Sunday, May 6, 2018

Japanese Internment Camps: Americans Imprisoned in Their Homeland

By Kiersti Giron

Japanese-American detainees arrive for processing in Arcadia, CA
Originally uploaded by Shep182, English Wikipedia
File:SanPedro to SantaAnita.gif, Public Domain.
When we think of people confined in camps during World War II, we tend to think of Nazi concentration camps in Germany or Poland. Sadly, though, America also initiated internment camps within its borders during World War II, confining thousands of Japanese-Americans on suspicion that they might be traitorous to the United States, though such mistrust proved groundless.

While a close friend of my family was born as a premature baby in one of these internment camps, and though I frequently pass a racetrack where the stables formed a holding site for Japanese-American families before their transfer to the camps, I haven’t known much about this part of American history. Last fall, however, I read the memoir Farewell to Manzanar with my 9th grade English Honors students, and this book, telling Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s personal story of her childhood experience in an internment camp, sparked my interest to learn more.

NPS Map of U.S. Japanese Internment Camps, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
HHH blogger Nancy J. Farrier already did a great job several years ago in giving an overview of the Japanese internment program; I encourage you to read her posts here and here. Today, I thought I’d share some of the specific details that stand out most to me in what I’ve learned so far.

  1.      Most of those interned were American citizens born in the U.S.

About 120,000 Japanese-Americans were forcibly relocated to camps during World War II. 70,000-80,000 of these were Nisei, or second-generation immigrants, United States citizens who considered themselves American.

  2.      Japanese-Americans were pressured to take an oath renouncing any loyalty to Japan

According to Farewell to Manzanar, people were required to check “yes” or “no” and sign an oath contained these two questions:

-          Are you willing to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?

-          Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?

For many Japanese-Americans, while they had no desire to work against their adopted country, the thought of taking up arms against the country of their heritage made choosing how to sign this document a divisive and heart-wrenching decision. It was like being asked to choose between your father or your mother.

Japanese-Americans transplanting celery at the Tule Lake Relocation Center
By (believed to be) Russel Lee, Library of Congress on Flickr, Public Domain.
  3.      German and Italian immigrants were not widely relocated or detained

Sadly, thanks to racism in America, only Japanese-American families were widely targeted for relocation and detention, despite the fact that America was also fighting Germany and Italy. In general, European immigrants were only targeted and detained if there were actual evidence against individuals.

  4.      The government created a special military combat team composed of Japanese-Americans

The 422nd Regimental Combat Team was assembled to fight in the European Theater. This group of loyal Japanese-Americans, with their families largely imprisoned in internment camps, became the most highly decorated unit of World War II.

  5.      Residents in the camps developed their own social communities, like small towns

To preserve some sense of normalcy, families in the internment camps developed schools, churches, and social clubs. In Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston describes her school yearbook from Manzanar, an isolated camp in northeastern California. Her memories included high school bands, a school play, and dance lessons. She also learned to twirl the baton.
Reconstructed barracks and dining hall at the Manzanar Camp
By inkknife_2000, Wikimedia Commons

Those who survived the camps found the experience difficult to speak about afterwards, often for many years. One of my students shared that in her California neighborhood today, there reside a number of elderly Japanese-Americans who lived through the internment camps. “They don’t want to talk about it, though,” she said. 

While detainees in the camps did not experience the horror, torture, and killing of the Nazi concentration camps, the trauma of having their lives uprooted, their belongings confiscated, their families often separated, being crowded together in difficult conditions, and most of all, being treated as enemies by the country they loved, took a heavy toll.

The United States government formally apologized for the Japanese Internment Camps in 1988 and issued reparations, but the episode remains a painful reminder of what can happen when a group of people is targeted and vilified simply because of their heritage. More and more today, these stories are being shared, and we have the chance to listen to these Americans and learn from our past.

What do you know about the Japanese internment camps? What has stood out to you most about them, whether something you learned here or somewhere else? Please comment and share!

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazines and won the 2013 ACFW Genesis Award - Historical for her manuscript Beneath a Turquoise Sky. A high school teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at She lives in California with her wonderful husband, Anthony.


  1. It's sad that these internment camps came to be, much like the reservations that the Indians were forced to accept. I do understand the government asking them to sign those two statements, however. And that's as far as I want to go in that discussion. Great post and great information.

    1. Thanks for reading and sharing, Connie.

  2. This is a shameful blight on America's history. It's hard to understand how a thing so unjust could happen. I pray it never happens again.

    1. Indeed. Thanks for stopping by and sharing, Vickie!

  3. Powerful post about a grievous injustice in our history. Just tragic.

    1. Sorry, Susie--I thought I replied to your comment, but it looks like it just posted as a separate comment! But I agree with you about the tragedy...thanks so much for reading and sharing. Blessings! :)

  4. I agree...thanks so much for reading and sharing, Susie! Blessings. :)

  5. Kiersti,
    Such an interesting and sad post. Hard to imagine our country did that to the Japanese-Americans.

    1. It is so sad...thanks for stopping by and sharing, Marilyn!