Jan. 15, 1945: Mayor Fletcher Bowron welcomes Japanese Americans back to Los Angeles. From left: (seated) Mrs. Melba Matsuura, Mary Yoshimizu; (standing): Jack Yoshimizu, Henry Yoshimizu, Meriko Hoshigama, Bowron, and Harley M. Oka. Speaking on Dec. 18, 1944, Bowron said he was fearful that the return of Japanese Americans might lead to a serious outbreak of race riots and impose a heavy burden on law enforcement officers.
(Los Angeles Public Library Herald-Examiner Collection)


Following weeks of protests in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, protestors have amplified their call for police reform. Following multiple cases of suspected lynchings in Southern California and the death of Elijah McClain in police custody in Aurora, Colo., activists have even called for abolishing police departments, though such calls have received significant pushback by moderates.

Whatever the case, it is undeniable that there is a policing problem in the United States. The increased militarization of police forces and their reliance on a practice of “shoot first, ask questions later” demonstrate that they are falling short of their mission to protect and serve the public, especially the most vulnerable members of society.

As I argued in my previous article in The Rafu Shimpo on the history of the KKK and anti-Japanese movements in California, examining the complex history of race relations in the United States provides us with greater insight into current-day issues. One such story that bears examination is the role of the Los Angeles Police Department in carrying out the mass wartime removal of Japanese Americans.

Recently I was commissioned by Brian Niiya, editor of the Densho Encyclopedia, to write an entry on the Los Angeles County Jail, one of many forgotten “Sites of Shame” that functioned as part of the confinement apparatus alongside the ten concentration camps run by the War Relocation Authority. Understanding the participation of the LAPD in the incarceration process, and the government’s use of county jails as holding centers, not only demonstrates the history of injustice built into police deployment against racialized groups, but underscores the long history of blurred lines of authority between local police, federal law enforcement officers, and the military.

From the outbreak of World War II until the resettlement of Japanese Americans in 1945, the LAPD regularly intervened against Japanese Americans, despite the absence of criminal charges against them. In the days after Pearl Harbor, LAPD officers patrolled Japanese American neighborhoods throughout the greater Los Angeles area, and accompanied FBI agents in raiding Japanese American homes for warrantless searches and in arresting community leaders.

By the end of December 1941, over 400 Issei leaders were detained in the L.A. County Jail. Roundups continued for the next three months, with The Rafu Shimpo reporting on Feb. 22, 1942 that hundreds of were arrested and sent to the Los Angeles County Jail.[1]

Those confined at the L.A. County Jail suffered many hardships. Visits from relatives, when permitted at all, were limited to 15 minutes at a time. On Dec. 12, 1941, an Issei woman who had been arrested for possessing a Japanese war bond hung herself, and two further suicide cases were recorded on Dec, 14.[2]

Many of those confined in the County Jail were then sent for internment at Department of Justice camps such as nearby Tuna Canyon and Fort Missoula, Mont. Their family members were deprived of information, sometimes for weeks or months, on the fate of those interned in camps in Montana, New Mexico, and Texas.

Following the signing of Executive Order 9066, the LAPD assisted with the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Since both Santa Anita and Pomona Assembly Centers were within Los Angeles County, L.A. police officers conducted arrests of dissidents and suspected “troublemakers.” For example, Shuji Fujii, editor of the Japanese American communist newspaper DOHO, was detained at the L.A. County Jail for holding “secret meetings” (i.e. meetings where Japanese was spoken) at Santa Anita.[3]

Even after Japanese Americans were removed outside the West Coast zone, the LAPD remained active in enforcing racial exclusion. On Sept. 6, 1944 the anti-Japanese Los Angeles Examiner reported that an LAPD officer, Sgt. Jack Sergel, was visiting Manzanar concentration camp for judo tournaments. The Examiner’s editors asserted that judo instilled “Japanese values,” and that the lessons were “a gross violation of official property.”[4]

When the Los Angeles Police Commission announced a board inquiry into Sergel’s judo activities, hoping to appease the newspapers, he resigned in protest. He then established himself as an actor under the name John Halloran, and took up a yellowface role as a Japanese officer who sparred with James Cagney in the 1945 film “Blood on the Sun.”[5]

When news arose in December 1944, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ex Parte Endo decision, that the West Coast exclusion zone for Japanese Americans was to be revoked, Los Angeles police officials immediately protested the return of Japanese Americans. The Police Commission, with support from LAPD Chief Clemence Horrall, passed a resolution on Dec. 20, 1944 announcing their opposition to the return of Japanese American families, arguing that it would be impossible to vet for loyalty and that police would be incapable of preventing riots caused by white mobs.[6]

(Ironically, one of the two votes against the resolution was that of Police Commissioner Alfred Cohn, who opposed it on the grounds that its language was not tough enough).

A longtime anti-Japanese advocate, Commissioner Cohn had been an important force in persuading L.A. Mayor Fletcher Bowron to support the forced removal of Japanese Americans during 1942).[7] Cohn argued that returning Japanese Americans should carry ID cards, an idea rejected by WRA head Dillon Myer. LAPD Police Chief Horrall meanwhile insisted that the WRA provide the names and addresses of all Japanese Americans returning to Los Angeles, on the pretext that his forces could then “better patrol” these areas.[8]

The collusion of the LAPD in the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during the 1940s is not entirely surprising, given its notorious history of racist treatment of Blacks and Mexican Americans during the period, nor was it the only police department to engage in actions against Japanese Americans. Yet it is clear that the LAPD failed to protect the rights of Japanese Americans against racial bigotry.

The same fundamental question of the role of the police is being asked again by citizens across the U.S., as more deaths and cases of mistreatment of minorities at the hands of police officers appear in the news. Given this history, can the LAPD change its practices, or is it time to find alternatives? 

[1] “Hundreds Taken in Roundup,” Rafu Shimpo, Feb. 22, 1942.

[2] “Japanese Alien Prays, Then Hangs Herself,” San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 13, 1941.

[3] “Tamie Tsuchiyama Report.” BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder B8.05, JERS Papers, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

[4] “Ban on Judo Training in Police Department Ordered by Board,” Los Angeles Examiner, Sept. 6, 1944.

[5] https://www.wbur.org/onlyagame/2018/08/24/manzanar-judo-cagney-japanese

[6] “Housing Project May Be Needed for Japanese,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 20, 1944.

[7] Robinson, “A Tragedy of Democracy,” 40.

[8] “Official Row Flares Up Over Freed Japs’ Return,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 13, 1945.


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