The executive order didn’t specify Japanese-Americans as the target; rather, it gave the War Department the authority to remove from designated military zones anyone considered a threat to the U.S. People of Japanese heritage living on the West Coast were feared to be spies for the Axis powers and transported to “accommodations” set up by the military.
“West Coast zones were seen as vulnerable for attack by Japan, so [the military] created a zone of exclusion” and kicked Japanese and Japanese-American residents out of it, says Jennifer Locke Jones, curator of “Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II.” “The hysteria of a two-front war led to the executive order, and the military determined who it would exclude and remove.”
Japanese-American families living in California, western Washington state, western Oregon and southern Arizona were rounded up and shipped off to internment camps further inland, where they lived under strict supervision until the war ended — and in some cases, up to a year afterward. “No charges were ever brought, and no one was ever found guilty of espionage,” Jones says of the internees, who were all effectively treated like spies during the war.
Commemorating the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, the exhibit is bookended by a display of the original fateful document and the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which issued an official apology and granted reparations. In between are more than 100 objects from the museum’s collection, and items newly acquired from the families of the internees. These include official documents concerning the “evacuations,” birth and death certificates, family photos, ID tags, school yearbooks, newspapers, war medals and handmade art from various camps.
One particularly memorable object is a box containing several hand-carved wooden birds, above, made by Sadao Oka from Monterey, Calif., while he was interned at the Poston camp in Arizona. Many internees — especially those too young or too old to work in the camps — found themselves spending hours on arts and crafts.
“The older generation had a popular bird-carving workshop,” says museum specialist Noriko Sanefuji, who helped acquire many of the objects for the collection, including the bird box. “The birds are made from scrap wood and inspired by books and magazines. The focus on birds is symbolic for people who don’t have their freedom.” Many of these carved birds became buttons and pins, and boys in the camp would give them to their girlfriends as gifts.
“The exhibition is about how life goes on,” Jones says. “You can’t right a wrong; you can only redress it.”
National Museum of American History, 1400 Constitution Ave. NW; Fri. through Feb. 20, 2018, free.