Fractured Ideals: Japanese American Internment through a Government Lens, Part 2: Japanese Relocation

February 19, 2017, is the 75th Anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066. Issued in 1942, soon after the United States’ entry into the Second World War, EO 9066 authorized the Secretary of War to designate military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded” and “provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary … to accomplish the purpose of this order.”

Though the text of EO 9066 does not contain the word “Japanese,” the intent and effect was the creation of a sweeping program to remove 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent from their homes in coastal California, Oregon, and Washington State in the name of national security. Though the language of the time called this an “evacuation” or “mass migration,” those affected were forced to leave their communities as the Federal government moved them to heavily-guarded camps in isolated areas hundreds of miles away.

The Film Record

The newly-created War Relocation Authority (WRA) heavily documented the government’s program of Japanese American incarceration from 1942 through 1945, so we have many opportunities to understand how the camps looked, how they were laid out, and what the Federal government said about them.

The WRA collaborated with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Office of War Information (OWI), the War Department, and the War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry to make films intended for several different audiences. The films are most definitely propaganda, but they reveal points of tension between the actions of the government and the democratic ideals the nation was fighting a war to defend.

Japanese Relocation

Japanese Relocation was produced by the OWI and distributed by the War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry. Milton S. Eisenhower, director of the WRA for its first 90 days of existence, describes the film as a “historical record” of the operation to remove Japanese Americans from military areas. The film does provide a visual record of some of the economic devastation of EO 9066. We see vacant shops and businesses, and impounded fishing boats in California. The narrator notes that “the quick disposal of property often involved financial sacrifice” by Japanese Americans.

The intended audience for Japanese Relocation was not only Americans. Narration at the end of the film frames the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans as a standard to be followed by its enemies abroad and expresses hope that the “fundamental decency” of this American example “will influence the Axis powers in their treatment of Americans who fall into their hands.”

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