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Preserving the Sites and Telling the Story of Japanese American Internment  

12-09-2015 17:35

Beginning in 1942, almost 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living along the west coast of the United States were rounded up and forced to leave behind their homes, businesses, and possessions for the bleak conditions of internment camps. For many years the history of the internment experience was not well known outside of the Japanese American community, but that is changing.

Most of the internees who were adults during the internment period are no longer living, and surviving internees who were children at the camps are widely scattered around the country. Families of former internees and local citizens who live near the internment camp sites have formed groups that are working to preserve the oral history and the places that tell the complex internment camp story. These groups share common goals of educating the public and preserving the camp sites, and common challenges such as interpreting archeological sites, working with remote site locations, managing collections, and dealing with land ownership issues. Such groups can better achieve these goals and meet these challenges by exchanging information with each other and by making connections to the broader historic preservation movement.

Origins and Extent of Internment

Following the December 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States government determined that the relocation of Japanese aliens and Japanese American citizens was justified as a military necessity as well as a way to mollify a perceived threat to national security and provide protection from anti-Japanese sentiment. The 1942 issuance of Executive Order 9066 empowered the Army to identify “exclusionary zones” from which all persons of Japanese ancestry would be removed, and a mass exodus was organized and implemented by the Army and other federal agencies. Beginning in Seattle, Civilian Exclusion Orders were issued, giving residents six days to dispose of property and possessions, often at a discounted rate, and report to a collection point from which they were transferred to an “assembly center.” Assembly centers, run by the Wartime Civil Control Administration and located at sites such as the Tanforan and Santa Anita racetracks in California, temporarily housed internees until they could be transferred to a relocation center.

Ten “relocation centers,” operated by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), became semi-permanent homes in remote locations in seven states. (A note about terminology: Although “relocation center” is the term used by the WRA, these sites are also historically accurately referred to as “internment camps,” the term that will be used throughout this article. Many in the Japanese American community use the historically accurate term “concentration camps,” defined as places where persons are detained or confined.)

Life at the Camps

The camps, most surrounded by barbed wire and spread over thousands of acres, were constructed rapidly and cheaply. They were designed to function as largely self-sufficient communities, with areas for living, farming, administration, and security. The living conditions followed an Army model. Barracks were laid out in a block system, with each block having 10-14 barrack buildings with shared communal facilities for recreation, bathing, and eating. Each tarpaper-covered barrack was usually divided into four, one-room apartments, furnished with a source of heat and light, cots, blankets, and mattresses. Barracks afforded little privacy, were frequently too hot or too cold, and were nearly always dusty. Schools and churches were also built throughout the camps.

Internees improved their surroundings to make their conditions more palatable and to reflect their culture. They installed landscape features such as Japanese ponds and gardens, evidence of which survives today. Social activities such as dances, Scout troops, and art clubs helped break up the monotony of camp life. Blocks had elected leaders and the camps had community councils made up of internees who were liaisons to the WRA camp directors. While much of daily life was carried out within the camp confines, internees were permitted to leave to work on the camp farms, to collect landscape materials, and for recreation.

Cultural differences and questions of loyalty permeated interactions at the camps. Issei (immigrants from Japan) and Nisei (first-generation Japanese Americans) did not always see eye-to-eye on issues. Feelings about internment ran the gamut from cooperation and resignation to hostility and resentment.

Yet despite such feelings against the U.S. government and its internment policy, Japanese American young men volunteered directly from the camps to serve in the United States military. The 100th battalion/442nd regiment composed of Japanese American soldiers serving in Europe was among the most highly decorated units in American history. Camps had honor rolls that recognized their children serving in the war and the casualties they suffered. For example, 63 Heart Mountain internees were killed or wounded in combat.

All adult internees were required to answer a questionnaire called “Application for Indefinite Leave Clearance.” It was designed to determine loyalty to the United States and used as a mechanism for approving internee resettlement away from both the west coast and the camps. Negative responses to Questions 27 and 28 of the form, which inquired specifically about loyalty to the United States, led to internees being segregated at the Tule Lake camp in California.

Differences between internees and camp administrators were magnified by the language barrier. There were numerous disturbances, strikes, and protests between internees and camp administrators over issues such as work hours and wages at Minidoka and the killing of an internee by a sentry at Topaz.

Closing the Camps

Following the conclusion of World War II, the camps began to close, with Tule Lake the last to close in March of 1946. The WRA provided internees with minimal resettlement assistance -- $25 and a train ticket. Some internees returned to the West Coast while others settled in the states where they had been interned. They began to rebuild the lives they had enjoyed prior to 1942, while facing continuing prejudice. The camps were gradually disassembled, with most buildings demolished or moved. It is easy to identify barracks moved from Topaz to Delta, Utah, where they now serve as residential buildings. Camp land reverted to the federal agency that had previously owned it or was sold. Not long after the end of the war, the physical manifestations of the camps were not much more than archeological remains.

As the era of the camps came to a close, “no person of Japanese ancestry was ever convicted of any serious act of espionage or sabotage during the War.” (Confinement and Ethnicity, page 25). A final chapter to the internment story was added in the late 1980s when, in response to a decade of lobbying, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which bestowed a formal apology and paid $20,000 to each of the surviving internees.

Current Circumstances

Today each camp has unique circumstances concerning level of historic designation, related friends groups and preservation organizations, programs and activities, and site conditions and ownership.


Many of the sites related to internment have been evaluated for National Register, State Register, or National Historic Landmark eligibility. The National Park Service is now completing a National Historic Landmark Theme Study about Japanese Americans in World War II and is reevaluating several internment- related sites for National Historic Landmark eligibility.

A study completed by the National Park Service in 1989 identified Manzanar as retaining the most integrity of the 10 relocation camps and offering the best opportunities for interpretation of the government’s World War II evacuation and relocation program. In response to the study’s findings, in 1992 Congress designated Manzanar a National Historic Site and it is now a National Park Service unit. Site development has been underway for several years, and this fall an interpretive center will open in Manzanar’s historic auditorium. Minidoka Internment National Monument was designated by President Clinton in 2001 and was also added as unit of the National Park Service, which is currently preparing a management plan for the site.

The internment camps below are already listed in the National Register or as National Historic Landmarks or National Historic Sites:

Amache: NR
Heart Mountain: NR
Manzanar: NHL, NHS
Minidoka: NR, NHS
Rohwer: NR
Rohwer: Cemetery NHL
Topaz: NR
Tule Lake: NR eligible

Programs and Activities

As an early recognition of the significance of internment, all of the camps had monuments or markers placed to commemorate their locations. These were frequently installed by groups of former internees, local chapters of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), veterans groups, or historical societies. Reunions or pilgrimages of former internees and their families have been held at the camp locations for many years. For example, the Tule Lake Committee has organized a biannual pilgrimage to Tule Lake since 1975, giving former internees an opportunity to return to the camp, reconnect with friends, and revisit the internment experience.

All of the groups recognize the need to educate the public about the story of internment. Educational activities target a range of age groups and levels of interest, from local school teachers bringing the story of internment to their classrooms to universities sponsoring national conferences. The Amache Preservation Society, composed of Granada High School students and teacher John Hopper, have researched the camp, completed site improvement and interpretation projects, and collected artifacts for a traveling exhibit and museum. Similar education programs are part of the work of the Topaz Museum Board and the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation as well. The Arizona Chapter of the JACL holds an annual workshop in Phoenix for teachers to learn ways to incorporate the history of Gila River into their curriculum. With major funding from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Public History Program has partnered with the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles to research the experiences of Japanese Americans in World War II in Arkansas, and educate the citizens of Arkansas and the nation about the two camps at Jerome and Rohwer.


Many traditional supporters of the camps, including former internees and their families, do not reside in the community where the camps are located. In some communities residents were opposed to the construction of camps there, and lingering local reactions range from hostile to apathetic (although in other places, supportive local citizens have spearheaded camp preservation efforts). These challenges are being overcome as groups work to find ways to form partnerships with broader constituencies including private landowners, government agencies, and Native American tribes. For example, The Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) are working with the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego and former internees to develop plans to restore the remaining buildings at Poston and ultimately create a multicultural village for the CRIT and Nisei communities. The Poston Restoration Project pays tribute to the past while also providing economic development and cultural tourism opportunities for the present and future communities. The town of Granada, Colo., which owns Camp Amache, is administering grants for an archeological study and site plan for that camp, and the town now also views the camp as a tourism and economic development asset.

Site Issues

Although oral histories, exhibits, and educational programs play a major role in telling the story of Japanese American internment, the full story cannot be understood without the sites. Even though the integrity of the camp sites varies, gaining control of the sites is also an important aspect of camp preservation groups’ work. Some groups, such as the Topaz Museum Board, own large parcels of their respective camps, while other groups have made the decision not to purchase property.

Site interpretation also poses a number of challenges. For the most part, the sites have few standing structures from the internment period, but many have significant surface archeological features that can best be seen and understood by walking through the sites. This raises concerns about vandalism, theft, and control over visitor behavior. The sites are also all located in remote areas, many far from large population centers. That means they must be sought out by visitors as destinations, which requires marketing and tourism planning. At some locations, off-site museums or interpretive centers are being considered to educate visitors prior to sending them to see the actual sites.

Coalition Planning

In 1999 the Topaz Museum Board was awarded a Save America’s Treasures Preservation Planning Fund grant administered by the National Trust’s Mountains/Plains Office. The grant produced an archeological site assessment and an interpretive plan. Trust staff in the Mountains/ Plains, Western, and Southwest Offices realized that many of the camps were facing the same issues, and after discussing the idea with several camp groups, decided to develop a strategy to assist the camp preservation groups as a whole.

The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles provided the first venue for convening internment camp preservation groups. In November 2002 it hosted an All Camps Summit attended by hundreds of former internees. Several educational sessions focused on camp preservation activities and gave the groups a chance to exchange information and learn about what others were doing. It was also an opportunity to introduce preservation programs and services of the National Trust, statewide and local preservation organizations, the state historic preservation offices, and the National Park Service. While many of the camp groups had long been working on preservation activities, not all were connected to the larger preservation movement or the support it could bring to their efforts. The California Civil Liberties Public Education Project provided funding to convene a second meeting of camp preservation groups in August 2003 and additional framework for an All Camps Coalition was outlined.

From the connections made at these initial meetings, internment camp groups were able to access Preservation Services Fund grants for strategic planning and site assessments as well as technical assistance. An educational session at the 2003 National Preservation Conference in Denver featured speakers from the Tule Lake Committee and from the Life Interrupted Project at the University of Arkansas Little Rock. The Denver Central Optimists, who provide much support to activities at Amache, hosted a reception for those interested in preserving internment camps. Arkansas and the Japanese American Story, a conference sponsored by the University of Arkansas and the Japanese American National Museum, to be held in September 2004, will provide another opportunity for camp groups to share stories and continue to work toward developing a coalition.


The story of Japanese American internment is complex. Internment was a source of shame for the Japanese American community for many years; only in the last 20-25 years have people begun to speak openly about it within the community, let alone outside of the community. It is a story that many people do not even know or do not know in detail, although public interest was stimulated by David Guterson’s book, Snow Falling on Cedars. Finally, it is a story that has been misconstrued, and misunderstanding of the facts about internment contributes to continuing prejudice.

The sites of Japanese American internment camps present challenges because most of the buildings no longer exist. It is easy to infer a sense of significance from a stately courthouse, ornate church, or Victorian mansion, but more difficult to do so from a dry, barren landscape dotted with the foundations of buildings. Education, therefore, is an extremely important step in the effort to preserve the camps. By learning the true story of internment, those who were unaware of or misinformed about this history are able to understand the significance of the camps and are more likely to support the efforts to preserve them. The story is most convincing when told by an individual who lived through internment, but because former internees, especially those who were adults at the time, are elderly, time is of the essence.

An inclusive planning process, although challenging, is also integral to the preservation of the camps. Given the remote locations and lack of former internee populations in the surrounding areas, it is important that new communities and groups take an interest in the preservation and stewardship of the sites. Strategic planning sessions that involve stakeholders with conflicting opinions and different cultural perspectives are more productive when facilitated by people who understand the complexities and have the skills and sensitivity to foster collaboration.

The National Trust helped fund a strategic planning workshop for the Poston Restoration Project, which included the participation of former internees, members of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, preservation professionals, and local residents. The workshop was facilitated by a Japanese American woman who uses words and illustrations to graphically record ideas, concepts, and relationships on large murals. This organizational development tool is new to many in historic preservation, but it was crucial to stimulating big-picture thinking and collaboration among diverse people now committed to a common goal.

A strong relationship has developed between the established preservation community and the Japanese American internment camp community. These two groups, which several years ago were not very familiar with each other’s work, are now partners on many projects and the distinction between the two communities is disappearing. One of the reasons for the success has been the willingness of both groups to educate and learn from each other.

Much has been said about the need to broaden the preservation movement and increase the awareness and preservation of America’s diverse historic places. Often the strategy used to meet that goal is to encourage people from diverse backgrounds to “join us” by attending preservation conferences or submitting a nomination for an award or inclusion on an endangered list. However, it is equally important for us to “join them” by participating in the activities led and organized by diverse communities that might not meet the traditional definition of “preservation.” By participating in the All Camps Summit, the organized preservation community was able to educate camp groups about available resources while gaining a better understanding of the story of internment, the significance of the camp sites, the layers of complexity, and the different approaches to historic preservation -- all of which helped form a solid foundation for a sustainable relationship which will further camp preservation efforts into the future.

Groups working to preserve the stories and the camp sites are at different levels of organizational maturity and have a variety of missions and supporters. They include:

- Amache Preservation Society & Denver Central Optimists —
- Friends of Minidoka —
- Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation —
- Japanese American Citizens League, Arizona Chapter (Gila River) —
- Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego and Colorado River Indian Tribes (Poston) —
- Life Interrupted Project (Rohwer & Jerome ) —
- Manzanar Committee —
- Topaz Museum Board —
- Tule Lake Committee —
- National Park Service (Manzanar & Minidoka) —

The principle resource for this article was Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites by Jeffrey F. Burton, Mary M. Farrell, Florence B. Lord and Richard W. Lord (University of Washington Press, 2002). It provides a comprehensive overview of internment and all of the related sites. Another source was Report to the President: Japanese- American Internment Sites Preservation (Department of the Interior, 2000).

Publication Date: Spring 2004

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Author(s):Amy Cole & Anne Gailliot