My Japanese Internment Camp Visit

I recently learned that PBS received a grant to film and preserve several American Japanese internment camps used during WWII. This announcement sparked my interest, not only as a history buff, but also because I knew many of the camps were located in remote areas of the West and I was heading out to Utah—prime territory.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile there are several camps in Utah, it turned out the closest one to me was Manzanar, in California’s Eastern Sierras, so I made a detour on my road trip home. And I’m glad I did.

Here’s a little of what I learned:

The Basics

Who – Between 110,000-130,000 people of Japanese ancestry were forcibly relocated and interned in U.S. during WWII. 62% of the internees were U.S. citizens. No similar actions taken against Americans of German and Italian ancestry.

What – In Feb. 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order #9066, which was used to authorize the deportation of all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast, including all of California and much of Oregon, Washington and Arizona.

Where – Americans of Japanese heritage were removed to 10 internment camps—officially called “relocation centers” in CA, ID, UT, AZ, WY, CO, and AR. In addition to these 10 main centers, citizens were also held in Assembly Centers, Isolation Centers, Temporary Camps, US Army Internment Camps and Federal prisons.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen – Forced incarceration began in early 1942 and lasted until the end of the war. Japanese-American citizens of were allowed to return to the West Coast beginning in 1945 and the last camp closed in March 1946.

Why – After the Japanese Imperial Army bombed Pearl Harbor in Dec. 1941, rumors arose that local Japanese-Americans would either sabotage the war effort or mount a full-scale attack on the U.S. mainland. These fears were fueled by racial prejudice and by West Coast farmers wishing to eliminate Japanese competition.

Additional Info

War Service – More than 3,600 Japanese-Americans entered the American armed forces from the camps, as did 22,000 others who lived in Hawaii or outside the relocation zone. The all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team is recognized for its heroic deeds fighting in Italy and Germany.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWar Reparations – In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act compensating 60,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in U.S. internment camps. The legislation offered both a formal apology and $20,000 in compensation to each surviving victim. It took 10 years for the law to pass and only after heavy lobbying by the Japanese-American community.

My Manzanar Tour

As I mentioned, I am deeply interested in history and so re-routed my drive home and extended it by a day to be able to visit the Manzanar camp. I thought I’d spend about 1.5 hours at the historical site, but ended up staying more than 3 hours watching the films, reading the exhibits and touring the camp buildings.

It’s clear that the internees worked hard to build a life for themselves while at the camps, creating schools, hospitals, fire departments, gardens, and community centers. It was also abundantly clear that no one would want to live in these harsh conditions and that there was no opportunity to leave the camp. These citizens were prisoners with their freedom curtailed at the most base level.

America’s Apology

While the U.S. government was indeed wrong in incarcerating its own citizens, it is rare for a government—especially the American government—to admit to a mistake. I’m proud that the highest level of our government has formally apologized for this egregious act and that reparations (while only a token) were made.

I hope that we can learn from this experience and will take steps to right other wrongs that the U.S. government has perpetrated on its own citizens—particularly against American slaves and Native American communities.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt least the apology and reparations acknowledge the inhumanity of Japanese internment are a step in the right direction. Let’s hope we continue down this path of justice.

Get Involved

As American citizens we too can help cultivate a more just society by:

  • Learning – Watch this PBS documentary about the Japanese-American internment: Children of the Camps
  • Visiting – Only 2 of the 10 Camps are National Historic Sites: Manzanar in Northern California and Minidoka in Idaho. These sites are free to visit.
  • Donating – Make a donation to the National Trust for Historic Preservation
  • Supporting – I visited the gift shop at Manzanar and did my bit the true American way—by shopping!

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This entry was posted on Friday, July 31st, 2015 and is filed under Social Issues.

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