The San Diego City Council is apologizing for supporting the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Councilmembers on Tuesday rescinded a resolution from January 27, 1942 that urged the FBI to remove Japanese Americans and other “enemy aliens” from the community. The original resolution came days after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which set the stage for the forced removal and incarceration of people of Japanese descent.
“The Council of the City of San Diego apologizes to all people of Japanese ancestry for its past actions in support of the unjust exclusion, removal, and incarceration of Japanese Americas (sic) and residents of Japanese ancestry during World War II, and for its failure to support and defend the civil rights and civil liberties of these individuals during this period,” the new resolution reads.
Japanese Americans had been the targets of racism and discrimination even before the 20th century, but anti-Japanese sentiment escalated dramatically during World War II. On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces bombed the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing more than 2,000 Americans. As a result of the surprise attack, Japanese Americans were scapegoated and vilified, and had their loyalty called into question. The head of the Western Defense Command, General John L. DeWitt, declared them an “enemy race.”
San Diego used similar rhetoric in its 1942 resolution, which the San Diego Public Library discovered last year was still on the books. In collaboration with the San Diego Japanese American Citizens League and the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego, the resolution was brought to the attention of city leaders.
“The Council of the City of San Diego hereby respectfully calls the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the fact that there are in San Diego and vicinity many enemy aliens, especially Japanese, whose continued residence here is considered inimical to the best interests of this vital defense area,” the original resolution reads. “It is urged upon said Federal Bureau of Investigation that said enemy aliens be removed from this vicinity, since their presence here is cause for great concern on the part of the City of San Diego due to existence of known subversive elements.”
Beginning in 1942, more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent – most of them US citizens – were removed from their homes and ultimately forced to live in one of 10 remote concentration camps throughout the West and Arkansas. Though a few Japanese Americans tried to challenge the constitutionality of incarceration, it was upheld by the Supreme Court. The last concentration camp closed in 1946.
The federal government distributed $37 million in reparations in 1948, but it would take decades before the nation reckoned with its gross violation of civil liberties. In 1980, Congress created a commission to examine the impact of incarceration, eventually determining that it was a result of “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” And after years of advocacy by Japanese Americans, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which apologized to Japanese Americans and granted $20,000 in reparations to each surviving person who was incarcerated.
In 2020, California formally apologized for its treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II.