by Richard Lawrence Miller

(c) 2001 Richard L. Miller

published on the Forfeiture Endangers American Rights website 11/6/2001

all other rights reserved

Internment was publicized as a national security measure responding to a military threat. Contemporary observers, however, wondered if internment was actually directed against an economic threat that some Americans saw in fellow Americans of Japanese descent. One half of employed Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were in agriculture. They were the largest force in California's fruit and vegetable markets; agricultural experts expected thirty-five percent of California's 1942 truck crops to come from Japanese-Americans.1 Japanese-American farms in 1940 were worth $72 million plus $6 million in equipment. Per acre their farms were worth $279.96, in contrast to the average value of $37.94 for all California farms. "I find no popular demand for the efforts to drive the so-called alien enemies from California," said one indignant attorney. "The clamor seems to come from chambers of commerce, Associated Farmers, and the newspapers notorious as spokesmen for reactionary interests. In view of this fact, effort should be made to determine whether there is any connection between the clamor for the dispossession of the Japanese farmers and the desire of these clamoring interests to get possession of the Japanese farms and the elimination of the Japanese competition."2 The attorney's analysis was shared by others. "The great cry of 'Kick the Japanese out of the Yakima Valley' is not due to fear of sabotage, it is due to economic reasons. As one person naively explained to me, 'The white farmer would have more land and more water if he could get rid of the Japanese, and he could demand a higher price for his farm produce.'"3 An editorial in Christian Century warned against "action whose real end is the destruction of Japanese competitors of American firms."4 The Japanese-American Citizens League in Seattle reported "agitation being conducted by interests which would profit from removal of Japanese."5 The Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association was frank on this point: "If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we don't want them back when the war ends, either."6 Attorney General Francis Biddle told President Roosevelt, "Various special interests would welcome their [Japanese-American] removal from good farm land and the elimination of their competition."7 Said one Monterey County farmer about the exodus of Japanese-Americans, "We can go out to our American farmers and from a patriotic standpoint, if nothing else, get them to take up any part of the acreage that the canners deem sufficient or necessary to maintain California's position in the production of canned tomatos."8 The California Evacuated Farms Association of the U.S. Farm Security Administration helped farmers acquire property of Japanese-American competitors. This help apparently included "special loans."9 A victim described how such loans could work. "Negotiations were made through the Farm Security Administration to then sell the crop and all farm equipment to a Caucasian. A loan was secured by this Caucasian to pay Manhichi for the agreed price. Before the loan arrived, Manhichi was sent to the Walerga Assembly Center [a minimum security prison]. The Caucasian . . . returned the loan to the Farm Security Administration, clearing himself of his debt. . . . To this day, my dad never received a penny from that particular sale."10

Japanese-American farms were not the only targets; city real estate was sought as well. Abandoned urban property did not languish. The mayor of Los Angeles assured a U.S. congressman, "Property within this city formerly occupied or used by the Japanese will not remain idle or fall into a state of disrepair."11

A Seattle resident noted destructive effects of confiscation: "Any large-scale removal of these economically well-rooted Japanese-Americans would have a disastrous effect upon them. You can move a family several hundred miles quite easily, but you cannot move a grocery or farm or hotel, much less the business good-will which is its mainstay."12 Decades later a federal commission agreed: "Businesses lost their good will, their reputation, their customers. Professionals had their careers disrupted."13

If Japanese aliens residing in the United States had traveled outside the continental United States at any time since June 17, 1940, their assets were frozen. This measure affected more persons than is readily apparent. As with Germans who could be Jewish nationals but not German citizens, many Americans could be Japanese nationals but not United States citizens. In the 1940s federal law excluded any immigrant born in Japan from U.S. citizenship. Someone could have lived in the United States for decades and have children who were U.S. citizens, but hold the status of enemy alien because the law did not allow the person to apply for citizenship. Frozen bank accounts prevented many victims from leaving the West Coast (and thereby escaping internment) because they could not pay for movers or other needs associated with moving.14 Not only did confiscations thereby dovetail with concentration, they also dovetailed with ostracism. In Arizona "under the maliciously devised anti-evacuee law, a hotel room, a meal, or even a loaf of bread could not be purchased without first publishing a public notice of such intent at least three times and filing a copy of such notice with the Secretary of State. In one case . . . the Standard Oil Company was fined $1,000 for selling $9.25 worth of gas to a Nisei [Japanese-American]."15 Aliens who had not left the continental United States since June 17, 1940 could retain use of their property but had to complete federal inventory Form TFR-300 if their belongings had a total value of $1,000. Federal Reserve Banks kept track of completed forms.16 Aliens were forbidden to do anything that would signficantly reduce the value of registered property.17 After the war began a federal Alien Property Custodian seized the property from those victims.18

In contrast, U.S. citizens of Japanese descent lost their property through a process similar to Aryanization in Nazi Germany, by which covetous persons and corporations acquired valid titles under dubious circumstances. After Japanese-Americans received official notice that they would be shipped to an "assembly center" (a minimum security prison) where they would await transport to a "relocation center" (concentration camp), they had five to fourteen days to make arrangements.19 Victims could take bed linen, a few changes of clothing, a personal set of eating utensils, toilet articles. Almost everything else had to be left behind, from books to automobiles.20 Victims could store household property privately or in government depots. Government storage was at victims' own expense and risk--no insurance was available, and the government said it would honor no claim for loss.21 Persons considering storage of automobiles with the government were told that their cars would undergo "more or less rapid deterioration" under government care and might never be returned.22 Persons who stored property through private arrangements fared little better. One family "rented their San Francisco home and put their personal possessions in a locked room--only to return after the internment and find the room broken into and their valuables gone."23 One victim remembered, "We couldn't pack up all the stoves and refrigerators and stuff like that. We stored them away in the nursery--our stove, our kids' toys, and some of our furniture. Some truck driver took our stove and never paid for it. When we got back from camp we had nothing--even the toys were all gone."24 Such experiences were common among victims: "Pilfering and vandalism often began before they were hardly out of their homes. A postwar survey revealed that 80 percent of goods privately stored were 'rifled, stolen or sold during absence.'"25

Many Japanese-Americans found the storage option unattactive and immediately sold possessions for whatever they would fetch. San Francisco's Federal Reserve Bank reported that only 498 out of 2,506 families warehoused their possessions with the government.26 As the U.S. Army ordered victims into detention, an official Army notice promised "services with respect to the management, leasing, sale, storage, or other disposition of most kinds of property, such as real estate, business and professional equipment, household goods, boats, automobiles and livestock."27 The Treasury Department said San Francisco's Federal Reserve Bank had authority to act as a go-between, matching buyers with Japanese-American sellers. If sellers wished, the Federal Reserve bank would act as their agent and liquidate property on their behalf.28 A May 1942 congressional report noted "liquidation of real and personal property held by evacuees is proceeding at a rapid pace."29 In Los Angeles roadside signs announced "FURNITURE MUST BE SOLD" and "EVACUATION SALE."30 "Our house was in from Garden Grove Boulevard about 200 yards on a dirt driveway and on the day before the posted evacuation date, there was a line up of cars in our driveway extending about another 200 yards in both directions along Garden Grove Boulevard, waiting their turn to come to our house."31 Forced sales traditionally provide outstanding bargains for purchasers. A federal official collected solid stories of victims "selling three-and-four-hundred-dollar pianos for 5 and 10 dollars, of selling new refrigerators and new stoves for small amounts."32 Said one victim, "Swarms of people came daily to our home to see what they could buy. A grand piano for $50, pieces of furniture, $50. . . . One man offered $500 for the house."33 Another victim lamented, "It is difficult to describe the feeling of despair and humiliation experienced by all of us as we watched the Caucasians coming to look over our possessions and offering such nominal amounts knowing we had no recourse but to accept whatever they were offering."34 Still another victim recalled, "One man wanted to buy our pickup truck. My father had just spent about $125 for a set of new tires and tubes and a brand new battery. So, he asked for $125. The man 'bought' our pickup for $25."35 Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, who directed the roundup of Japanese-Americans, said most victims "voluntarily" sold their automobiles to the U.S. Army--which was holding the cars' owners in custody. Cars not "voluntarily" sold to the Army were seized by the Army. The military then resold 1942 models to automobile dealers so they would have merchandise to offer (the auto industry having converted to war work).36 If victims drove to an assembly center in their cars, the vehicles were confiscated upon arrival.37 Farm equipment went for five and ten cents on the dollar.38 "It is just common knowledge," said one observer. The observer noted a scam in which a Japanese-American would receive a fake telephone call allegedly from the FBI, military, or police saying to pack for immediate departure; later in the day a buyer would appear on the victim's doorstep.39 "In the few days allowed the evacuees before their eviction, bargain hunters and junk dealers descended in hordes. The frightened and confused became easy prey to swindlers who threatened to 'arrange' for the confiscation of their property if they would not agree to a forced sale at the pittance offered."40 Governmental authorities outright confiscated assorted minor personal possessions; in February 1942 San Francisco's police chief said his department was holding 6,000 radios and cameras taken from Japanese-Americans.41 Such items did not have to be seized in raids; owners turned them in on demand. Berkeley's police chief noted, "In about 3 days I believe over 400 different aliens brought in property worth thousands of dollars. Some of it was very bulky."42

Bargains were not limited to household furnishings; buyers of commercial property also enjoyed windfall deals. Around February 1942 one American official directing internments noted that victims could "either turn over their business to their creditors at great loss or abandon it entirely." This official referred to "commercial buzzards" who took "great advantage of this hardship, making offers way below even inventory cost, and very much below real value."43 One Japanese-American sold his strawberry farming operation for $2,000; the purchaser resold it for more than $10,000.44 Japanese-American owners of an ice cream parlor had a $10,000 inventory plus $8,000 in equipment; one owner remembered their newspaper ad: "'Ice creamery, library, lunches, residential spot, sacrifice, evacuee.' And then they had our address. Well, we had people coming in droves offering us a hundred dollars, two hundred dollars. And finally this man offered us a thousand dollars. We put him on hold for a couple of days, but we took it the day before we left."45 Photos show the interior of a Japanese-American store, bedecked with U.S. flags and signs saying "50% off" and "Sweaters 1/2 off." An exterior window poster announced, "1 DAY to GO."46 Sign on a former Japanese-American shop in Los Angeles: "Many thanks for your Patronage. Hope to Serve you in Near future. God be with you till we meet again."47 Sign on a former Japanese-American restaurant in San Francisco: "This Restaurant under new Management will open soon."48 Said one victim in 1943, "The evacuation of Terminal Island was unquestionably harsh and pitifully unjust. To command bewildered women with children suffering in mental agonies through internment of their husbands by F.B.I.'s to pack and evacuate in 48 hours was inhumanly harsh and unjust. . . . Children were crying, boys and girls dashing in and out to help their mothers on whose shoulders the world came crashing."49 A federal official reported, "One of our workers who was on the island the day after the evacuation said that fishing nets, fishing trucks, rubber boots, household goods, and all kinds of equipment, enough to fill at least eight trucks, had been abandoned."50 Cannery companies grabbed abandoned fishing nets and equipment.51 A carnation grower "owned a large home, 1,500 linear feet of greenhouse, a boiler and boiler house, and all the other necessary equipment. He made an 'eleventh hour contract' after much haggling and rented his property for $60 a month, including house, goods, greenhouses, and carnations. After a year the contract expired, but . . . the renter had departed and five unknown families had moved into the house. They were evicted and the nursery was then rented to a Chinese who operated it but was four months in arrears on his rent. Th Issei [Japanese-American] owner received no word on his missing stove, refrigerator, washing machine, or piano, nor was there information on his personal goods, stored in two rooms of the house."52 One hotel owner sold a forty-five room hotel for $2,500; another owner sold a twenty-six room hotel for $500. Unable to find a buyer on short notice, owners of a commercial goldfish hatchery gave away the fish.53 They had little choice; property not sold could be lost through forfeiture to government. For example a 1943 California law declared farm equipment owned by internees to be abandoned. The state acquired title to such property and could keep it or sell it, with either option being a windfall for state coffers.54 A Seattle real estate company "has had half a hundred persons looking for bargains. Some have said quite frankly that they were waiting in the belief that the Japanese would eventually be forced to sell at any price."55

Still other types of loss occurred. Businessmen were unable to collect debts owned to them; tenants of Japanese-Americans got bargain rents or stopped paying rent altogether after the landlords were apprehended.56 The government warned that Japanese-American farmers who failed to maintain crops until internment would be treated as war saboteurs. Those crops were then seized by private individuals at harvest time.57 Agricultural buildings and equipment owned by Japanese-Americans who operated farms under lease were lost when the Japanese-Americans had to give up their leases.58 Victims who attempted to retain property faced loss of equity when they could not keep up mortgage or tax payments.59 Victims who sold hotels could not realize income from wartime travelers to robust defense industry cities, a monetary loss difficult to compute but nonetheless real. And not all property losses were monetary. The Army forced victims to sell, give away, or euthanize family pets.60

California Attorney General Earl Warren expressed the consensus of law enforcement officers: "The statement was made to me a few days ago that . . . there was considerable selling of household effects at a great sacrifice . . . but I did not investigate it to see how widespread it was or just what the facts were."61

The dollar loss suffered by Japanese-Americans is unknown.62 After the war Congress permitted victims to seek compensation from the government, but failure to produce any documentary records demanded by the government was punishable by a $10,000 fine and five years imprisonment. Victims who had already lost thousands of dollars and several years of liberty to the federal government did not rush to take advantage of the offer. Those who did make claims often received compensation far below actual loss.63

Reference Notes

1. Commission, Personal, 43, 122-23; Weglyn, Years, 36-37.

2. Clarence E. Rust, Tolan Committee hearings, 11254.

3. Esther S. Boyd, Tolan Committee hearings, 11584.

4. "Hitlerism," 309.

5. Emergency Defense Council of Seattle Chapter Japanese-American Citizens League, Tolan Committee hearings, 11464.

6. Quoted in Taylor, "People," 66. See also Tateishi, And, 90.

7. Biddle to Roosevelt, Feb. 17, 1942, quoted in Weglyn, Years, 68.

8. H. L. Strobel, Tolan Committee hearings, 11089.

9. Tolan Committee, Report 2124, 16. See also Hohri, Repairing, 161.

10. Masaru Yamasaki quoted in Hohri, Repairing, 145-46.

11. Fletcher Bowron to John H. Tolan, April 27, 1942, in Tolan Committee, Report 2124, 40.

12. Statement of E. W. Thompson to Tolan Committee, ca. March 2, 1942, quoted in Japanese, Case, 76.

13. Commission, Personal, 117.

14. Weglyn, Years, 76; Nagata, Legacy, 7.

15. Weglyn, Years, 100.

16. Japanese, Case, 39; Tolan Committee hearings, 11038.

17. Tolan Committee hearings, 11038, 11215.

18. Commission, Personal, 61.

19. tenBroek, Barnhart, and Matson, Prejudice, 124; Commission, Personal, 121.

20. Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry, April 30, 1942, in Commission, Personal, figure C.

21. Personal Property Storage Form (WCCA Form FRB-2) and Motor Vehicle Registration Form (WCCA Form FRB-3) reproduced in Tolan Committee, Report 2124, 190-92; Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry, April 30, 1942, in Commission, Personal, figure C.

22. Agreement Regarding Disposition of Motor Vehicle (WCCA Form FRB-4) reproduced in Tolan Committee, Report 2124, 193.

23. Taylor, Jewel, 51. See also 54-55.

24. Tateishi, And, 55.

25. Weglyn, Years, 77. See also Commission, Personal, 122; Hohri, Repairing, 180.

26. Tolan Committee, Report 2124, 14.

27. Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry, April 30, 1942, in Commission, Personal, figure C.

28. Tolan Committee, Report 1911, 7.

29. Tolan Committee, Report 2124, 13.

30. Conrat and Conrat, Executive, 49.

31. Commission, Personal 132.

32. Winifred Ryder, Tolan Committee hearings, 11667; Tolan Committee, Report 1911, 19.

33. Commission, Personal 132.

34. Commission, Personal 132.

35. Quoted in Commission, Personal, 130.

36. Commission, Personal, 130.

37. Commission, Personal, 130.

38. Commission, Personal, 126; W. S. Rosencrans, Tolan Committee hearings, 11688.

39. G. Raymond Booth, Tolan Committee hearings, 11752-54.

40. Weglyn, Years, 77.

41. Charles W. Dullea, Tolan Committee hearings, 10970.

42. W. J. Johnson, Tolan Committee hearings, 11110.

43. Quoted in Thomas and Nishimoto, Spoilage, 8.

44. Taylor, Jewel, 55.

45. Tateishi, And, 215.

46. Tolan Committee hearings, 11804-F, 11804-G.

47. Tolan Committee, 11804-H.

48. Conrat and Contrat, Executive, 39.

49. Joseph Y. Kurihara, quoted in Hohri, Repairing, 31.

50. Winifred Ryder, Tolan Committee hearings, 11667.

51. Winifred Ryder, Tolan Committee hearings, 11663.

52. Taylor, Jewel, 56.

53. Commission, Personal, 127-28; Taylor, Jewel, 54.

54. 1943 Cal. Stat. chap. 583.

55. Thomas Gill to John H. Tolan, March 16, 1942 in Tolan Committee hearings, 11552.

56. Commission, Personal, 122, 129; Taylor, Jewel, 54; Nagata, Legacy, 17.

57. Commission, Personal, 124, 126-27; Nagata, Legacy, 19; Tateishi, And, 9.

58. Tolan Committee, Report 1911, 20.

59. Tolan Committee, Report 2124, 16, 194; Commission, Personal, 131, 133; Nagata, Legacy, 18-19; Tateishi, And, 10.

60. Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry, April 30, 1942, in Commission, Personal, figure C; Taylor, Jewel, 52; Tateishi, And, 9.

61. Earl Warren, Tolan Committee hearings, 11023.

62. An oft-cited total of $400 million in losses is attributed to San Francisco's Federal Reserve bank, but that figure is bogus; the bank did no such estimate (Commission, Personal, 120; Taylor, Jewel, 270-71, 273; Hohri, Repairing, 129).

63. Weglyn, Years, 274-77.

Sources Cited

Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation andInternment of Civilians. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1982. [SuDocs Y3.W19/10:J98]

Conrat, Masie, and Richard Conrat. Executive Order 9066: The Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans. N.p.: California Historical Society, 1972.

"Hitlerism Threatens the California Japanese." Christian Century 59 (March 11, 1942): 309.

Hohri, William Minoru. Repairing America: An Account of the Movement for Japanese-American Redress. Pullman, Washington: Washington State University Press, 1988.

Japanese American Citizens' League. The Case for the Nisei; Brief of the Japanese American Citizens' League. Salt Lake City: The Japanese American Citizens' League, 1945?

Nagata, Donna K. Legacy of Injustice: Exploring the Cross-Generational Impact of the Japanese American Internment. Critical Issues in Social Justice, Melvin J. Lerner and Riël Vermunt, eds. New York: Plenum Press, 1993.

Tateishi, John. And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps. New York: Random House, 1984.

Taylor, Frank J. "The People Nobody Wants." Saturday Evening Post (May 9, 1942): 66.

Taylor, Sandra C. Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

tenBroek, Jacobus, Edward Norton Barnhart, and Floyd W. Matson. Prejudice, War, and the Constitution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954.

Thomas, Dorothy Swaine, Thomas, and Richard S. Nishimoto. The Spoilage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1946.

U.S. House. Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration [Tolan Committee]. Hearings. 77 Cong, 2 sess., 1941÷1942. [SuDocs Y4.N21/5:M58/pts. 29-31]

-----. Report. 77 Cong., 2 sess., 1942. H. Rpt. 1911. Serial 10668.

-----. Report. 77 Cong., 2 sess., 1942. H. Rpt. 2124. Serial 10668.

Weglyn, Michi. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1976.