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Japanese American Internment Camps and the Story of Masaru Kawaguchi

Joseph Bjornson

On the peaceful Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, the code words “Tora! Tora! Tora!” streamed across the airwaves from a Japanese divebomber (Tunnell and Chilcoat, 1). Sailors and airmen hardly had time to man their battle stations as the Japanese aircraft carriers launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Naval Fleet at Pearl Harbor. When the attack was over, a large part of the fleet was lost to the ocean. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called this attack a “day that will live in infamy.” More importantly, Bryan Grapes, editor of Japanese American Internment Camps, claims it triggered “one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of the country: The establishment of concentration camps in America” (12).

America already had resentment against Japanese Americans immigrating to America, but the attack on Pearl Harbor gave Americans a reason to ignite their old hatred. The idea of “yellow peril” struck the hearts of many Americans, so President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 out of the government’s fear of future attacks by Japan assisted by Japanese Americans. This order relocated over 110,000 Japanese Americans into 10 internment camps scattered across the western part of the country even though two-thirds of them showed no disloyalty. Masaru Kawaguchi, then a 16-year-old Japanese American, experienced life in the internment camps in America. He was an average U.S. citizen: born and raised in San Francisco, California; involved in boy scouts; and the championship basketball team at Washington High School (Kawaguchi, 1). However, his life fell apart when his family was forced to relocate to the Topaz Internment Camp in Utah. Kawaguchi’s story is an example of how America made one of the biggest mistakes in history with the passing of Executive Order 9066. This Order forced the relocation of Japanese Americans into internment camps, caused Japanese Americans to struggle through life in those camps, and discriminated against Japanese Americans after their freedom was given to them.

Because of Executive Order 9066, the government immediately set restrictions on Japanese Americans. Restaurants, stores, and businesses refused to serve any Japanese Americans (Tunnell and Chilcoat, 3), and the military notified the Japanese Americans they could not leave a five mile radius of their homes (Grapes, 19). Kawaguchi did not notice the restrictions until he was notified that he could not attend school or play with his basketball team at Washington High School. Kawaguchi claimed, “I’m Japanese and when Japan does something, everybody thinks it’s me doing it” (Kawaguchi, 8). People blamed Japanese Americans for Japan’s actions just because of their race.

The restrictions worsened when the police departments posted a notice stating every Japanese American was to pack up only what could be carried and to sell the rest of their personal belongings in two weeks (Grapes, 20). Kawaguchi remembered how it felt to pack up his belongings, saying, “That was one of the most frightening things for us because we were just told to pack up—and leave” (Kawaguchi, 29). People were forced to leave behind their hopes and dreams while fighting with the idea “to surrender freedom in a country that [they] sincerely [felt was] fighting for freedom” (Tunnell and Chilcoat, 9). Once the Japanese Americans were at their departure points, the government forced these people into trains of 30 people for a two day ride into the relocation camps. A guard would stand at each door keeping the shades drawn to hide the transportation of Japanese Americans. There was only one toilet for each car that dropped down on the tracks, and every person in the car had to sleep on the floor (Bernstein, 150-151). Kawaguchi explained how everyone was definitely concerned and that “We were just like sheep. We just obeyed orders. That’s what I say about the Japanese. They are very obedient about that. They take orders and they just followed” (Kawaguchi, 20). Ironically, Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not evacuated at all and the attack on Pearl Harbor was in Hawaii. This action exemplifies that the evacuation was based on racism and not military necessity. 

Besides the relocation process, the life in the internment camps had a drastic effect on the Japanese Americans. The relocation camps were built from scratch in the middle of a desert and barricaded by a barbed-wire fence. The camp housing consisted of tall paper barracks separated into 42 blocks, each with a mess hall (Bernstein, 158-159). There were only about a dozen bathrooms and showers in each block, so there was a mad rush to use those facilities. In addition to the bathrooms, Kawaguchi claimed, “Life at Topaz revolves around the mess hall time because if you don’t eat at that time you don’t get fed” (Kawaguchi, 21). He remembers hearing a bell to distinguish when it was time for people to line up to eat a meal and that the food was not particularly good.

To pass the time between meals, Kawaguchi was involved in his block’s basketball team. At least each block had basketball and baseball teams that were engaged in competitions to claim bragging rights for the best team. Kawaguchi remembered how basketball was one of the activities that kept him going. He believed “that was the biggest thing for us younger folks, to play baseball and basketball” (Kawaguchi, 23). Despite the competitive sports teams, most people still felt the camp was like a prison. Guards were posted at different locations around the fence. Kawaguchi felt the containment, saying, “You definitely knew that you were in a jail because they had the soldiers up there with the rifles” (Kawaguchi, 24). The enforcement at the camps was strict, which could be seen in this one time when a man was shot after stepping too close to the fence. Japanese Americans would soon realize how the effects of discrimination still haunted them after the closing of the camps.

Japanese Americans felt their lives turned for the worst going through the internment camps. Before these people were freed, questionnaires came to the camps to test the loyalty of the internees. Kawaguchi remembered questions asked to his parents like, “Do you pledge loyalty to the United States and forsake the Emperor?” However, with these questions, people assumed answering “yes” would mean admitting there was such an allegiance to Japan. Another question asked about service in the army. Questionnaires asked, “Would you be willing to serve in the United States Service?” Again, Kawaguchi gave his reaction, “Can you imagine that? Here you’re in jail, and they said you’re going to be drafted into the service” (Kawaguchi, 27). The scary thought that arose from these questions is that people who refused to pledge themselves to America were relocated to another part of the camp for suspicious activity (Daniels, 114). 

Finally, the internment camps closed in 1945 and 1946. Although America took a step in the right direction by closing the camps, it did not end the discrimination towards Japanese Americans. In 1983, Congress apologized for the injustice with enforcement of internment camps and, as a token of apology, gave each survivor $20,000. Kawaguchi stated this was hardly enough to pay for what he went through, but he put it to good use for his children’s education. Kawaguchi is now married and watching his three children grow up to be successful adults.

Japanese Americans dealt with the hardships of America’s injustice through the enforcement of internment camps. These people experienced mass evacuations as their hopes and dreams were left behind, the struggles of living in prisonlike conditions in a camp full of the fear of no future, and the discrimination accompanied by many Americans who had not let go of old hatred. In the end, the country was slow to accept the wrongs of the Japanese American internment camps, and Japanese Americans learned that “Constitutional rights were not an individual and personal guarantee if one were an American of Japanese ancestry” (Bernstein, 299). However, Kawaguchi just wants America to know “that the Japanese aren’t the bad guys [after] all” (Kawaguchi, 41).



Bernstein, Joan. Personal Justice Denied. Washington, D.C.: The Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, 1997.

Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps USA: Japanese Americans and World War II. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1972.

Grapes, Bryan. Japanese American Internment Camps. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2001.

Kawaguchi, Masaru. Interview by Brett S., Marshall H., Robbie D., Zach W., Aaron B., and Mario G. Transcript. Telling Their Stories. The Urban School of San Francisco. April 27, 2005, May 9, 2006.

Tunnell, Michael, and George Chilcoat. The Children of Topaz. New York: Holiday House, 1996.

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