In the 1940s, the United States detained thousands of Japanese-Americans in detention camps. Today, those camps serve as a reminder of this devastating part of American history and its lasting impact.
The recent surge of anti-Asian bigotry and violence in America is only the latest in a long, complicated, and at times painful history of Asian Americans. Many Chinese laborers who came to the U.S. to help build the transcontinental railroad stayed after the project was completed, and their presence marked the beginning of one of the many waves of anti-Asian American sentiment from other demographic groups.
The Immigration Act of 1882, aka the Chinese Exclusion Act and subsequent renewals, denied citizenship to Chinese residents. Nearly all Asian immigrants were banned in 1924. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed during World War II, since China was an ally, and a 1952 act ended Asian immigration prohibitions. Still, it wasn’t until 1965 that all race-based entry restrictions were lifted.
Japanese-American immigrants faced similar and also distinctive treatment. “From 1885 to 1908, some 72,000 Japanese came to the West Coast,” writes Albert Marrin in Uprooted: The Japanese American Experience During World War II. Like the Chinese immigrants, a majority stayed, and as their population grew, “resentments against them escalated.”
Then came December 7th, 1941.
Shortly after the Japanese government attacked Pearl Harbor, as Greg Robinson summarizes in his book, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans, “U.S. Army officers, anxious over a possible Japanese invasion of the West Coast…began to press for the removal from the coastal areas of all people of Japanese ancestry…singled out from other ‘enemy’ groups such as Italian-Americans and German-Americans as innately untrustworthy on racial grounds” (the latter inhabitants, Robinson adds, were accorded legal hearings).
The Roosevelt administration split into two factions, one advocated detention and the other—including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover—opposed mass removal. Nevertheless, in early 1942, FDR signed Executive Order 9066, and the War Relocation Authority (WRA) began to detain 110,000 to 120,000 persons of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were American citizens by birth. None were ever found guilty of espionage or treason.
Legislation passed in 1988 attempted to make amends. The Civil Liberties Act issued a formal apology and allocated $20,000 tax-free to every surviving detainee. No amount of money, though, could fully heal the scars and trauma of the survivors (as evidenced in survivor stories, two of which are mentioned below). Today, many sites across the nation teach visitors about the experiences of Japanese-Americans during internment.
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WHERE: San Francisco, California
Angel Island, a former immigration processing center and now a state park, became a way station during internment. Military personnel forced Japanese people in the Bay Area onto the island before relocating them to other, more extensive facilities. Today, you can visit the island by catching a ferry from San Francisco’s Pier 41 or Tiburon. There, you can learn about historical narratives such as those of the secretly conscripted Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans and Native Americans) who worked for the Military Intelligence Service during WWII, whose stories are featured at the MIS Historic Learning Center at the Presidio’s Crissy Field.
Ride the BART to the San Bruno station, home of the Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial, including WRA-censored shots by famed photographer Dorothea Lange. The nearby mall sits on what used to be a horse racetrack, once used as a holding area for Japanese-Americans en route to detention camps. Find the remembrance plaque next to the Seabiscuit status. Further south, check out the Japanese American Museum of San Jose.
The World War II Japanese American Internment Museum
WHERE: McGehee, Arkansas
The picture of soldiers coming to his home to take custody of him, his parents, and two siblings is “burned into my memory,” recounts George Takei, later to play Mr. Sulu in the original Star Trek television series. His illustrated narrative of what he describes as “my childhood imprisonment” in They Called Us Enemy recalls their compulsory move to “a single smelly stall” at the Santa Anita Racetrack, another of the dozens of euphemistically titled “assembly centers.”
The family was next dispatched by train to Rohwer, the easternmost of the ten “relocation centers,” now more accurately acknowledged as American concentration camps. Note: an understanding between the Japanese American National Museum and American Jewish organizations about this term concluded, “America’s concentration camps were clearly distinguishable from Nazi Germany’s [but] all had one thing in common: the people in power removed a minority group from the general population, and the rest of society let it happen.”
There they endured the food and flimsy one-room tarpaper barracks common to all the incarceration settings. Little of Rohwer remains—two monuments, a decaying smokestack, and a small cemetery—but the McGehee museum focuses on it and another Arkansas camp, Jerome, whose memorial stands along Ellington Farm Road in Dermott.
Tule Lake National Monument
WHERE: Tulelake, California
This former detention complex is now part of the National Park Service and is where many people, including the Takei family, ended up. In 1943, the government made all inmates take a “loyalty questionnaire”, asking whether they would serve in the military and pledge absolute fidelity to the U.S. Most who answered “no” to both questions—whether because they refused to enlist while relatives were still incarcerated or on account of their non-citizen status—were forcibly transferred here.
Consequently, Takei explains, “Tule Lake was the most notorious [and] the cruelest of the 10 camps.” The “yes-yesses”—inmates who answered yes to both loyalty questions—were entitled to work outside the barbed wire, and the Nisei were allowed to serve in segregated armed forces corps.
The 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, shipped to North Africa and Europe, became the most decorated unit in U.S. history for its size and length of service. April 5th, National “Go for Broke” Day, pays tribute to their motto. Today, the unstaffed Visitor Center is in the Tulelake-Butte Valley Fairgrounds Museum, which has displays, brochures, and maps of the site. Book an hour-long, ranger-led tour of what remains.
Japanese American National Museum
WHERE: Los Angeles, California
George Takei is a founding member and trustee of this museum in L.A.’s Little Tokyo. Close by is the Go For Broke National Education Center and Monument. A short walk away is a memorial to those Nisei who died for their country at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. While February 19th, when Executive Order 9066 was signed, is a noteworthy day in Japanese-American history, May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, due to two historical dates. May 7 marks the 1843 arrival of the first known Japanese immigrant to the U.S., while May 10 commemorates the transcontinental railroad’s completion in 1869.
Minidoka National Historic Site
WHERE: Jerome, Idaho
One surviving guard tower looms over the entrance of this unit of the Park Service. The Visitor Center is closed during winter with its introductory film and exhibits, but the 1.6-mile outdoor trail stays accessible all year. Interpretive signs relay the camp’s history as the path winds by its remaining buildings.
The Honor Roll display records of camp detainees who served in the 442nd infantry. Minidoka’s satellite component is Washington State’s Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, cataloging the names of those seized from the island. Stop by the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum for more info, then stroll through the Bainbridge library’s Japanese Haiku Garden.
Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i
WHERE: Honolulu, Hawaii
This institution shares the narratives of the Aloha State’s Japanese-Americans imprisoned at Honouliuli, both a POW and detention camp. As the newest incarceration center to join the Park Service, this National Historic Site isn’t formally open to the public yet, but you can contact the museum to join a tour of the work in progress. Another far-flung site can be found in our 49th State. The Park Service’s Aleutian Islands World War II National Historic Area recounts the tragedy of Unangax̂ (Aleut) people sent to Japan as POWs or imprisoned by the U.S. after Japan invaded the Alaskan island chain.
Poston and Gila River Incarceration Camps
These two penal centers were situated on tribal lands and opposed by Native Americans (specifically, the Colorado River Indian Tribes and Gila River Indian Community) well-acquainted with forced removal. Poston, on the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation in Parker, was administered by the Office of Indian Affairs (renamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs), not the WRA. A few ruins survive, including an elementary school, but the main remembrance is a 30-foot-high memorial.
Fifty miles south of Phoenix is the Gila River camp on Gila River Indian Community property, which is closed to the public. The Chandler Museum, as part of its previous Gaman (meaning “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity”) exhibit, installed a permanent kiosk at Nozomi (Japanese for “hope”) Park detailing the site’s history. The only other park so named is in Nagasaki, Japan, where the U.S. dropped its second atomic bomb, bringing World War II to an end.
Also in the state are two other notable sites. Pacifist college student George Hirabayashi turned himself in for violating a curfew imposed shortly after December 7, then contested the infringement of his civil rights in court and lost (his conviction was overturned in 1997). The government imprisoned him at the Catalina Federal Honor Camp, northeast of Tucson. It’s now a campground named for Dr. Hirabayashi, in the Coronado National Forest, with signage about its past.
Heart Mountain Interpretive Center and the Granada Relocation Center
WHERE: Colorado and Wyoming
Officially called the Granada Relocation Center, situated along the Santa Fe Trail, it’s better known by its Cheyenne name. It may gain yet another title: Congressional legislation has been introduced to designate it as a National Historic Site within the Park Service. Drive around to look at restored and reconstructed landmarks, such as a water and a guard tower and barrack (download the map and audio in advance).
Downtown, the Amache Museum‘s display of a single suitcase is a poignant reminder that prisoners could bring only what they could carry. In the adjacent state of Wyoming, Heart Mountain Interpretive Center in Powell is dedicated to its namesake incarceration camp. Head indoors to inspect the museum’s collection, then walk along the alfresco interpretive trails to view leftover structures, including an original barrack. The late Senator Daniel Inouye—part of the 442nd Regiment and instrumental in the 1988 legislation—and the deceased congressman and Cabinet member Norman Mineta, who was confined here, both have plaques at Heart Mountain.
Manzanar National Historic Site
WHERE: Independence, California
In her memoir Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne Wakatsuki Huston admits that she struggled for years with shame “for being a person guilty of something enormous enough to deserve that kind of treatment,” a not uncommon sentiment among the incarcerated. Her parents lost nearly everything, again like countless of their fellow prisoners. The federal government paid out $38 million in compensation through an onerous claims process, but San Francisco’s Federal Reserve Bank estimated total losses of $400 million, over $6 billion in today’s dollars.
Many believe the number is much higher. And it doesn’t include tremendous lost wages and profits. At Manzanar, start at the Visitor Center for an introductory film, exhibits, photographs, and scale map of the confinement camp, set in the Owens Valley under the shadow of the Sierra Nevada’s Mount Whitney. Then take the 3.2-mile self-guided driving/biking/walking tour. Be sure to explore the Block 14 buildings and recovered Japanese gardens on foot.
Topaz Incarceration Camp
WHERE: Delta, Utah
Fred Korematsu was a Japanese-American who contested his incarceration. The appeal of his arrest reached the Supreme Court, which ruled against him, and he ended up at Topaz. That ruling still stands, despite his conviction’s reversal in 1983. California designated his birthday, January 30, as Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, the first such honor for an Asian American. Since then, 10 other states have followed suit. Mitsuye Endo, who was also incarcerated in Topaz, was part of litigation that brought about the eventual closure of these American concentration camps.
This imprisonment site is in the western central part of the state and was initially called the Central Utah Relocation Center, then Abraham Relocation Center, and finally Topaz. Go first to the Topaz Museum to find camp objects and photos, as well as art made by its inmates. The actual detention camp is about 20 minutes away, and visitors must fill out a form to request a guided tour. See it on your own by bike or car.