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.