From the Archive

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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

November 2007 - Tracing a Network of Prisons: The Scope of Detention Facilities

Fort Missoula Department of Justice facility (from denshopd-i44-00003)
"After this incident, we were never able to get out of the camp."
   -- Bill Nishimura

The coming year will mark the beginning of the last major push to gather stories memorializing the entire gamut of detention facilities that held Japanese immigrants and their citizen children during World War II. With funding pending for federal Public Law 109-441, the camps preservation legislation, heritage groups around the country are preparing to collect oral histories, photos, and artifacts to document the far-flung system that imprisoned 120,000 Japanese Americans without due process of law.

The task of thoroughly documenting the wartime incarceration will be challenging. Beyond the assembly centers and incarceration camps managed by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), internment camps run by the Department of Justice and War Department held Issei (first generation) men apart from their separately detained families. Japanese Latin Americans were abducted and shipped to a Justice Department camp that also detained Italians and Germans. Harsher isolation facilities imprisoned Japanese Americans who ran afoul of authorities through resistance or mischance. In all, the government shuffled Japanese Americans between sixty-nine detention facilities of different types during the course of the war.

Densho's online feature "Sites of Shame" at explains and illustrates the complex imprisonment network that held, transferred, and released individuals with cruel arbitrariness. The primary sources in the Densho Digital Archive illuminate the human stories that played out in the various prison camps. The letters of the poet Genji Mihara, for example, poignantly testify to one Issei man's pain at being separated from his wife, Katsuno, as he was interned by the Department of Justice (DOJ) at Lordsburg, New Mexico. His heartfelt letters appear to be devoid of classified information but nonetheless bear the heavy stamp of the DOJ censors.

In preparation for Densho's national campaign to collect video oral histories from all the detention camps, we assessed the current contents of the digital archive. Our review helped to identify areas of the collection that will benefit from expansion, as we build the most comprehensive and accessible archive of primary sources on this important but too little understood subject.

Not surprisingly, the greatest number of interviews focus on Minidoka incarceration camp in Idaho, where Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated from Seattle, Densho's home base. Second and third in number are Manzanar and Tule Lake in California, and the archive also has good representation from Heart Mountain, Wyoming, famous for organized resistance to the draft. Because the camps in the Southwest and Arkansas are not well documented yet, Densho will begin interviewing in Phoenix, Denver, and Salt Lake City this year.

What may surprise some of our supporters is that Densho has allocated resources to gathering interviews with Japanese Americans who were not detained, as well as non-Japanese Americans who can speak to the World War II incarceration. We have interviewed teachers, ministers, journalists, and pacifists who assisted Japanese Americans during the war as well as activist lawyers who played critical roles in the redress movement of the 1980s. And beyond documenting the better known WRA camps, Densho's collection includes interviews, photos, and documents from DOJ and Army camps, such as Crystal City in Texas, commonly referred to as the family camp, which held over 4,000 Japanese American, Japanese Latin American, and European detainees.

What distinguishes Densho's collection of interviews and documents is our willingness to tackle discomforting aspects of the incarceration story that others may avoid. Tensions linger between Nisei veterans and those who refused to volunteer or be drafted until the government restored their constitutional rights. Some interviewees express their objections to the appeasing stance of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). Many interviewees recall how their answers to an ineptly administered questionnaire sent them to the Tule Lake segregation center for the so-called disloyal. Others describe renouncing their U.S. citizenship in anger or under pressure. While these memories remain painful even today, Densho believes the entire Japanese American community will benefit from capturing the full story of the incarceration, without glossing over controversies.

Densho interviewee Bill Nishimura refers to questions 27 and 28 of the loyalty questionnaire that was imposed without warning or explanation. While authorities intended the mass registration to clear people for military service or release from camp, the questioning led to widespread confusion that split families apart. Question 27 asked if the imprisoned citizens would willingly serve in combat, and question 28 asked immigrants and citizens alike to defend the United States and "foreswear" loyalty to Japan. If a person refused to answer, replied "no" to either or both, or qualified their answers in any way, they were designated as disloyal and detained for the duration at a more repressive segregation center. There Nishimura joined the Hoshidan group that defied the camp administrators.

That, it was a, really I thought it was a really a sudden thing, and I answered my twenty-seven, "no" and twenty-eight with a blank, and a "if" on there. "If, if my rights were restored," I would answer this number twenty-eight, but otherwise, I would not answer. And then, people who answered "no-no" were soon sent to Tule Lake, the segregation camp. And I was left behind. And then, I don't know how long it was after that -- they called me into the administration office and asked me if I was going, wanted to change my answer, my twenty-eight. So I said, "No, I'm gonna just leave it as it is." So now I'm gonna just answer it, "no." So my answer became "no-no." Then they sent me to Tule Lake, I believe it was in, early part, January of '4-, 1944...

And then our group head were to be transferred to some other camp. So we wanted to say, bid farewell, so we stood by the fence, and the border patrol ordered us to disperse and, "Go back to your barracks." But we didn't, we didn't obey their order. So what they did was they went into the other compound and got the tear gas canister and start throwing it at us. Unfortunately for them, the breeze was blowing towards them, so they had to quickly run for cover. And then at that time, we really raised a roar, which they didn't like. And when the smoke cleared, all the -- I believe there was about seven or eight border patrols swinging their clubs, and dashed into the compound, and start to, swinging at us and the melee started. And a few were injured, how badly I do not know. And then we were all sent to our barracks. And we had a sweatshirt with the insignia Hoshidan, and that, we had to cut out the Hoshidan portion, so we had a hole in our sweatshirt. And then after that, we were separated -- (They hastily made a stockade and had us in there for a while. Later they put us together with the older group.) And then we had the access to the outside, outside of the compound. But after this incident, we were never able to get out of the camp.

As time runs out, Densho is more inspired than ever to gather the stories of ordinary people who faced extraordinary punishment for the mere fact of their race. Among those stories are dramatic accounts of individuals who demanded their legal rights. The archive features an interview with Fred Korematsu, whose 1944 Supreme Court case sadly upheld the forced removal and detention of Japanese Americans. When a legal team succeeded in having a U.S. district court reopen his case in 1983, Korematsu made a brief, eloquent speech. While the words he spoke in court were noted for the legal record, the memories of first-hand witnesses carry an emotional force that lingers far beyond a written transcript. Legal scholar Peter Irons' description preserves the scene for posterity:

Fred was not an orator like Martin Luther King, but in many ways even more impact because of his sort of inner humbleness. And I remember Fred saying, "Your Honor, I remember forty years ago when I was brought in handcuffs into this courtroom -- wasn't actually the same one, in San Francisco -- and treated as a criminal. And I was suspected because of my ancestry, and all persons of Japanese ancestry were suspected of being spies." And he said, "I remember being sent to the, to the assembly center, to the racetrack, and my family being there and staying in horse stalls." And Fred said, "These were made for horses, not for people." Says, "And I'll never forget my government treating me like this. And I really hope that this will never happen to anybody else because of the way they look, if they look like the enemy of our country." And it probably wasn't more than two or three minutes, but it was so powerful.

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