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How World War II Era Internment Camps Changed Little Tokyo, Los Angeles and America

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When Laws that Shaped L.A. columnist Jeremy Rosenberg asked Sharon Sekhon, founder and director of the Studio for Southern California History**, for her nomination of a key law, Sekhon emailed the below essay in reply. Rosenberg's voice returns to this space next week.

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A."¨
Law: Executive Order 9066
Year: 1942
Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: Sharon Sekhon

By Sharon Sekhon

Executive Order 9066 issued by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on February 19, 1942 declared certain U.S. areas as military zones, paving the way for the incarceration of over 120,000 men, women, and children in relocation centers known as internment camps in remote parts Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado and Idaho. The overwhelming majority were Americans of Japanese descent. None were ever found to have been spies or enemy combatants.

While this law influenced all of the West Coast, Executive Order 9066 altered the physical and psychological makeup of Los Angeles in ways that reverberate today. All individuals lost their personal freedoms, and most lost homes and property. Several forces challenged Executive Order 9066 during and after internment, but the Supreme Court upheld its legality. Ultimately, President Ronald Reagan issued a formal apology and monetary compensation for victims of internment over forty years later.

The effects of the mass incarceration of innocent people permanently shaped the psychology of this community and the physical make up of Little Tokyo, a commercial and cultural enclave that originated in Los Angeles in 1886 along San Pedro Street.

Little Tokyo's naming was inscribed by the neighborhood's temples, churches, restaurants and businesses. The community's newspaper The Rafu Shimpo was established in 1909. By 1910 Los Angeles County was the most populous county with Japanese Americans in the United States with approximately 8,500 people. The summer time celebration of this community known as "Nisei Week" was established in 1934 and promoted by the Japanese American Citizen's League, according to historian Lon Kurashige.

Undoubtedly, places like Arcadia's Santa Anita Race Track (which served as a holding facility for internees prior to their voyage to the camps) have layers of meaning to those who were imprisoned there and residents who saw the incarceration of neighbors and friends.

Historian Hillary Jenks carefully documents the neighborhoods of Little Tokyo and the diversity of this space because of World War II internment and the creation of a "Bronzeville" in the empty homes of former Japanese American residents. African Americans were able to move into these places due to the seemingly perennial housing crises that characterize Los Angeles but were particularly intense during World War II.

According to historians, over 1/3 of internees relocated to new areas after the war after being released. Many former Los Angelenos chose to re-locate elsewhere, like the Midwest in the case of Iva Ikuko Toguri, an American patriot who was falsely accused of being "Tokyo Rose" by Walter Winchell.

Toguri graduated from UCLA in the spring of 1941 and was visiting family in Japan when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. She was trapped in the country during the duration of the war. She chose to move to Chicago after World War II. Other victims internalized the terror of being falsely imprisoned and some taught their children to fear authority and excel academically, engendering the "Model Minority" myth that would serve as a double edged sword to students who did not succeed in school and minimizing the efforts of those who did achieve excellence. (More information is here.)

Filmmaker Janice Tanaka explores how the children of internment victims were often unaware of what "the camps" actually meant when family members, albeit rarely, referred to internment. Tanaka's film "When You're Smiling" documents how this generation internalized the trauma of internment and expressed this despair in gang activity, drug abuse and self-hatred that had to be addressed by talking about this history and acknowledging the terrible wounds that remained long after World War II.

Since World War II Little Tokyo transformed to be somewhat of a living memorial park with acknowledgements to the history of Little Tokyo and the contributions of Japanese Americans to the United States. In 1982 community activists noted a need for a national museum to relay this important history and ten years later the Japanese American National Museum opened. (See this oral history project.)
While Little Tokyo's public monuments to Japanese Americans have increased since World War II, the current neighborhood shows the current economic crises: areas designated for wealthy lofts and public spaces sit adjacent to homeless individuals from neighboring skid row. (See: Jenks.) The federal 1947 criminalization of racially restrictive covenants opened the door for former residents to move to the West side, the South Bay and other parts of Los Angeles County previously restricted to "whites only."

Without Executive Order 9066, the history of the United States would have been radically different and Los Angeles' understanding of the role of Japanese Americans in creating this beautiful city would be better understood. The vilification of an entire culture echoes in contemporary struggles with those with Asian phenotypes to be considered "American" as explored eloquently by historian Ronald Takaki and recently reflected on the media's racist comments on Taiwanese American Jeremy Lin. Takaki's 1993 textbook A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America opens with him relaying his frustration at strangers who compliment him on his grasp of the English language and treat him as an immigrant, despite being a third generation American.

While the Japanese American National Museum has created amazing educational programming that teaches visitors about this history, few educators implement these lessons into California classrooms; state requirements for learning local history end at the fourth grade and terminate in the "Mission" period of California history, 1769-1833.

Japanese Americans planted trees and created gardens across Southern California that appear ironically rootless because of our lack of connecting place to the internment experience. My favorite example of these green spaces is the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration.

On December 7, 1941, the evening Japanese fighter pilots bombed Honolulu, Hawaii, the FBI arrested Mary Ishizuka's father from their Los Angeles home at 9:00 p.m. and incarcerated him for the duration of World War II.

Mary's father Kuichiro Nishi owned the Nishi Nursery Company. He, like other established Japanese Americans with access to capital and perceived to be a community leader, was arrested and incarcerated in Fort Missoula, Montana during the war, although his family had no idea of his whereabouts. His twenty-year-old business was valued over $100,000, was noted for its exotic supply of mature plants and trees, and had "Americana" celebrity clients like Will Rogers and Shirley Temple. Immediately prior to internment, Ishizuka's mother donated the nursery holdings to the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration.

According to Mary, "My mother was so angry that she was offered so little for the nursery that she decided to just donate it to the government, to our neighbors, [and] the Veterans Administration." Some of the Nishi stock can be seen along the 405 freeway and are symbols of the family's desperate patriotism and bear witness to an unspoken history.

-- Sharon Sekhon
(as emailed to Jeremy Rosenberg)

The Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated by a variety of experts - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority.

**Jeremy Rosenberg has written for the Studio.

Top Photo: Second grade class picture of students at Manzanar Relocation Camp, 1945. Photo and photo caption courtesy The Los Angeles Public Library.

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