Detained throughout ten isolated “relocation centers”—a political euphemism for concentration camps—Japanese Americans were crowded into rickety wooden barracks amidst bleak deserts and inhospitable swamplands that offered little shelter from the harsh climates: the sweltering sun and frigid nights, the oppressive Arkansas humidity and turbulent Southwestern dust storms.
Surrounding them, the abundance of rifle-toting guards, the repressive barbed wire fences, and the ever-present snipers perched atop the looming watchtowers served as constant reminders of their debased status as ostensibly inferior, as prisoners of war—as “other."
If the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 was, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously declared, “a date which will live in infamy,” then his implementation of Executive Order 9066 ten weeks later marked a dark moment in American history that would “live in infamy” in a more pernicious way. In the throes of war hysteria and pressured by lobbying nativist groups and competing economic interests, the US subverted the fundamental American principles of egalitarianism.
Powerless, the interned Japanese Americans were living on the edge of the world, cut off from the outside world and deprived of most means of communication. In her memoir, The Little Exile, Jeanette Arakawa describes how the authorities “had received orders to collect our radios, cameras, binoculars, and things like that.” Even sketching in the camps was prohibited, although some, like Kango Takamura, did so anyway (see below).
The confiscation of cameras in particular was not an arbitrarily draconian rule, but rather a concerted effort enforced by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the federal agency in charge of the camps, to render the prisoners voiceless and conceal the camps from the public eye. Photos of innocent families caged up behind barbed wire fences and crammed in janky bureaucratic structures would no doubt raise some ethical eyebrows, and the WRA, by means of their strict censorship and enforced silence, seemed to have been more than aware of the internment camps’ dubious morality.
The only photos taken of the camps were shot by government photographers working for the WRA, and even their photos were meticulously reviewed and, if deemed subversive, withheld. These government photographers were explicitly prohibited from taking photos of the guards, the watchtowers, the fences, and basically anything that would cast an unflattering light on the operation.
Celebrated American photographer Dorothea Lange, best known for photographs like Migrant Mother, was hired to take pictures of the camps, but when the WRA noticed that her opposition to the camps was evident in her photographs, they seized them.
Despite this censorship, the overwhelming degradation that Japanese Americans faced during this low point in American history was not so easily swept under the rug. Seventy-five years later, the prevailing consensus is that the mass internment was a deplorable aberration, a momentary (and ironic) lapse in reason during the war against totalitarianism.
While formal apologies have been made and reparations given by the US government over the years, the dehumanizing experience lives on in the memories of the victims who lived through it. And given Trump’s proposed immigration agenda, these resounding memories are more relevant and vital than ever before.
For a poignant firsthand account of the Japanese internment, we recommend Jeanette Arakawa’s new memoir, The Little Exile, a book journalist Sharon Noguchi says “should be required reading for every schoolchild and every U.S. government official.” Filtered through the eyes of a young child whose innocence grapples with the tumultuous mechanisms of the world in the early 1940s, the memoir is written with a literary edge that breathes poetic life into the incident.
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Written by Nikolas Bunton