Pacific Postcards

The Propaganda of Japanese Internment

In 1943, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) produced a film titled Japanese Relocation to document and justify the internment of over 110,000 people of Japanese descent, many of them U.S. citizens, on America’s West Coast. The film begins with former WRA director, Milton S. Eisenhower, introducing the film by stating that "this picture tells how the mass migration was accomplished. Neither the Army, nor the War Relocation Authority relish the idea of taking men, women, and children from their homes, their shops, and their farms. So, the military and civilian agencies alike determined to do the job as a democracy should, with real consideration for the people involved” (Japanese Relocation 1:26-1:45).  He goes on to narrate the film which shows video clips of the internment camp and its detainees who are deceitfully depicted as cheerful, passive, and complicit with their internment. Japanese Relocation was produced as propaganda to reassure white Americans that the values of American democracy were being upheld when detaining Japanese Americans and ensuring the public that it was a necessary militaristic safety measure. To evaluate the reasoning behind the hatred of Japanese Americans, we must look back to the events leading up to internment, such as the gold rush of 1889 and the subsequent Pacific Coast race riots of 1907 which targeted Asian Americans on the West Coast. It is here where we see the first big migration of Japanese and other Asian people to the U.S. and where we can locate the beginnings of American xenophobia towards Asian immigrants and viewing the Japanese people as the enemy. The WRA’s propaganda film, Japanese Relocation, uses deceitful language to attempt to justify internment of Japanese people to ease white Americans about the brutality of the camps, and subsequently fueled anti-Japanese sentiments during World War II; this is a microcosm of the orientalist and xenophobic ideology which began with Asian immigration to the U.S. during the gold rush of 1889.

Since the beginning of mass Asian immigration to the U.S., starting with the gold rush of 1889, white Americans viewed immigrants as the enemy because they believed that they were taking away American jobs and opportunities for wealth. This xenophobia remained prevalent throughout the West Coast and manifested through schools segregating Japanese children from their white peers and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Erika Lee examines the history and origins of Asian exclusion in America in her article “The ‘Yellow Peril’ and Asian Exclusion in the Americas.” She cites that President Theodore Roosevelt and other countries in the Americas attempted to promote a “White Pacific,” and how “Roosevelt used the U.S. Navy’s famous sixteen-battleship Pacific tour (December 1907 to February 1909) to demonstrate Anglo-American unity against the ‘Yellow Peril’ that Japanese immigration represented” (Lee, 554). It is useful to look at the origins of anti-Japanese sentiments in America to explain why racial animosity led to the brutal internment camps. The film Japanese Relocation is a prime example of how white Americans justified internment and how they believed it was for the good of both the Japanese and white Americans. 

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 by the Japanese military, the U.S. became hyper-vigilant of its own Japanese American population and in February of 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which declared the West Coast of the U.S. to be a military zone and granted the military the power to extract any person from the declared zone if deemed to be a threat to national security. This executive order was in abrogation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, the former protecting citizens from unreasonable search and seizure and the ladder affording all people born or naturalized in the U.S. citizenship and equal protection under the Constitution. It intentionally targeted Japanese Americans because the military believed that the Nikkei (people of Japanese descent) would infiltrate crucial military points along the Pacific coast, such as oil refineries, boat harbors, and airstrips. The film points out that the Japanese people had conveniently found themselves living near many of these critical military bases. The military was becoming increasingly fearful that Japanese Americans were committing espionage and that they would turn the West Coast of America into a battleground for WWII. But, the enforcement of Executive Order 9066 was an exceedingly radicalized measure, as the U.S. detained a majority of people of Japanese ancestry, but only a small percentage of German Americans. The film depicts the Japanese people to be very understanding of the government’s concerns and willingly leaving their homes, stores and making financial sacrifices for the greater good of the country that doesn’t even consider the Nikkei to be Americans. 

Scott Kurashige examines how Japanese Americans living in Los Angeles reacted to the attack on Pearl Harbor and their attempts to appease the government and prove themselves to be loyal citizens of the United States. In his book Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (2008), he analyzes the attempts of the Japanese American Citizens League, a civil rights group, to unify both Issei (first generation) and Nisei (second generation) as an ethnic community. Although Nisei were American citizens, Kurashige explains that they were seen as non-assimilable. Japanese Americans were asked time and time again to prove their patriotism to America, something that white Americans did not have to do because in their minds, to be American is to be white. Kurashige elaborates on this idea by saying that “the ‘agitation to remove [the Japanese]’ had only now convinced [Americans] that they were ‘a race apart’ and could ‘never be considered American citizens in the full sense of being accepted by other Americans’” (Kurashige, 120). The film Japanese Relocation epitomizes this idea by stating that the “relocation” was in the best interest of all Americans. This statement completely ignores the trauma the Nikkei had to endure during internment. By saying that internment was in the best interest of Americans, the film is excluding the Japanese people from its definition of who is an American. 

The language in the film is intentionally used to deceitfully convince viewers that the Japanese people were submissive and approving of their internment by glossing over the true events and reactions of the Japanese Americans. Eisenhower says that “The Japanese themselves cheerfully handled the enormous paperwork involved in the migration” (Japanese Relocation 3:26-3:31). Words such as mass migration had a positive connotation and were used to convince Americans that the Japanese were willing to move to the internment camps in order to protect their country. By calling the Japanese internees evacuees, the creators of the film are implying that the military is aiding and saving the Nikkei. These false depictions of the views of the Japanese Americans are harmful because it perpetuates the stereotype that the Japanese people are submissive and obedient. Even the film’s title Japanese Relocation frames internment as simply moving Nikkei to the interior of the U.S. and ignoring the obvious violation of civil rights.

 The film Japanese Relocation was not only made for audiences within the U.S. but also other nations during WWII. At the end of the film, Eisenhower states that he hopes that through this film, the U.S. is “setting a standard for the rest of the world in the treatment of people who may have loyalties to an enemy nation. We are protecting ourselves without violating the principles of Christian decency… we hope most earnestly, that our example will influence the Axis powers in their treatment of Americans that fall into their hands” (Japanese Relocation 9:06-9:29). This puts Japanese internment in the U.S. into the global context of WWII and the fear of the Imperialist Japanese military. Orientalism is the way that the West came to terms with the East, and subsequently built a myth of the culture and people. This ideology continuously others the East Asian immigrants and builds a binary of white Americans against everyone else.

The WRA’s propaganda film was successful in convincing Americans that internment was a necessary military precaution, as the majority of Americans supported it at the time. Even the Supreme Court justified internment with the case of  Korematsu v. United States in 1944. It was not until March of 1946 that Executive order 9066 was repealed and in 1988 the government finally issued a formal apology and reparations to survivors of internment. After being released from the internment camps, many families struggled to return to their normal lives and had to live with the trauma of internment. The film Japanese Relocation is emblematic of the larger trends of xenophobia in America against Asian people. The xenophobia and scapegoating associated with people of Asian descent during the Covid-19 pandemic is emblematic of the sentiments from World War II which led to Japanese internment. The brutal attacks on the elderly, being told to go back to your country, and the blame for the pandemic are examples of the xenophobic hatred that Asian Americans still face in the U.S. It is important to analyze Japanese internment to conceptualize how a racial divide led to such a huge violation of civil rights and how we can prevent it from happening again.


Works Cited

Kurashige, Scott. “Japanese American Internment.” The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles, Princeton University Press, 2008, pp. 108–31,

Lee, Erika. “The “Yellow Peril” and Asian Exclusion in the Americas.” Pacific Historical Review, vol. 76, no. 4, 2007, pp. 537–562. University of California Press,

National Archives. “Japanese-American Internment During World War II.” National Archives, 2021, Accessed 5 November 2021.

Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Overseas Operations Branch. New York Office. News and Features Bureau, director. Japanese Internment. Performance by Milton S. Eisenhower, Record Group 208: Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 - 1951, 1943. National Archives Catalog, Accessed 7 November 2021.


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