Panama Canal Zone

During the period of World War II, the United States government transformed the Panama Canal Zone, then a U.S. territory, into a military zone where it interned over 2,000 Japanese aliens from Latin America .

Prewar Surveillance

During the years leading up to World War II, the Panama Canal, at that time owned and operated by the United States, lay at the center of official concerns over national defense. The canal represented the most direct waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and a lifeline for both commerce and defense transport. As a result, the protection of its facilities from sabotage or armed attack represented a vital interest not only for the security of the United States, but equally for the entire Western Hemisphere in case of war. As relations between the United States and Japan worsened, American authorities cracked down on Japanese ships passing through the Panama Canal, stopping and boarding them for inspection. In September 1940, a Japanese citizen sailing on the Argentina Maru was arrested by a U.S. military guard for violating an order forbidding possession of cameras in the Canal Zone. In January, two officers on the Japanese liner Tokai Maru were arrested for that same offense and fined. In July 1941, claiming that they needed to repair the canal, American authorities closed the canal to Japanese ships entirely, though American ships continued to pass through.

Even as the United States government took action against Japanese ships in Panama, American authorities maintained surveillance over Japanese residents of Panama. This was not entirely new. Throughout the 1930s, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) reported on the activities of Japanese Panamanians and their connections to the United States, including reports of Japanese Panamanian fisherman visiting San Pedro, California. Registers of all Japanese Panamanians were kept by the ONI as early as 1933, and reports on the Japanese community of Panama go back further to 1919. [1] During 1938–39, Ken magazine published sensational accounts, which may have been inspired by leaked intelligence reports, of spies frequenting Japanese-owned barber shops in Panama. The Japanese government issued a note to the Panamanian government regarding the issue, arguing the articles were sensationalist propaganda. [2]

In the months preceding December 1941, the Roosevelt Administration engaged in intensive diplomacy with the Republic of Panama, whose territory surrounded the Canal Zone. U.S. officials sought to secure cooperation from the Panamanian government on the arrest and internment of enemy aliens, especially Japanese, in case of war. In October 1941 Edwin Wilson, U.S. Ambassador to Panama, began a set of discussions with Panamanian Foreign Minister Octavio Fabrega. The Panamanians agreed that in case of war, the United States would take responsibility for arresting Japanese aliens in the Canal Zone. The Panamanians would arrest any Japanese on their territory and then turn them over to the Americans. The Americans would then intern the entire population. All expenses and costs of internment would be paid by the United States Government, which would also hold Panama harmless against any claims for reparations or damages that might result.

In November 1941, Attorney General Francis Biddle hinted that the government was considering mass arrests of ethnic Japanese in Panama. Biddle announced that Justice Department experts had decided against wholesale arrests of Japanese aliens living on the United States mainland, but he added that the Canal Zone and Hawai'i were different, and "temporary" mass detention there was more likely. Nevertheless, unlike on the U.S. mainland, the Justice Department did not construct any internment camps in Panama during fall 1941.This may have reflected indecision over policy, or the small size of the ethnic population to be controlled—while there was an estimated Japanese population of some 400 throughout Panama in 1940, it had shrunk considerably over the period that followed as a result of anti-Japanese laws in that country.

Japanese Panamanian Internment

The previously-agreed plans were translated swiftly into action following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. According to the Associated Press, within less than an hour after word arrived of the attack, Japanese subjects in Panama were being raced to jail by the vanload. Once rounded up, the Japanese were summarily turned over to US authorities, and transported into the Canal Zone for internment in "concentration camps." The New York Times reported that 57 Japanese in Colón were delivered to US authorities, and 114 more were expected from Panama City. The Times added that the Japanese were being held in a quarantine station in Balboa, but that tent cities were being constructed to house the influx. Meanwhile, Canal Zone police took Japanese there into custody.

By January 1942, according to newspaperman Nat A. Barrows of the Chicago Daily News , 185 Japanese were being held as civilian internees in a camp "somewhere in the Canal Zone," within a larger camp with separate facilities for Germans and Italians. Based on the October 1941 agreement reached between the U.S. and Panama, the camp may have been located in the isolated resort area of Taboga Island. Outside the camp, in a former private club, 34 women and 47 children were confined. 400 other enemy aliens had been arrested, he claimed, then released after hearings, and a Nisei from the Canal Zone had been transported to California

Camp conditions were far from adequate. One of the internees, Yoshitaro Amano, recalled in a 1943 memoir that the Japanese inmates, many middle-aged, were forced to perform demanding physical labor. Amano's assertions were repeated the following year by the Japanese government. [3] When Washington lodged a formal protest against Tokyo in spring 1944 for its treatment of American captives, the Japanese foreign ministry responded with a letter to the Swiss legation denying ill-treatment of prisoners, and complaining of the treatment of Japanese nationals in U.S. custody.

The Japanese who were handed over to the United States army by the Authorities of Panama at the outbreak of the war were subjected to cruel treatment, being obliged to perform the work of transporting square timber, sharpening and repairing saws, digging holes in the ground for water closets, mixing gravel with cement and so forth. The internment Authorities let the Japanese dig a hole and then fill it again immediately, or let them load a truck with mud with their bare hands using no tools. Neither drinking water nor any rest was allowed. The Japanese who were exhausted and worn were beaten or kicked and all this lasted over a month. [4]

On April 2, 1942, the Japanese interned at the Canal Zone were shipped to the United States aboard the SS Florida . In addition, there were a number of Japanese nationals from Costa Rica and Mexico in the group. The Associated Press reported that the group included 184 Japanese men, all of whom were reported to be "of military age and fitness," with many wearing military caps, plus women and children. However, according to the ship's manifest, the majority of the passengers were made up of family groups, while the listed professions of the men interned included primarily sales clerks, fishermen, and barbers—trades that had no obvious connection to the Japanese government. [5] After arriving at the Algiers immigration station in New Orleans, Louisiana, on April 8th, they were transferred to larger INS facilities in Seagoville and Kenedy , Texas, and an army facilities in Fort Sill , Oklahoma. [6] Ultimately many or all were confined at Camp Livingston near Alexandria, Louisiana.

Internment Site for Japanese Peruvians

The Canal Zone was subsequently mobilized by the U.S. government as a site of internment camps to hold Japanese Peruvians who had been summarily taken into custody. (It is unclear whether the same facilities were used or others devised). Once shipped north to the Canal Zone, they spent several days or months in confinement, forced to work without pay to clear jungle and construct living quarters amid the heat and the pouring rains. As historian C. Harvey Gardiner later reported, they were denied communication with their families and forced to do hard labor amid the sweltering climate. Similarly, Grace Shimizu, daughter of a Japanese Peruvian detained in the Canal Zone camp, later shared the testimony of another internee about being put to work clearing the jungle around the camp.

One humid day the internees, many of whom were elderly, were told to dig a pit. He thought he was digging his own grave. When they were told to fill the pit with buckets of human waste from the guards' latrines, then the older men were so tired that they could not run fast enough to please the guards, they were poked and shoved by guards with bayonets.

Like Japanese Panamanians, the poor treatment of Japanese Peruvians led to a formal complaint lodged by the Japanese government, using information from reports filed by the Japanese ambassador to Panama. On October 1, 1942, the Spanish Embassy (acting as the protecting power for Japanese nationals) sent a formal statement from the Japanese government protesting the arrest of all Japanese without due process, their homes looted by locals, and their swift detainment by the U.S. in unsanitary concentration camps where internees were required to do hard labor. [7]

After a short period in Panama, the Japanese Peruvians and other internees, like the Japanese Panamanians before them, were transferred to the continental U.S., and remained under INS custody for the duration of the war.

Following the end of the war, the U.S. government began the process of expelling Latin American Japanese internees. The Latin American governments, Panama included, refused to accept their former residents and denied them re-entry. In the case of Panama, however, such opposition was overridden by the U.S. government, who sent the Panamanian Japanese who had arrived in Spring 1942 back to the Algiers internment camp, and then by boat from New Orleans to Panama. [8]

Authored by Jonathan van Harmelen , UC Santa Cruz and Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Amano Yoshitaro. Waga toraware no ki . Tokyo: Chuo Koronsha, 1983.

Gardiner, C. Harvey. Pawns in a Triangle of Hate: The Peruvian Japanese and the United States . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981.

Masterson, Daniel M., with Sayaka Funada Classen. The Japanese in Latin America . Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Robinson, Greg. The Unsung Great: Stories of Extraordinary Japanese Americans . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020.

———, and Maxime Minne. " The Unknown History of Japanese Internment in Panama. " Discover Nikkei , April 26, 2018.

Weglyn, Michi. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps . New York: William Morrow & Co., 1976. Updated edition. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.

  1. "Japanese Activities, 1919–1938," Box 476, Record Group 38, Office of Naval Intelligence, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  2. "Japanese Activities, 1919–1938."
  3. Yoshitaro Amano, Waga toraware no ki (Tokyo: Chuo Koronsha, 1983).
  4. "Protest by Japanese Government against Cases of Ill-Treatment by the American Authorities of Japanese Held by the Authorities of the United States Government," 1944 in Foreign Relations of the United States, Diplomatic Papers V (Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1965), 958.
  5. "List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States." SS Florida , Apr. 2, 1942.
  6. "Camp Kenedy Papers," Record Group 85.4, National Archives.
  7. Michi Weglyn, Years of Infamy (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976), 183–84.
  8. "Memo on Japanese Panamanians," Crystal City File, Record Group 85.4, National Archives.

Last updated May 11, 2021, 4:56 p.m..