Personal Experiences

The items in this exhibition were created by men, women, and youth during their incarceration in relocation camps. They reflect a mix of emotions, including anger, uncertainty, and hope. Read full overview

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About the Images

The images in this topic were created by men, women, and youth during their incarceration in relocation camps. Artists expressed the internal experience of camp life in paintings and drawings. Writings — including memoirs, illustrated diaries, scrapbooks, and letters home — reflect the daily struggle of men, women, and children trying to live "normal" lives in remote, guarded camps behind barbed wire. These personal creations express experiences that are often more emotionally complex than the official government photographs. The images in this topic depict reality through the eyes of Japanese Americans, reflecting a mix of emotions, including anger, uncertainty, and hope.

Overview

The first image shows Estelle (Peck) Ishigo, a European American artist born in Oakland, California, who chose to be interned in Wyoming’s remote Lone Heart Mountain Relocation Center with her Japanese American husband rather than endure separation. Her vivid personal memoir, Lone Heart Mountain, and somber paintings, reflect the struggle of many families to stay together despite hardship.

Colorful paintings by Henry Sugimoto, interned in Arkansas' Camp Jerome, express the anger and sadness of evacuation and relocation. In Junkshop Man Took Away Our Icebox, an evacuated family is forced to sell their possessions. Goodbye My Son illustrates the sad departure from the camp of a young Japanese American who enlisted in the US Army — a common event. Ironically, even as the US government denied nisei men their civil liberties, they asked them to fight in the war, identifying "loyal" internees through a controversial questionnaire. One question, for example, asked draft-age men if they were willing to serve in the US armed forces on combat duty, wherever ordered. Another question asked everyone in camp if they would swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and forswear allegiance and obedience to Japan or any other foreign government or organization. Even release from the camps was bittersweet for Sugimoto. His painting Freedom Day Came is a self-portrait of the artist contemplating a caged bird.

Tension between so-called loyal and disloyal internees sometimes erupted into violence. Sugimoto's 1943 painting Rev. Yamazaki Was Beaten in Camp Jerome documents an attack on Reverend John Yamazaki, suspected by other internees of conspiring with the government because he translated government documents into Japanese for the non-English-speaking population. In the left-hand corner is a poem composed by Yamazaki in response to the beating.

In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Sugimoto (the son of a samurai) revisited his camp experience in a series of paintings called "Re-envisioning History." His long career as a painter spanned California, Paris, Mexico, and two World War II internment camps in Arkansas. He died in 1990 in New York City’s Harlem, where he had lived for more than 20 years.

Painter Hisako Hibi (shown in Study for a Self Portrait) taught art during her incarceration in Tanforan and Topaz, Utah, and often portrayed the effect of camp life on mothers and children, as in the painting With Mother. In Laundry Room, mothers bathe their children in laundry sinks because the few bathtubs were almost always occupied. In A Letter, a woman reads a letter that begins "Dear Mother," possibly from a son who had joined the US Army or a child who had been relocated outside the camps. (Some young people were allowed to leave the West Coast and go to college in other parts of the United States; others were allowed to work at agricultural jobs.) The painting also gives a glimpse of living quarters, including a pot-bellied stove, laundry hanging to dry, and a child’s drawing pinned to the wall.

Artist and writer Yoshiko Uchida was born in Alameda, California, and graduated from UC Berkeley (she received her diploma at Tanforan Relocation Center, where she was housed in a former horse stall). She spent a year at Topaz with her family before being allowed to complete her education at Smith College in Massachusetts. She is shown with her family, in a photograph taken the day they were freed.

After the war, Uchida wrote a number of successful children's books about Japanese experiences, culture, and folklore. The watercolors shown here depict the remote surroundings of Topaz. Contrast her Untitled Camp Scene (Water Tank) with a government-issued postcard showing the barracks but not the barbed wire fence surrounding it. Uchida's illustrated diaries include drawings and descriptions of daily life, and express the young woman's hope for freedom and peace. Her scrapbook collects items of daily life, including a pamphlet outlining government expectations for internees. The cover captures the young woman’s uncertainty about her future.

Her father, Dwight Uchida, was born in Japan, but had lived in California for many years. At the time of Pearl Harbor, he was a manager at a San Francisco trading company. His drawings show an older man’s view of camp life. Although the letter to his family puts a good face on his experiences, he — like many Issei — never really recovered from the stress of incarceration and was troubled throughout his life.

Stanley Hayami, a student from Los Angeles, attended high school at Heart Mountain. The pages from his diary, written when he was 16 to 18, record his dreams of becoming an artist-writer, and doubts ranging from the quality of his schoolwork to the meaning of democracy. His drawing of the homes he lived in between 1934 and 1943 makes clear just how much his life had changed. In June 1944, at age 19, Hayami joined the US Army and was killed in combat in Northern Italy on April 23, 1945, while trying to help a fellow soldier.

Moriyuki Shimada's photograph album shows a young man's view of camp life — mostly friends, pretty girls, and sports teams. Shimada, pictured here, was 22 when he and his family were forcibly removed from their home in Santa Clara, California, to Heart Mountain.

The Aquila High School yearbook pictures graduating seniors from high school at the Tule Lake, California, camp. It seems much like other high school yearbooks of the 1940s. Janet Matsuda's poem "Out of the Gloom," expressing the hope that light will come out of the darkness where "the flower of hope refuses to bloom," probably reflects the mood of students unsure of what the future holds. Contrast this with non-internee Claire Sprague's cheerful letter to the Saturday Evening Post about the new life of her former students.

Read full exhibition overview

Note about racial slurs

Some primary sources in this topic may contain racial epithets, such as "Jap," that we recognize as offensive today. The original captions from the WRA photographs, many of which were published in the Los Angeles Examiner, contain cultural references that reflect 1940s terminology. The University of California does not condone this language, but includes it in the interests of historical accuracy.

Glossary

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.

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Interviews with internees, administrators, decision makers, analysts, guards, townspeople, and resisters.

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Contemporary government and media reports on internment reflect the perspectives of non-interned Americans.