Website Review

Japanese Incarceration Camps Sites

The period of U.S. history when thousands of Japanese-Americans were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II is well represented in internet resources for study. One of the richest sites on this topic is the Denshō Website, which documents the lives of internees through text, photographs, maps, and video interviews with survivors. Because today's survivors were children and teens during World War II, their stories reveal the experiences of youth during the incarcerations.

Full access to the Denshō archives, containing "hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images," requires free registration; but the site includes a section labeled "From the Archive," which offers highlights from the collection that anyone can explore. One such highlighted feature is titled "Lessons in Democracy," a page using quotations, photographs, and video to explore children's education as "Americans" while living in the camps. In the words of one survivor, "It makes me a little teary-eyed because I think of the irony of learning the Pledge of Allegiance while being behind barbed wire fences."

A teacher could make good use of these materials in a lesson on the contradictions of democracy in U.S. history, and indeed, other parts of the Denshō Website offer resources for augmenting such a lesson. For example, a section of the site named "Sites of Shame" includes an extensive timeline of Asian-American history; it begins with the infamous Naturalization Act of 1790, which stated that only "free white persons" could become citizens, and includes subsequent entries on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 as well as other undemocratic actions against Asians by the U.S. government. This feature helps students to realize that the incarceration of Japanese Americans was not an isolated event caused merely by World War II, but one that resulted from 150 years of racism toward all Asian immigrants. In this context, the Japanese incarcerations are less about "defending the country" and more an example of the systemic, historic hatred that used to be called "The Yellow Peril," brought to a crisis by a military event.

The "Sites of Shame" section also includes a unique feature that charts the experiences of one particular family, the Yasutakes, as told by four siblings who were children and teens during the incarceration. Unfolding in several different "chapters," with audio interviews and photographs, the Yasutake experience is detailed from the moment when their home was first searched by the FBI through their incarceration, their ultimate release, and the modern-day aftermath they have experienced as adults. One interview clip draws an insightful parallel between past and present: noting how often he's been told to put that "ancient" past behind him, one Yasutake sibling states that the jingoistic response to the 9/11 attacks prove "this 'ancient' history from 60 years ago is just as relevant now as it ever has been."

The "Sites of Shame" section of the Denshō Website further offers an interactive map of the U.S., allowing visitors to click on the locations of numerous detention centers; each click yields statistical data about the camp in question, and many of these pages include brief video interviews with survivors detailing the lives of children and teens in the camps. The page for the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming includes a video of a woman recalling her group of high-school girls singing Christmas carols to one of the camp's armed guards. Though intended as a subtle, sarcastic act of resistance, the carols had an unexpected effect: the guard, homesick, became choked-up and thanked the teenage girls for what he thought was their kindness. Anecdotes like these make a deep impact on viewers by revealing the complicated emotional experiences behind historical facts.

Details of daily life are further illuminated on the page for the Santa Fe Department of Justice Internment Camp, where a man's video interview describes the educational activities of children and youth: "[W]e had many schools in Santa Fe like drawing, physics, electricity, in shigin and shakuhachi and utai, and of course Japanese language. And then they had the pen shuji -- that's Japanese calligraphy, writing with the regular pen, not the brush. And so our time spent there was never idle. We always did something."

Using these pages along with the Denshō site's resources on "Lessons in Democracy," a teacher can juxtapose the dual, competing cultural lessons—American and Japanese—that framed the lives of incarcerated children. On the Denshō site's main page, one can click the "Learning Center" tab for a wealth of other suggestions designed specifically for high-school and college teachers to build lessons around the site's rich materials.

Several other internet sites, though less comprehensive, offer useful materials on the subject of children's lives in the camps. The Denshō site's information about the daily experiences of children can be fruitfully paired with "Ansel Adams's Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar," an online collection hosted at the Library of Congress's massive American Memory website. Though limited to only one detention camp, Manzanar, Adams' beautiful photographs illuminate many of the experiences of daily life that were common among internees at several camps. By searching the collection for "child," "family," "boys," and "girls," visitors will find stunning high-resolution images of the contexts of children's lives: interiors of living quarters, schoolrooms, gardens, hospitals, and camp stores where families shopped. These photographs provide a haunting glimpse of the bizarre contradictions of camp life: the relative appearance of "normality" (children living with their parents, going to Sunday School, playing games, shopping) in the starkly depressing context of broken-down barracks and barren desert surroundings, with barbed-wire borders.

Another resource for study can be found on the PBS website for the documentary, Children of the Camps. The most useful of the ancillary materials is a timeline of events that is briefer and more specific to WWII than the Asian-American timeline at the Denshō site. This timeline would be useful to students who are gaining their first sustained exposure to the topic.

In a section of the site called "Historical Documents," one can find a full-text copy of Franklin D. Roosevelt's infamous Executive Order 9066, that mandated the evacuation and imprisonment of Japanese American families, as well as subsequent government documents that attempted to repair the damage: the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, mandating reparations and apologies to the survivors, and a copy of President Clinton's formal letter of apology on behalf of the nation.

As a helpful prompt to further study, Children of the Camps has assembled an extensive list of links to websites that offer more detailed histories of the camps themselves, their locations, and other aspects of Japanese-American history in the aftermath of the incarcerations. This page of links does not seem well-maintained, as a few of the links are currently dead. The active ones, however, are well worth exploring. They offer innumerable helpful materials to any teacher or student seeking to study the Japanese-American experience during and after World War II.

How to Cite This Source

"Japanese Incarceration Camps Sites," in Children and Youth in History, Item #119, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/website-reviews/119 (accessed April 17, 2014).

One of the richest sites on this topic is the Denshō Website, which documents the lives of internees through text, photographs, maps, and video interviews with survivors.