 30, 1940, 54 Stat. 1220, and the Act of August 21, 1941, 55 Stat. 655 (U.S.C., Title 50, Sec. 104);

Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. The Secretary of War is hereby authorized to provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary, in the judgment of the Secretary of War or the said Military Commander, and until other arrangements are made, to accomplish the purpose of this order. The designation of military areas in any region or locality shall supersede designations of prohibited and restricted areas by the Attorney General under the Proclamations of December 7 and 8, 1941, and shall supersede the responsibility and authority of the Attorney General under the said Proclamations in respect of such prohibited and restricted areas.

I hereby further authorize and direct the Secretary of War and the said Military Commanders to take such other steps as he or the appropriate Military Commander may deem advisable to enforce compliance with the restrictions applicable to each Military area hereinabove authorized to be designated, including the use of Federal troops and other Federal Agencies, with authority to accept assistance of state and local agencies.

I hereby further authorize and direct all Executive Departments, independent establishments and other Federal Agencies, to assist the Secretary of War or the said Military Commanders in carrying out this Executive Order, including the furnishing of medical aid, hospitalization, food, clothing, transportation, use of land, shelter, and other supplies, equipment, utilities, facilities, and services.

This order shall not be construed as modifying or limiting in any way the authority heretofore granted under Executive Order No. 8972, dated December 12, 1941, nor shall it be construed as limiting or modifying the duty and responsibility of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with respect to the investigation of alleged acts of sabotage or the duty and responsibility of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice under the Proclamations of December 7 and 8, 1941, prescribing regulations for the conduct and control of alien enemies, except as such duty and responsibility is superseded by the designation of military areas hereunder.

Franklin D. Roosevelt
The White House,
February 19, 1942.

Transcription courtesy of the History Matters project.

Handout: Executive Order 9066: Background Essay

Issued by President Franklin Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, this order authorized the evacuation of all persons deemed a threat to national security from the West Coast to relocation centers further inland. Between 1861 and 1940, approximately 275,000 Japanese immigrated to Hawaii and the mainland United States, the majority arriving between 1898 and 1924, when quotas were adopted that ended Asian immigration. Many worked in Hawaiian sugarcane fields as contract laborers. After their contracts expired, a small number remained and opened up shops. Other Japanese immigrants settled on the West Coast of mainland United States, cultivating marginal farmlands and fruit orchards, fishing, and operating small businesses. Their efforts yielded impressive results. Japanese Americans controlled less than 4 percent of California’s farmland in 1940, but they produced more than 10 percent of the total value of the state’s farm resources.

As was the case with other immigrant groups, Japanese Americans settled in ethnic neighborhoods and established their own schools, houses of worship, and economic and cultural institutions. Ethnic concentration was further increased by real estate agents who would not sell properties to Japanese Americans outside of existing Japanese enclaves and by a 1913 act passed by the California Assembly restricting land ownership to those eligible to be citizens. In 1922 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Ozawa v. United States, upheld the government’s right to deny U.S. citizenship to Japanese immigrants.

Envy over economic success combined with distrust over cultural separateness and long-standing anti-Asian racism turned into disaster when the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Lobbyists from western states, many representing competing economic interests or nativist groups, pressured Congress and the President to remove persons of Japanese descent from the west coast, both foreign born (issei – meaning “first generation” of Japanese in the U.S.) and American citizens (nisei – the second generation of Japanese in America, U.S. citizens by birthright.) During Congressional committee hearings, Department of Justice representatives raised constitutional and ethical objections to the proposal, so the U.S. Army carried out the task instead. The West Coast was divided into military zones, and on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing exclusion. Congress then implemented the order on March 21, 1942, by passing Public Law 503.

After encouraging voluntary evacuation of the areas, the Western Defense Command began involuntary removal and detention of West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry. In the next 6 months, approximately 122,000 men, women, and children were moved to assembly centers. They were then evacuated to and confined in isolated, fenced, and guarded relocation centers, known as internment camps. The 10 relocation sites were in remote areas in 6 western states and Arkansas: Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Tule Lake and Manzanar in California, Topaz in Utah, Poston and Gila River in Arizona, Granada in Colorado, Minidoka in Idaho, and Jerome and Rowher in Arkansas.

Nearly 70,000 of the evacuees were American citizens. The government made no charges against them, nor could they appeal their incarceration. All lost personal liberties; most lost homes and property as well. Although several Japanese Americans challenged the government’s actions in court cases, the Supreme Court upheld their legality. Nisei were nevertheless encouraged to serve in the armed forces, and some were also drafted. Altogether, more than 30,000 Japanese Americans served with distinction during World War II in segregated units. For many years after the war, various individuals and groups sought compensation for the internees. The speed of the evacuation forced many homeowners and businessmen to sell out quickly; total property loss is estimated at $1.3 billion, and net income loss at $2.7 billion (calculated in 1983 dollars based on the Commission investigation below).

The Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act of 1948, with amendments in 1951 and 1965, provided token payments for some property losses. More serious efforts to make amends took place in the early 1980s, when the congressionally established Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians held investigations and made recommendations. As a result, several bills were introduced in Congress from 1984 until 1988, when Public Law 100-383, which acknowledged the injustice of the internment, apologized for it, and provided for restitution, was passed.