Japanese American Life During Internment

Archeologists excavate at Manzanar
Archeologists excavate at Manzanar

NPS photo.

On February 19, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 into law, inaugurating a dishonorable period in American history- the incarceration of over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry during the second World War. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941, tensions were high. Fear of another attack, coupled with existing racial prejudice, culminated in the forced imprisonment of all people of Japanese ancestry on the west coast of the United States, most of whom lived in California, Oregon, and Washington. Despite the fact that two thirds of those incarcerated were American citizens born in the United States, citizens and government officials alike doubted the allegiance of the Japanese and Japanese Americans, many of whom had never stepped foot in Japan.

In April 1942 military police and agents of the War Relocation Authority posted evacuation notices in cities throughout the western United States, requiring all people of Japanese ancestry to evacuate their homes, with only a week’s notice to get their affairs in order. Within months, all people of Japanese ancestry had been detained in temporary “assembly centers,” bringing only what they could carry, before being moved to one of ten internment camps, called Amache (Granada), Gila River, Heart Mountain, Jerome, Manzanar, Minidoka, Poston, Rohwer, Topaz, and Tule Lake. These camps, located in California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Arkansas, and Wyoming were hastily built, and located in some of the most desolate areas of the west coast and midwest, exacerbating the conditions of forced incarceration with the extreme weather of deserts and swamps. Although the internees slowly adjusted to the conditions of the camps, the guard towers, barbed wire, and armed soldiers acted as constant reminders of their forced confinement. However, after three long years in the camps, the internees were finally released in 1945-6.

Thirty-four years after its closure, the Minidoka Internment Camp was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Nearly a decade later, in the wake of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 , Manzanar was designated a National Historic Site in 1992. Issued by Congress, the act was an official apology and redress to those imprisoned in the camps. Other sites soon followed. In the same year (1992) Rohwer was made a National Historic Landmark, followed by Amache (Granada) and Tule Lake in 2006, and Heart Mountain and Topaz in 2007.

Overseen and operated by the National Park Service, the sites at Manzanar, Tule Lake, and Minidoka were examined by NPS archeologist Jeff Burton and his team between 1993 and 1999, along with the seven other camps and isolation and assembly centers associated with Japanese American incarceration and relocation. The product of their work, a comprehensive report entitled Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites, examines the extant remains at the camp sites, and with the help of old photographs and blueprints, synthesized the surveys to ultimately recommended all sites for either National Register of Historic Place or National Historic Landmark status.

Because most of the barracks and other buildings constructed for the camps had long since been destroyed or recycled, archeologists were not sure what, if anything, they would find. During the course of excavation at Manzanar, archeologists were surprised to discover ceramic fragments, flower wire, bottles, and even the remnants of rock gardens built by internees in an effort to beautify their space. The artifacts found on site, often in trash dumps, reveal how internees dealt with and adapted to forced confinement. The many pieces of broken Japanese bowls and teacups demonstrate an effort to hold on to Japanese traditions and culture, while evidence of numerous baseball fields, still visible at the Gila River, Manzanar, and Topaz sites, indicate the popularity of baseball, a great American pastime, and a love shared by many of the Japanese American internees.

Archeological studies conducted at the sites also uncovered many building foundations, which have aided in reconstructing the topography of the internment camps. For instance, visitors to Manzanar today can locate the precise sites of barracks where friends and loved ones lived while interred, despite the fact that the barracks themselves no longer stand. Similarly, at Poston the school building, though dilapidated, still stands today, as does most of the perimeter fence at Amache (Granada).

Archeological efforts of the NPS have in recent years been supplemented by university researchers and community groups interested in reclaiming the history of the internment camps. The sites at Kooskia and Amache (Granada) have been excavated by archeologists from the Universities of Idaho and Denver, preserving the history of nearly forgotten camps in Idaho and Colorado. In addition, both NPS and university digs have encouraged members of the local and Japanese American communities to participate, helping to present and preserve the history of the relocation centers, and often hosting community archeology days. Manzanar in particular holds an annual Public Archeology day during which volunteers aid in the excavation, restoration, and preservation of the site.

Development continues, with numerous plans to create and expand resources at the western and midwestern internment camps. Therefore, while little of the built environment of the World War II relocation centers survives today, this history of the Japanese internment camps remains alive through the efforts of archeologists, researchers, and community members in the hopes that this dark moment in American history will be neither forgotten nor repeated.

Last updated: August 30, 2018