Voluntary evacuation

Prior to forcibly removing Japanese Americans from the West Coast, the army urged them to move outside the prohibited areas "voluntarily" in March of 1942. For various reasons, "voluntary evacuation" did not work for the vast majority of Japanese Americans. "Voluntary evacuation" came to an end at the end of March, and mass removal and incarceration in concentration camps ensued.

Executive Order 9066 , issued on February 19, 1942, gave the military license to designate "military areas... from which any or all persons may be excluded." Eleven days later, General John L. DeWitt , the commanding general of the Western Defense Command , created Military Areas No. 1 and No. 2 , the former consisting of portions of the states of Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington from which people would be removed and the latter consisting of the rest of those states. In an accompanying press statement, DeWitt indicated the Japanese Americans would be removed first and also encouraged Japanese Americans living in Military Area No. 1 to voluntarily move, whether to Military Area No. 2 or to points further east. For the next month, a period of "voluntary evacuation" ensued.

The army encouraged such "voluntary" movement in large part because such movement would lessen its burden of having to provide transportation, food, and shelter to the excluded Japanese Americans. The army also had not figured out the details of what was to be done with those it would have to forcibly remove at this point. General DeWitt created the Wartime Civil Control Administration on March 11 to work out and implement those details.

Though many Japanese Americans began making plans to leave their homes and businesses, it became clear quite quickly that the numbers who would be able to leave was going to be small. For one thing, the vast majority of Japanese Americans in the continental U.S. lived in Military Area No. 1 and most did not have friends or relatives outside that area with whom they could live with or who could help them resettle. Furthermore, Issei bank accounts had been frozen since the summer of 1941 and the farms and businesses that sustained a large portion of the immigrant population were difficult to sell or lease on short notice.

But the larger problem may have been the vehemence inland states expressed against the anticipated hordes of undesirable Japanese soon to appear at their borders. In creating the fiction of Japanese Americans having to be removed due to "military necessity," the government was at a loss to answer the not unreasonable question asked by residents and political leaders in these areas as to how it could be that Japanese Americans deemed too dangerous to be allowed on the West Coast should be allowed to become their new residents and neighbors. (For examples of the reaction by western state political leaders, see Tolan Committee and Salt Lake City governors' meeting .) [1] Stories about would-be resettlers being turned away at the border of Nevada, being thrown in jail, or being threatened with mob violence, soon began to circulate, further depressing the numbers of "voluntary" resettlers. Even some Japanese Americans in these states discouraged their co-ethnics from joining them, lest they disturb existing race relations. [2]

Yet some did manage to resettle. Many of those who could moved in with friends or relatives outside the excluded area. This seemed to be most common in the San Joaquin Valley, where the boundary line sometimes bisected the farming communities there. Some who moved to these central valley communities faced terrorist incidents, foreshadowing such attacks when Japanese Americans returned to the area three years later. (See Terrorist incidents against West Coast returnees .) Others organized themselves into groups of family and friends and set up enterprises mostly in Colorado and Utah. Perhaps the largest was a group of about 130 who moved from the Oakland area under the leadership of produce dealer Fred Wada, setting up a farming enterprise in Wasatch County, Utah. (See Keetley Farms .) Another group of about seventy left Salinas, California, for Rocky Ford, a farming town in southern Colorado. [3]

By the end of March, it had become apparent that the numbers of Japanese Americans able to "voluntarily" move was going to be small. With the WCCA having quickly assembled the mechanism for an orderly mass removal into temporary "assembly centers," General DeWitt issued Public Proclamation 4 on March 27 prohibiting Japanese Americans in area 1 from moving without instruction or approval from the army, effectively ending "voluntary evacuation." The WDC noted that the proclamation was "to ensure an orderly, supervised, and thoroughly controlled evacuation with adequate provision for the protection... of the evacuees as well as their property." [4]

In total, approximately 5,000 moved from the West Coast states, with 1,963 going to Colorado, 1,519 to Utah, and the rest to other states. [5] Another 5,000 or so moved to Military Area No. 2, only to be forcibly removed anyway when Military Area No. 2 was also declared off limits later that summer. In total, fewer than 10% of Japanese Americans on the West Coast were able to "voluntarily" migrate before being forcibly removed.

Though they were not confined in incarceration camps, "voluntary evacuees" were deemed eligible for monetary reparations as part of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 .

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

For More Information

Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians . Foreword by Tetsuden Kashima. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

Girdner, Audrie, and Anne Loftis. The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of Japanese-Americans during World War II . New York Macmillan, 1969.

Interviews in the Densho Archive under the heading "Voluntary Evacuation." https://ddr.densho.org/search/?fulltext=Voluntary+Evacuation&genre=interview .

Robinson, Greg. A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America . New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Walz, Eric. Nikkei in the Interior West: Japanese Immigration and Community Building, 1882–1945 . Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012.


  1. Colorado Governor Ralph Carr was the lone western state governor who was open to Japanese Americans coming to his state. But even he hedged his bets, expressing his willingness to accept Japanese "as a war measure," but adding, "This statement must not be construed as an invitation, however. Only because the needs of our Nation dictate it, do we even consider such an arrangement." February 28, 1942 radio address cited in Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 102.
  2. A Utah JACL chapter noted that Japanese Americans in their small community "have established a reputation through industry and good behavior…. It appears exceedingly unwise to disturb and disrupt this status…. Strangers from other localities might be undesirable in adjustment to these settle conditions." Cited in Leonard Arrington, "Utah's Ambiguous Reception," in Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress , ed. Roger Daniels, Harry H. L. Kitano, and Sandra Taylor (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1986), 95.
  3. Audrie, Girdner and Anne Loftis, The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of Japanese-Americans during World War II (New York Macmillan, 1969), 117–20; for another account of a family caravan, see Lily C. Hioki's interview in the Densho Archive, http://archive.densho.org/Core/ArchiveItem.aspx?i=denshovh-hlily-01-0012 .
  4. Personal Justice Denied , 103.
  5. Personal Justice Denied , 103.

Last updated Dec. 19, 2023, 2:52 a.m..