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Yes, The Census Bureau Helped Make Japanese American Internment Possible

Bill Shishima's classmates took pictures before they were relocated. (Austin Cross/LAist)
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We're less than a year away from the start of the 2020 Census, which will be the first-ever primarily digital survey. In California alone, roughly 80 percent of federal funding depends on an accurate count. That amounts to about $77 billion. It's also how political power is distributed. In other words, making sure everyone living in the U.S. is counted has ripple effects for years.

The accuracy of any count depends on many factors, including how likely someone is to participate in the census. Los Angeles County, for example, is considered to be one of the hardest counties in the nation to count because of its large population of immigrants, homeless persons, and renters.

That's why civil rights advocates here are particularly concerned about a push by the Trump administration to include a citizenship question on the census. They argue asking if someone is a citizen could dampen responsebecause of fear about how that information may be used.


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Federal law explicitly requires data collected by the census be kept private and not used by the government to identify individuals. That's why the Census Bureau says it has "one of the strongest confidentiality guarantees in the federal government."

That vow was strengthened in 1954 under what's known as Title 13.

Even before Title 13, there were strong prohibitions about the use of census data. Under a law passed in 1929, census data was to be "used only for the statistical purposes for which it is supplied. No publication shall be made by the Census Office whereby the data furnished by any particular establishment or individual can be identified, nor shall the Director of the Census permit anyone other than the sworn employees of the Census Office to examine the individual reports."

That's the law that was on the books when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. What happened wasn't fully understood for decades.


Within months of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, tens of thousands of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were rounded up and forced into internment camps.

It later became clear that the speed of the detentions was possible in large part because of information shared by top Census Bureau officials. Those officials had access to up-to-date data from the 1940 census.

The Pearl Harbor attack devastated the U.S. fleet, leaving states like Washington, Oregon and California vulnerable. The sense of fear that gripped the county would lead to the infamous Executive Order 9066, which gave the government the power to remove people of Japanese ancestry from their homes and send them to internment camps.

Ultimately some 120,000 people were held in camps. When he authorized reparations in 1988, President Ronald Reagan called the order a "grave wrong."

But in the days and months after the Pearl Harbor attack, the impulse to isolate people of Japanese ancestry was strong. Even before then-President Franklin Roosevelt signed that order in February 1942, Census Bureau officials had started sharing information about where Japanese Americans lived. They began pulling together information within days of the Dec. 7, 1941 attack.

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"[The] census director took his own initiative to begin to publicize reports from the results of the 1940 census on the location of 'enemy aliens' in the United States," said historian Margo Anderson.

It was Anderson's research, conducted with colleague William Seltzer, that revealed the depth of the Census Bureau operation.

"They used [an ethnic slur for Japanese Americans] to talk about how they were going to give the information to the military to make sure security was guaranteed on the West Coast," Anderson said. Her work detailing the involvement of census officials was presented in 2000.

Even before that, however, there'd be long-held suspicions.


Bill Shishima was just 11-years-old when his family was told that they would have to leave their home near Olvera Street. It was May of 1942. Within a week, they were bussed to their new home: Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia.

"My family was fortunate," Shishima said. "We lived in the parking lot of Santa Anita... my grandmother lived in the horse stables."

His family had participated in the 1940 census. As an adult he learned about the connection between that survey and what happened to his family.

"They said that the census was illegally given to the war department," Shishima said.

Whether it was legal is up to some interpretation.

Bill Shishima holds up a replica of the poster that appeared in his neighborhood. (Austin Cross/LAist)

The law at the time prohibited the release of information that would identify individuals, said Kenneth Prewitt who headed the Census Bureau from 1998-2001. Prewitt said the information released at the time by the bureau "revealed no one's individual identity."

"But it did say this is a highly concentrated population up and down the West Coast," he explained, "and the Census Bureau could say with some authority, if you go to these blocks, you're much more likely to pick up an awful lot of the Japanese Americans than if you go to those blocks."

[It's important to note that additional research by Anderson found that the Census Bureau did turn over names and addresses for Japanese Americans living in Washington D.C.]

So how'd they get around the law? The Second War Powers Act allowed the War Department to cast aside established Census Bureau protections. The language stripping these rights was submitted by the census director himself.

In 2000, after reviewing Anderson's research, Prewitt issued an apology for the role the Census Bureau played in the internments.


Billions in federal dollars for services like Medi-Cal, housing assistance and education hang in the balance of this next census.

"Every census we've conducted since 1790, basically had the good will of the public behind it," Prewitt said, adding that "a low-turnout census is an oxymoron."

The goal of any census is to count everyone living in the United States, regardless of their circumstance. That's why Prewitt, now a professor at Columbia University, said it was important for the department to acknowledge its role in the internment of the Japanese and to explain the protections preventing it from happening again.

That effort took on new importance as the Trump Administration pushed to include a question about citizenship on the 2020 Census, which many civil rights advocates believe could chill participation by communities of color.

Census Bureau researchers have reported the likelihood of what they call "significant discrepancies" in how populations are counted if the citizenship question.

A question about citizenship hasn't been asked of every household since 1950.

Following that, the question reappeared, but only on a more detailed questionaire known as the long form census completed by a sample of households.

In a paper released last year, bureau researchers found "the evidence in this paper also suggests that adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census would lead to lower self-response rates in households potentially containing noncitizens, resulting in higher fieldwork costs and a lower-quality population count."

That unwillingness to answer is tied directly to concerns about how the data will be used.

Data-sharing questions were raised again after in the years following 9/11 when it was revealed that the Census Bureau had given population data to the Department of Homeland Security. Then, last year, Trump administration officials alarmed civil rights groups after suggesting that the confidentiality of census data could be debated.


The Census Bureau has strengthened privacy protections since WWII.

Still, Anderson, the historian who uncovered the role the census bureau played then, says the country is again at a crossroads.

"[It's] the old Santayana quote... 'those who don't remember the past are destined to repeat it,'" she said.

The Census Bureau has taken a number of steps to be clear on where the law stands today. There's even separate fact-sheet on the bureau's website devoted just to confidentiality. It says:

"By law, your census responses cannot be used against you by any government agency or court in any way--not by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), not by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), not by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and not by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The law requires the Census Bureau to keep your information confidential and use your responses only to produce statistics."

Under federal law, census records can be released 72 years after the information is gathered.

Any Census Bureau staffer who violates that law faces stiff penalties that extend beyond their tenure at the department: a penalty of up to $250,000 and/or up to 5 years in prison.



1:04 p.m.: This article was updated to correct when the citizenship question was last asked (1950, not 1960) and to provide additional details about how the question was phrased.

This article was originally published at 11:39 a.m.