WWII Prison Cities: the US Military’s Spatial Racialization of the Incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans



As presidential executive orders flow out of the office of the current president of the United States, the mass incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans, authorized by Presidential Executive Order 9066, floats in the background as a ghostly prologue to the intimidation, detention and exclusion of people affected by these orders. The U.S. Congress has not enacted a declaration of war or engaged in the kind of total war that was unleashed by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 to initiate World War II. Yet, in the confusion of the repeated current use of this mode of executive power, numerous unsuspecting individuals have been detained and arrested; a general unease about the abrogation of their civil rights is palpable within contemporary U.S. and affecting migration and travel globally.

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Barrack blocks at the Colorado River “Relocation Center,” Poston, Arizona. / The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

So how may the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans inform the current use of executive power and presidential executive orders? The following discussion unpacks the ways E.O. 9066 permitted the military to racialize space and to create spaces of exception that overrode not only local, state, and regional jurisdictional power, but also normative hierarchies of military power. The point here is to raise questions about the power and authority that the current U.S. president’s executive orders may have created as part of large-scale military industrial detention and exclusion projects, such as the construction of a wall on the US southern border, or detention centers to imprison the increasing numbers of undocumented immigrants to be deported.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Presidential Executive Order 9066 (E.O 9066), delegating authority to the Secretary of War and his designated military commander, General John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command and Fourth Army (Western Defense Command) at the Presidio in San Francisco, with the authority to prescribe military areas and the right to exclude from them any or all persons. EO 9066 did not mention race or ethnicity. It permitted the military to control and contain the movement of potential spies and saboteurs, carrying out the mass incarceration without legal charges. It gave the Western Defense Command the authority to create these Military Areas 1 and 2 and prison cities for people excluded from these military areas.

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“Location of Assembly Centers and Relocation Centers” (1942). / Karl R. Bendetsen Papers, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University.

Using U.S. Census Bureau data to locate and identify Japanese and Japanese Americans, the U.S. Army issued 108 geographically defined Exclusion Orders and zones covering both Military areas. Through these Exclusion Orders, the Western Defense Command racialized their spatial authority by ordering all “persons of Japanese ancestry” to report to Control Stations from which they were to be taken to Assembly Centers that served as temporary holding sites or directly to one of the ten Relocation Centers that later served as semi-permanent prison cities.