There and back: Los Angeles Japanese and Executive Order 9066

Seventy-five years ago, in the spring of 1942, the City of Los Angeles experienced a population exodus triggered by a presidential executive order. Images in the Los Angeles Public Library’s Herald Examiner Collection and Shades of L.A. Collection tell the story of Executive Order 9066 and its impact on Japanese residents and on the city itself.

From the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941, many Americans lived in fear of a further assault or even an invasion. President Roosevelt’s Executive Order, while not naming the Japanese or any other group by name, gave broad powers to the Secretary of War to guard against the threat of sabotage and espionage. Within days of the February 19 order, a series of “Public Proclamations” and “Civilian Exclusion Orders” directed that Japanese and Japanese-Americans be removed from all West Coast states in order to prevent collusion with the enemy. Virtually all Japanese, by birth or ancestry, were rounded up with scant warning and sent to  ten internment camps far from the coast. Age, sex, or condition offered no exception to the rule. Having as little as 1/16th Japanese blood marked one for removal. Orphans of Japanese blood were gathered up and transported, even if they were in the care of Caucasian families.

Big Sale in Little Tokyo

In the spring of 1942 many Japanese lived and worked in a section of downtown Los Angeles dubbed Little Tokyo. When the order came down, families were given six days to dispose of their property and belongings; each person was allowed to bring only what they could carry with them. Japanese businesses held fire sales; families sought desperately for places to store their belongings and friends to care for their property and their pets. Cars were sold for pennies on the dollar.  Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00068543, March 21, 1942.

Many Japanese were anxious to show their loyalty to the United States and its institutions. The photo editor of the image above made sure to draw attention to the sign posted above the cash register in this Japanese-run drugstore: “Please no talk war!” Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00068538, March 1942.

Although internment was carried out in waves, by early summer the streets of Little Tokyo were empty. The newspaper photo above was captioned “Shops for rent on a deserted 1st Street in Little Tokyo.” Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00022054, June 18, 1942.


Japanese families gather with their belongings at a departure point where they will be taken to an assembly center and, eventually, to an internment camp. All persons, including children, had to wear identification tags. The intention of the tags was to prevent families from being separated. Tags also identify bales of bedding which might or might not be reunited with their owners. Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00044031, April 2, 1942.

The caption for this photo from the Herald-Examiner reads “Young Japanese girls brave the early morning rain to bid farewell to friends leaving for Manzanar relocation camp.”  Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00034809, 1942.

Evacuees had to endure several weeks or months at assembly centers while basic camp structures were prepared for them in the hinterland. Assembly centers were located throughout the West at fairgrounds and racetracks where families often were crowded into horse or livestock stalls. As with all aspects of the relocation, government publicity outlets bent over backwards to give a favorable impression of their actions. The photograph above, from the Herald Examiner, is accompanied by a highly colored optimism: “A little Japanese girl meekly submits to a hair wash while a woman nearby also washes her hair on June 25, 1942. A far cry from the Axis concentration camps ravaged with torture, starvation and death, is the Santa Anita Assembly Center, where 18,500 Japanese are quartered on the grounds of the luxurious Santa Anita Race Track.” Herald-Examiner Collection, Image # 00043915, June 25, 1942.

This image (with crop marks) shows rows of temporary housing erected in the parking lot of the Santa Anita Park racetrack. The track’s parade ring is at right. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00044039, 1942.


Home Away from Home

Aware of the mixed feelings on internment, government and media tried hard to style detention as something in the best interests of the internees, as well as the local populace. The term “internment camp” was often replaced with “relocation center” or “evacuation center.” (The preferred term among some historians today is “concentration camp.”) Some news accounts went farther to spin the reality of the forced move, referring to “new homes” awaiting the “evacuees.” The article accompanying the photo above calls Manzanar, the destination of the motor caravan, “the new boom town, Little Tokio of the Mountains.” Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00044026, 1942.

Of course stark reality was much different. The sites chosen were in remote, harsh environments. Accommodations were hastily erected with much work needing to be completed by the inmates themselves. Residents of Los Angeles might find themselves at Gila River on an Arizona Indian Reservation, at Heart Mountain in the sagebrush desert of Wyoming, at treeless Tule Lake in Northern California, or at Manzanar — a once fertile valley drained of its water by the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

It is not surprising that there are few, if any, images of the exodus in the Shades of L.A. Collection — photos shared with Los Angeles Public Library by minority families. Those caught up in the confusion would have other things to worry about than documenting their departure and a camera would have been a heavy luxury to carry along. However, once settled in the camps, Japanese families for the most part adopted a stoic resignation and worked to recreate some sense of familiarity and normality in bleak surroundings. In the photo above, James Otake celebrates his first birthday at the Gila River camp sitting on the lap of his mother, Mariko (Mary). A cake sits next to them. Since the photo is dated 1945, James must have been born in the camp. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00000735.

A panoramic view of Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. The mountain itself dominates the landscape. Army style barracks serve as housing for the internees. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00003694.


Residents of the Gila River internment camp in Arizona were able to find sardonic humor in setting up a “country club.” The writing on the photo reads “Tournament! March 5, 1944.” Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00004306, 1944.

Touches of home are visible in the photo of this tar paper hut at the Tule Lake internment camp, including flowers in coffee-can pot and a two-wheeler for Grace Toya. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00004455, 1945.

Schooling continued in the camps. Here second graders at Manzanar pose with their teacher, 1945. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00004179.

This image is labeled “Yuki and James Toya at Tule lake internment camp during winter snow, 1945.” Perhaps they are the parents of Grace Toya pictured above. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00004453.

Changes at home

The wholesale removal of Japanese and Japanese-Americans meant the streets of Little Tokyo were deserted — but not for long. Real estate abhors a vacuum as much as nature does. Without paying tenants, the landlords of these buildings were able to re-lease the storefronts and apartments, in many cases to other ethnic minority groups. African-American families arrived in West Coast cities to work in the war effort. With racial covenants in place in many communities, and widespread discrimination in housing generally, the newly vacated Little Tokyo presented one of the few options available to them.

For approximately three years Little Tokyo took on the moniker “Bronzetown,” in recognition of the many African-American run businesses that sprang up there, including Schepp’s Playhouse, a nightclub. In this photo  Ruth David, William Love, and Bernice Patton (R.N., 2nd Lt., Army) relax at Schepp’s. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image # 00001830, c. 1944.

A man, identified as Alberto Munoz, prepares to re-open a cleaners established by a Japanese family. The movie poster at right advertises the Japanese film Joi Kinuyo Sensei (Doctor Kinuyo) from 1937. The star of the movie, Kinuyo Tanaka, was a popular actress in both pre- and post-war films and, later, one of Japan’s first female film directors. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00068523, June 17, 1942.

The Return

This photo accompanied an article titled “Japs leave to settle in freedom throughout the U.S.” The freedom referred to meant moving across state lines from California to Nevada. Toward the end of 1943 overcrowding at the camps forced authorities to relax some restrictions. However, this hardly meant full freedom. Those allowed to leave Manzanar had to swear they would not return to their homes on the coast. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00043908, November 17, 1943.

Tara Kawa was able to reclaim his fish market after returning from the Gila River internment camp. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image # 00043954, September 7, 1945.

In December 1944, with the war in the Pacific turning in favor of the Allies, President Roosevelt lifted Executive Order 9066. The process of re-integrating the Japanese back into the lives they’d left behind was complex; it would be another year before all the camps were completely closed. Many internees had lost everything, including friends, and did not return to California. Others were able to piece their lives back together with some help from public authorities and faith groups. The lucky ones, such as the man above, were able to re-establish their businesses.

Justice for all?

In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the man who issued Executive Order 9066, visited internees at Gila River and then wrote a lengthy piece for Colliers Magazine about internment. While acknowledging the exigencies of war, the First Lady made clear her own feelings in the matter:

“We have no common race in this country, but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal. It is our ideal which we want to have live. It is an ideal which can grow with our people, but we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion. Every citizen in this country has a right to our basic freedoms, to justice and to equality of opportunity, and we retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only do so if we grant to others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.” (Eleanor Roosevelt, “A Challenge to American Sportsmanship,” Collier’s Magazine, October 10, 1943)

In 1989 the U.S. Government issued a formal apology to those interned during World War II and provided “redress” payments of $20,000 to each surviving internee.

Sources for this essay include the website and Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites, University of Washington Press, 2002.