From March 1942 to 1946, the US War Relocation Authority (WRA) had jurisdiction over the Japanese and Japanese Americans evacuated from their homes in California, Oregon, and Washington. The WRA photographs document the places that played a role in evacuation, relocation, incarceration, and resettlement — as the government wished to present them. Few, for example, show the barbed wire fences and guards that kept internees imprisoned. Although photographer Dorothea Lange also worked for the WRA, her images manage to suggest a more somber personal experience. In contrast, the paintings by internees portray the camps as experienced by the people who lived there.
On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The next day the United States declared war on Japan. A photograph taken at the time shows a Japanese-American-owned business with a sign hung by its owner, a UC graduate, proclaiming "I am an American." By spring of 1942, "all persons of Japanese ancestry" living in California and other Western states were told to prepare to evacuate their homes by order of Executive Order 9066, signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Two public posters, one in English and one in Japanese, explain the evacuation and assembly process.
Several photographs show Japanese American neighborhoods in San Francisco and Los Angeles during evacuation, when families were forced to leave their homes and businesses. In Florin, near Sacramento, children play in front of a Japanese-owned store two days before they will leave with their families for the assembly center.
Each person was only allowed to bring what he or she could carry, which meant leaving behind or selling homes, businesses, clothing, furniture, pets, and other possessions and personal items. Some families were able to store belongings elsewhere, as noted in the caption of the photograph of the Taisho Y.M. Hall. Many, however, lost everything. One photograph shows a Yugoslavian farmer who is taking over a berry farm formerly operated by residents of Japanese ancestry. Many families, outraged by the violation of their civil liberties, destroyed their property and possessions rather than selling them to unscrupulous buyers who would only offer a pittance.
Internees brought their luggage (shown here piled against a moving van, and waiting to be sorted at a relocation camp) to train and bus stations and waited to be transported to local assembly centers that were located at race tracks (as shown in Yoshiko Uchida's painting of Tanforan), stockyards and fairgrounds, and other large facilities. A WRA photograph taken in Los Angeles shows community members waving goodbye to a group of internees who are leaving on a bus. Henry Sugimoto's painting Take Fresh Air, showing internees in transit being guarded by a ring of armed soldiers, is in stark contrast to the almost happy scene the government photograph depicts. At the assembly centers, they were dispersed to relocation camps across the West. One woman is shown standing in front of a list of family assignments, waiting to leave.
The WRA administrated 10 fenced and guarded relocation camps in California, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Texas, and Arkansas. One photograph shows a long line of people waiting to be admitted to Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, which would soon become home to a large draft resistance movement. Another shows newcomers moving into Manzanar, in California's Owens Valley. As several images make clear, the relocation centers were barracks-like camps in remote desert or mountain areas. Paintings by Sugimoto, Hisako Hibi, and Estelle Ishigo (a European American who chose to be interned with her Japanese American husband) depict the camps as bleak, despite sometimes striking surroundings. Hibi's The 3rd Winter in Topaz reflects the length of time internees endured these conditions.
In December 1944, the WRA began a six-month process of releasing internees and shutting down the camps. In August 1945, the war was over. One photograph shows evacuees, still behind barbed wire, waving goodbye to friends who had been released. Several photographs show families returning home to Sacramento. Many of those who had no homes to return to were housed in yet another government facility, like the trailer city shown in the photograph of a resettlement camp in Burbank. By 1946, all of the camps were closed and the internees had been released to rebuild their lives.
Assembly Centers/Detention Centers: Temporary local housing for evacuated Japanese Americans before they were assigned to relocation camps.
Evacuation: The removal of Japanese Americans from their homes due to Executive Order 9066, signed in 1942 by President Roosevelt.
Internment/Incarceration: Between 1942 and 1945, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were held in camps scattered throughout the West and South. Although popularly used to refer to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, the term internment more accurately reflects the arrest and trial of non-citizens belonging to a nation the United States was fighting during World War II. Internment procedures were largely regulated by the Geneva Convention. The term incarceration more appropriately reflects the unconstitutional removal of Japanese Americans from their homes to the camps.
Issei (or Isei): Literally, "first generation"; issei (ee'-sey) are Japanese who immigrated to the United States after 1907 and were not eligible or citizenship until 1952.
Nikkei: All peoples of Japanese ancestry in the Americas.
Nisei: Literally, "second generation"; nisei (nee’-sey) are the American-born children of Japanese immigrants and therefore American citizens.
Sansei: Literally, "third generation"; sansei (son’-sey) are the American-born grandchildren of Japanese immigrants and therefore American citizens.
Relocation: Used by the US government to mean being transferred to the camps.
Relocation Camps/Internment Camps/Concentration Camps/Evacuation Centers: Terms often used interchangeably to refer to 10 remote camps in the Western and Southern United States, where more than 120,000 Japanese American men, women, and children were incarcerated during World War II.
Resettlement: Term used by the US government to refer to the release of the internees and their transition and reintegration into postwar American life.
(selected California cities)
Selected California Cities