OUT OF THE DESERT
As war broke out in Asia and Europe in the late 1930s, the United States sought to maintain neutrality even while aiding allies with war materials and supplemental military units. To deter further Japanese military expansion in the Pacific, the United States imposed economic sanctions on Japan—one of several factors that instigated Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The order authorized the Secretary of War to “prescribe military areas” throughout the country “from which any or all persons could be excluded” in the interest of national defense.
Although not mentioned by name, Executive Order 9066 paved the way for the mass incarceration of all persons of Japanese ancestry residing on the West Coast. On March 2, 1942, General John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command designated the coastal parts of California, Oregon and Washington an exclusion area, which led to the internment of Issei (first-generation immigrants ineligible for U.S. citizenship), Nisei (second-generation American citizens by birth), and Kibei (American-born U.S. citizens raised or educated in Japan) alike.
Indicating the racialized nature of internment, German and Italian Americans were not subject to mass incarceration.
The first mass evictions took place on Bainbridge Island, Washington, on March 20, 1942. At 11:20 AM, the ferry Keholoken departed with 227 of the island's residents. After crossing Puget Sound to Seattle, they boarded a train bound for Manzanar, California. By April, tens of thousands of people had been displaced to temporary “assembly centers” hastily constructed on local fairgrounds or horse racecourses.
Internment was not implemented in Hawai‘i, as mass incarceration of close to 40% of the population would have crippled the local economic infrastructure. However, community leaders were detained in one of five camps in the territory or sent to camps on the mainland.
By the fall of 1942, over 110,000 internees were assigned to one of ten “War Relocation Centers” operated by a new civilian agency, the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Conditions in camp were harsh. Most were located on remote lands where temperatures rose to 120 °F in summer and dropped to -30 °F in winter. Barbed wire fences and armed watchtowers ominously guarded the perimeter. Uninsulated and barren barracks provided little comfort and privacy, and the food was often of poor quality.
Despite the circumstances, Japanese Americans actively built schools, hospitals, and community institutions to establish a civic life they were otherwise denied.
The monotony, anxiety, and resiliency that marked everyday camp life emerges in the diary of Yonekazu Satoda. “Today was supposed to be my graduation at Cal,” Satoda wrote in his second entry, dated May 13, 1942. “It was very hot. Ate twice both at noon and at nite. Went for another walk today and had a long bull session with John Koyama and his wife.” Six days later, “Got hell from Mom for fooling around with women.” The following evening, “Ptomaine poisoning in the mess hall. 3 or 4 hundred sick.”
Satoda wrote nearly every day in a confinement that lasted almost three years, first at Fresno Assembly Center and later at Jerome in the marshlands of the Mississippi flood plane. He recorded the banality of his camp office job, anxiety over his uncertain future, the daily pleasures of his baseball league, attending dances, and drinking soda with his friends.
Throughout the war, various media outlets chronicled internment from a range of conservative and progressive perspectives. Religious organizations produced countless pamphlets hoping to educate the public about the positive contributions made by Japanese Americans to U.S. history. The WRA and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) were equally prolific, distributing propaganda that sought to curb criticism while arguing for the internment program as a necessary wartime measure.
Mainstream media outlets, particularly those in California, were also uncritical of internment. Newspapers like The Los Angeles Times used pejoratives like “Japs” and euphemisms like “evacuation” to sanitize the news.
Despite the uncanny nature of daily life, time did not stop for internees. Children and young adults continued their education at schools built within the camps. Music, reading, and arts and crafts became outlets for recreation and education.
While many adult internees read for pleasure or to stay informed of the news, Keikichi Imamura reflected that for him, reading offered “a sense of buoyancy, to lift me up, in a way from perpetual feelings of depression and blanket-heaviness.”
Students attending school often participated in the same activities as those living outside the confines of camp. The Junior Red Cross chapter at Poston High School compiled this scrapbook, “Out of the Desert,” and mailed it to another Junior Red Cross chapter outside Poston as a gesture of friendship and understanding.
Within, high school junior Nancy Karakane narrates the story of Masako and her Irish American best friend Irene. When Masako is forcibly removed to Poston, Masako gifts her “dearest treasure”—a white trinity cord—to Irene.
Libraries were established throughout the camps, offering printed material in both English and Japanese.
To address the lack of toys within Poston, teacher Mary Burford Courage established a “Toy Loan Library” with her local Junior Red Cross chapter, decorating an empty barracks with wrapping paper and paint. The makeshift library allowed children to play with a communal collection of donated toys.
The WRA established Community Councils in each of the ten war relocation centers. Comprised of representatives from each of the camp's blocks, these councils became the chief form of self-governance and in theory granted Japanese Americans agency during their incarceration. Ultimately, however, these councils still operated under the strictures of the WRA.
Tensions between various political factions within the camps frequently came to a head in the form of organized strikes and protests. The 1942 strikes at Poston and Manzanar were notable for their scale and coverage in the mainstream press.
In comparison, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) wielded greater political influence. During “evacuation,” the JACL cooperated with authorities, arguing that only through cooperation could Japanese Americans demonstrate their loyalty and evade harsher treatment.
From its headquarters in Salt Lake City, the JACL published its newsletter and ideological organ, The Pacific Citizen, throughout the war and participated in top-level WRA meetings concerning camp governance. The JACL also faced criticism for its involvement in the 1943 “loyalty” questionnaire that required many to choose between statelessness or disloyalty.
Many arrived at camp as accomplished artists and writers. Charles Erabu “Suiko” Mikami was renowned for his sumi-e (traditional brush paintings) of camp landscapes. He began his art training in Japan at the age of fourteen before immigrating to Seattle in 1919. At camp in Utah, Mikami taught at the Topaz Art School alongside artists like Miné Okubo.
Born to a Japanese father and American mother, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi voluntarily relocated from New York to Poston, Arizona, to promote arts and crafts. He completed several projects in camp, including a bust of actress Ginger Rogers made from pink Georgia marble. However, his dream of building a Japanese rock garden was never realized.
Internees also pursued art and writing to make sense of their circumstances. The letters of utopian socialist Walter Millsap to his friends Keikichi and Toshiko Imamura document the couple's efforts to write creative and journalistic pieces during their incarceration at Gila River in Arizona: “You are both writers in your own right...beginning to experience the spell of the desert and express it.”
In the final issue of Trek, a literature and arts journal published at Topaz in Utah, the editors reflected: “The impetus of movement has swept the group, and with this final edition, Trek, as a record of growth in a concentrated atmosphere, an expression of the moods and modes of a transplanted people, must come to an end.”
Many individuals and organizations challenged the internment of Japanese Americans. Pacifists like the Quakers, Mennonites, the Brethren, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation formed coalitions, taking a collective stance against the war and the violation of citizens’ rights. Some activists worked in camps as conscientious objectors, while others corresponded with, visited, and brought donations to internees.
Renowned landscape photographer Ansel Adams visited Manzanar four times to document life in camp. His photographs were collected in the book, “Born Free and Equal: Photographs of the Loyal Japanese Americans at Manzanar Relocation Center” (1944). Many of his photographs are featured here.
Several of these acquaintances developed into friendships that outlasted the war. Quaker and pacifist Elizabeth Page became involved with the American Friends Service Committee and spearheaded a number of initiatives to assist Japanese Americans. In this capacity, she corresponded with over twenty internees, many of whom she had met only in passing.
As noted by her correspondents, Page's frequent visits to camps, generous donations (including a piano), and exchange of holiday cards reassured many internees that Japanese Americans still had friends and supporters on the outside.
Aided by the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, 6,000 college-aged students were able to enroll at Midwest and East Coast institutions. This transition was not always easy. Just as Warren Watanabe was about to depart for Yale, he learned that the university had been closed to Japanese American students due to its proximity to the water. He reflected: “Perhaps I may be able to get to Yale or to one of the eastern universities eventually. Life in a camp such as Topaz is demoralizing, inducing a lack of ambition and initiative.”
Similarly, Ruth Watanabe (no relation) informed Elizabeth Page that she had been granted leave from Granada to attend the University of Rochester. “Radcliffe,” the women's college affilated with Harvard University, “was not approved”—likely due to its location on the coast.
On December 17, 1944, the War Department revoked the West Coast mass exclusion orders and the following day announced plans to close all relocation centers by the end of 1945. While some internees returned to the West Coast, a greater number relocated to the East Coast and Midwest in search of employment. The WRA sought to facilitate the reintegration of Japanese Americans through hostel and employment programs, yet former internees confronted institutionalized racism that made securing employment and housing difficult.
Even after the war's conclusion on September 2, 1945, 44,000 individuals—primarily the elderly, sick, and those with nowhere else to go—still remained in camp. Tule Lake, the last of the camps, did not close until March 1946.
The surge in 1960s and 1970s activism galvanized earlier movements that sought redress for the mass violation of civil liberties during internment. In response to lobbying by Japanese American activists, Congress and President Jimmy Carter established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1980. The Commission’s investigation included twenty days of hearings where over 500 former internees testified. Many had never shared their incarceration experiences even with their own families.
The Commission’s final report concluded that internment was not enacted out of “military necessity,” but instead by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
While Japanese American activists and organizations often disagreed on the form that reparations should take, decades of activism culminated in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Speaking during the floor debate of the legislation, Senator Spark Matsunaga, a Democrat from Hawai‘i and World War II veteran, commented that “a stigma has haunted Japanese Americans for the past 45 years. We are seeking Congressional action to remove that cloud over their heads.”
Signed into law by President Ronald Regan, the act resulted in a formal apology from the government, presidential pardons for resisters, financial redress in the sum of $20,000 to each individual survivor, and the establishment of an educational community fund.
The World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans remains a painful, but little-understood footnote to American history. The topic periodically reemerges in debates over national culture, and its discussion is still personally and politically charged for many Japanese Americans. Who has the right to narrate this story? How do these histories continue to be told as the number of internee survivors dwindles?
Artwork and writing—the core of the material presented in this exhibit—offer glimpses into individual thoughts and lives from behind barbed wire. Collectively, they can give breadth to entire generations of lived experiences from camp. These objects remain critical conduits for revisiting and representing these histories.