Illustration by Patrick Faricy

A Bold Act of Solidarity

When the U.S. forced tens of thousands of Japanese Americans into prison camps during World War II, 17-year-old Ralph Lazo volunteered to go with them

When Ralph Lazo, a high school student in Los Angeles, saw his Japanese American friends being forced from their homes and into internment camps during World War II, he did something unexpected: He went with them.

The United States government had set up the camps under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order to imprison Japanese Americans following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii a few months earlier. From 1942 to 1946, more than 115,000 people of Japanese ancestry living in the western U.S.—two-thirds of them American citizens and the rest legal immigrants—would be held in 10 camps, located in barren areas of the country.

In the spring of 1942, after seeing his classmates get sent away, 17-year-old
Ralph boarded a train and headed to the Manzanar Relocation Center, an internment camp in eastern California. Unlike the other inmates, Ralph didn’t have to be there. A Mexican American, he was the only known person to pretend to be Japanese so he could be willingly incarcerated.

What compelled Ralph to give up his freedom for two and a half years—sleeping in tar-paper-covered barracks, using open latrines and showers, and waiting on long lines for meals in mess halls, on grounds surrounded by barbed-wire fencing and watched by guards in towers? He wanted to be with his friends.

“My Japanese American friends at high school were ordered to evacuate the West Coast,” Ralph told the Los Angeles Times in 1944, “so I decided to go along with them.”

When Ralph Lazo, a high school student in Los Angeles, saw his Japanese American friends being forced from their homes and into internment camps during World War II, he did something unexpected: He went with them.

The United States government had set up the camps under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order to imprison Japanese Americans following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii a few months earlier. From 1942 to 1946, more than 115,000 people of Japanese ancestry living in the western U.S.—two-thirds of them American citizens and the rest legal immigrants—would be held in 10 camps, located in barren areas of the country.

In the spring of 1942, after seeing his classmates get sent away, 17-year-old
Ralph boarded a train and headed to the Manzanar Relocation Center, an internment camp in eastern California. Unlike the other inmates, Ralph didn’t have to be there. A Mexican American, he was the only known person to pretend to be Japanese so he could be willingly incarcerated.

What compelled Ralph to give up his freedom for two and a half years—sleeping in tar-paper-covered barracks, using open latrines and showers, and waiting on long lines for meals in mess halls, on grounds surrounded by barbed-wire fencing and watched by guards in towers? He wanted to be with his friends.

“My Japanese American friends at high school were ordered to evacuate the West Coast,” Ralph told the Los Angeles Times in 1944, “so I decided to go along with them.”

Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Inmates at the Santa Anita “assembly center,” awaiting transfer to an internment camp

Mass Hysteria

Today the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II is remembered as one of our nation’s gravest injustices. Loyal Americans, many of whom had been active in their communities, churches, and schools, were locked up not because of any crimes they’d committed, but simply because of their ethnicity. Yet at the time, not many people were willing to stand up for Japanese Americans. Ralph Lazo was one of the few who did.

“There were very small numbers of active allies,” says Eric Muller, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law and a scholar of Japanese internment. “There were almost no groups nationally in 1942 that stood up for and alongside Japanese Americans.”

The nation turned on its Japanese American citizens after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which thrust the U.S. into World War II against Japan and its Axis allies, Germany and Italy (see timeline, below). Just hours after the attack, F.B.I. agents raided the homes of Japanese American community and religious leaders, imprisoning anyone suspected of secretly working for the enemy. These suspicions were based on scant evidence. Simply owning books that contained Japanese characters could be cause for arrest.

The Los Angeles Police Department shut down businesses in the Little Tokyo area, and teachers barred Japanese American students from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Asian immigrants in the U.S. had long faced discrimination, dating back to the 19th century, when tens of thousands of immigrants from China arrived to work in gold mines, and later, build railroads. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred immigrants from China for 60 years. And in 1917, out of a fear that Asians would take jobs away from whites, the U.S. suspended immigration of most East Asians. Then, in 1924, it barred all ethnic Japanese except those born in the U.S. from gaining citizenship.

Today the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II is remembered as one of our nation’s gravest injustices. Loyal Americans, many of whom had been active in their communities, churches, and schools, were locked up not because of any crimes they’d committed, but simply because of their ethnicity. Yet at the time, not many people were willing to stand up for Japanese Americans. Ralph Lazo was one of the few who did.

“There were very small numbers of active allies,” says Eric Muller, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law and a scholar of Japanese internment. “There were almost no groups nationally in 1942 that stood up for and alongside Japanese Americans.”

The nation turned on its Japanese American citizens after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which thrust the U.S. into World War II against Japan and its Axis allies, Germany and Italy (see timeline, below). Just hours after the attack, F.B.I. agents raided the homes of Japanese American community and religious leaders, imprisoning anyone suspected of secretly working for the enemy. These suspicions were based on scant evidence. Simply owning books that contained Japanese characters could be cause for arrest.

The Los Angeles Police Department shut down businesses in the Little Tokyo area, and teachers barred Japanese American students from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Asian immigrants in the U.S. had long faced discrimination, dating back to the 19th century, when tens of thousands of immigrants from China arrived to work in gold mines, and later, build railroads. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred immigrants from China for 60 years. And in 1917, out of a fear that Asians would take jobs away from whites, the U.S. suspended immigration of most East Asians. Then, in 1924, it barred all ethnic Japanese except those born in the U.S. from gaining citizenship.

They were imprisoned for one reason: their ethnicity.

But this anti-Japanese sentiment peaked after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Many politicians, the press, and military officials propagated rumors that people of Japanese ancestry, even those born in the U.S., might secretly aid Japan should it invade the West Coast.

In reality, not one person of Japanese ancestry in the U.S. was ever charged with espionage or sabotage during the war. And the State Department’s own report had concluded that Japanese Americans didn’t pose a national security threat. But that didn’t stop the hysteria from spreading.

Some Californians in the agricultural business were eager to perpetuate these myths too. More than 40 percent of the state’s crops came from farms owned by Japanese Americans, so they stood to gain from less competition if Japanese Americans could no longer operate their farms.

On February 19, 1942, at the urging of every member of Congress from California, Oregon, and Washington, as well as from military advisers, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the military to designate zones in which certain citizens couldn’t live.

But this anti-Japanese sentiment peaked after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Many politicians, the press, and military officials propagated rumors that people of Japanese ancestry, even those born in the U.S., might secretly aid Japan should it invade the West Coast.

In reality, not one person of Japanese ancestry in the U.S. was ever charged with espionage or sabotage during the war. And the State Department’s own report had concluded that Japanese Americans didn’t pose a national security threat. But that didn’t stop the hysteria from spreading.

Some Californians in the agricultural business were eager to perpetuate these myths too. More than 40 percent of the state’s crops came from farms owned by Japanese Americans, so they stood to gain from less competition if Japanese Americans could no longer operate their farms.

On February 19, 1942, at the urging of every member of Congress from California, Oregon, and Washington, as well as from military advisers, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the military to designate zones in which certain citizens couldn’t live.

The Granger Collection (sign); Bettmann/Getty Images (Manzanar Internment Camp)

Prisoners at Home (clockwise from bottom left): after the Pearl Harbor attack, a sign outside a store owned by a Japanese American in Oakland, California; military-style barracks at the Manzanar internment camp.

Behind Barbed Wire

By May, all people of Japanese ancestry in California, the western halves of Washington and Oregon, and southern Arizona were forced to abandon their homes, businesses, and schools. Orphans and foster children of Japanese ancestry who were living with white parents were rounded up too. They were all sent to 10 watchtower-guarded camps run by the Army in remote areas around the U.S. (see map).

Unlike most Americans, Ralph Lazo wasn’t swept up by the anti-Japanese sentiment. His family lived near the Little Tokyo area of Los Angeles, and at the ethnically diverse Belmont High School, he counted Japanese Americans among his closest friends. As many were distancing themselves from their Japanese neighbors—or worse, attacking them verbally or physically—his identification with his friends grew deeper.

“Who can say I haven’t got Japanese blood in me?” he said in 1944. “Who knows what kind of blood runs in my veins?”

Before he left for internment, he told his father he was “going to camp,” creating the impression that he was going to summer camp. His father didn’t press him, and neither did government officials, whose system for entry into the camps relied largely on self-reporting, Muller, the U.N.C. professor, says.

By May, all people of Japanese ancestry in California, the western halves of Washington and Oregon, and southern Arizona were forced to abandon their homes, businesses, and schools. Orphans and foster children of Japanese ancestry who were living with white parents were rounded up too. They were all sent to 10 watchtower-guarded camps run by the Army in remote areas around the U.S. (see map).

Unlike most Americans, Ralph Lazo wasn’t swept up by the anti-Japanese sentiment. His family lived near the Little Tokyo area of Los Angeles, and at the ethnically diverse Belmont High School, he counted Japanese Americans among his closest friends. As many were distancing themselves from their Japanese neighbors—or worse, attacking them verbally or physically—his identification with his friends grew deeper.

“Who can say I haven’t got Japanese blood in me?” he said in 1944. “Who knows what kind of blood runs in my veins?”

Before he left for internment, he told his father he was “going to camp,” creating the impression that he was going to summer camp. His father didn’t press him, and neither did government officials, whose system for entry into the camps relied largely on self-reporting, Muller, the U.N.C. professor, says.

Jim McMahon

When Ralph’s dad found out where his son had really gone, he didn’t reprimand him. “My father was a very wise man,” Ralph said in 1981. “He probably was very happy I was there.”

About 10,000 people were imprisoned at the Manzanar internment camp, where they lived in military-style barracks in punishing summer desert heat. They slept in cramped quarters on mattresses made of hay, ate meals of canned hot dogs and spinach, and were forced to work in the camp’s factories, making clothes and mattresses, or on the farm for little pay.

Despite their grim surroundings, they demonstrated resiliency, recreating the rhythms of normal life by running schools, newspapers, sports teams, gardens, and hiking clubs, all of which the government allowed.

Many at Manzanar were aware of Ralph’s ethnicity. One of his classmates at the camp, Rosie Kakuuchi, says that Ralph spent time amusing the orphaned children at Manzanar with games and jokes. He had a quirky way of telling stories, and one Christmas he rallied 30 friends to go caroling at the camp.

“We accepted him and loved him,” Kakuuchi, now 93, says. “He was just one of us.”

When Ralph’s dad found out where his son had really gone, he didn’t reprimand him. “My father was a very wise man,” Ralph said in 1981. “He probably was very happy I was there.”

About 10,000 people were imprisoned at the Manzanar internment camp, where they lived in military-style barracks in punishing summer desert heat. They slept in cramped quarters on mattresses made of hay, ate meals of canned hot dogs and spinach, and were forced to work in the camp’s factories, making clothes and mattresses, or on the farm for little pay.

Despite their grim surroundings, they demonstrated resiliency, recreating the rhythms of normal life by running schools, newspapers, sports teams, gardens, and hiking clubs, all of which the government allowed.

Many at Manzanar were aware of Ralph’s ethnicity. One of his classmates at the camp, Rosie Kakuuchi, says that Ralph spent time amusing the orphaned children at Manzanar with games and jokes. He had a quirky way of telling stories, and one Christmas he rallied 30 friends to go caroling at the camp.

“We accepted him and loved him,” Kakuuchi, now 93, says. “He was just one of us.”

Japanese American National Museum

Ralph Lazo and his Japanese American friends at Manzanar

A Brave Ally

It wasn’t until August 1944, when Ralph was drafted into the Army, that the government discovered his secret. But he didn’t face any repercussions. In fact, the government issued a news release disclosing his unusual story. Ralph left the camp to serve in the Pacific until 1946, receiving a Bronze Star for bravery among other honors.

In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled that the government may not detain “loyal” citizens. The following year, the War Department announced that internees were free to leave, and the last internment camp closed in 1946. Japanese Americans began the difficult process of rebuilding their lives. Many had lost their homes, property, and jobs.

After the war, Ralph maintained ties to the Japanese American community. He attended Manzanar reunions and supported efforts to secure reparations for Japanese Americans (see “Reparations for a ‘Grave Wrong’ ”).

He was 67 when he died of liver disease in 1992. In his lifetime, he sought to deflect the spotlight. In 1981 he urged a reporter to turn the focus away from him and toward what he considered to be the more important story.

“Please write about the injustice of the [internment],” he said. “This is the real issue.”

It wasn’t until August 1944, when Ralph was drafted into the Army, that the government discovered his secret. But he didn’t face any repercussions. In fact, the government issued a news release disclosing his unusual story. Ralph left the camp to serve in the Pacific until 1946, receiving a Bronze Star for bravery among other honors.

In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled that the government may not detain “loyal” citizens. The following year, the War Department announced that internees were free to leave, and the last internment camp closed in 1946. Japanese Americans began the difficult process of rebuilding their lives. Many had lost their homes, property, and jobs.

After the war, Ralph maintained ties to the Japanese American community. He attended Manzanar reunions and supported efforts to secure reparations for Japanese Americans (see “Reparations for a ‘Grave Wrong’ ”).

He was 67 when he died of liver disease in 1992. In his lifetime, he sought to deflect the spotlight. In 1981 he urged a reporter to turn the focus away from him and toward what he considered to be the more important story.

“Please write about the injustice of the [internment],” he said. “This is the real issue.”

Veronica Majerol is a senior staff editor at The New York Times.

Veronica Majerol is a senior staff editor at The New York Times.

Reparations for a ‘Grave Wrong’

How the U.S. government apologized for internment

Courtesy of Department of Justice, Office of Redress Administration

One of the first reparations checks, given to 107-year-old Mamoru Eto in 1990

For several years after the last internment camp closed in 1946, many Japanese Americans didn’t talk about their experiences. Some were too traumatized; others were embarrassed by being labeled enemies to their nation. But the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s inspired some younger Japanese Americans to speak out about the injustices their families had faced.

They started the redress campaign, urging the U.S. government to issue a formal apology and approve more than $1 billion for reparations. In 1988, calling the internments “a grave wrong,” President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which provided a $20,000 payment for each surviving internee. More than 80,000 people received a payment.

A letter sent out with the checks read: “A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years. . . . But we can take a clear stand for justice.”

—Joe Bubar

For several years after the last internment camp closed in 1946, many Japanese Americans didn’t talk about their experiences. Some were too traumatized; others were embarrassed by being labeled enemies to their nation. But the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s inspired some younger Japanese Americans to speak out about the injustices their families had faced. 

They started the redress campaign, urging the U.S. government to issue a formal apology and approve more than $1 billion for reparations. In 1988, calling the internments “a grave wrong,” President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which provided a $20,000 payment for each surviving internee. More than 80,000 people received a payment.

A letter sent out with the checks read: “A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years. . . . But we can take a clear stand for justice.”

—Joe Bubar

TIMELINE: World war II

Heinrich Hoffmann/Archive Photos/Getty Images

1933: Hitler’s Rule Begins

After the Nazi Party wins elections, its leader, Adolf Hitler, becomes chancellor (similar to president) of Germany, using Jews as a scapegoat for the nation’s problems.

After the Nazi Party wins elections, its leader, Adolf Hitler, becomes chancellor (similar to president) of Germany, using Jews as a scapegoat for the nation’s problems. 

1936-37: Japanese Aggression

Japan allies itself with Germany and Italy. In 1937, it attacks China, killing hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and prisoners of war.

Japan allies itself with Germany and Italy. In 1937, it attacks China, killing hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and prisoners of war.

1939: World War II Begins

Germany invades Poland, leading Britain and France to declare war. In 1941, the Nazis invade the Soviet Union. At the height of its power, Germany dominates most of Europe.

Germany invades Poland, leading Britain and France to declare war. In 1941, the Nazis invade the Soviet Union. At the height of its power, Germany dominates most of Europe.

Mondadori via Getty Images

The USS Arizona sinks during the Pearl Harbor attack.

1941: U.S. Enters the War

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7 brings the U.S. into the war. By late 1942, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union stalls, turning the tide against the Nazis.

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7 brings the U.S. into the war. By late 1942, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union stalls, turning the tide against the Nazis.