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Excavating the Legacy of the Internment Camps

Through new research and exhibitions, historians are racing to preserve stories from the forced relocation of Americans and Canadians of Japanese descent during World War II.

Girls skipping rope on Alexander Street in Vancouver in 1939. (Courtesy Nikkei National Museum (2010.23.2.4.236)/Landscapes of Injustice)

Early in the morning of May 30, 1942, four-year-old Marielle Tsukamoto found her grandmother standing in the garden, looking at her rose bushes and crying. Tsukamoto’s family would soon be forcibly relocated from their home in California to barracks in Jerome, Arkansas. Recalling that scene nearly 75 years later, Tsukamoto remembered her grandmother saying, in Japanese, “I don’t think I’m ever going to see this again.”

Throughout World War II, tens of thousands of families like Tsukamoto’s were victims of federal relocation programs across the U.S. and Canada. I recently wrote about how a thread of this painful past was hiding in plain sight in the Canadian farming town where I grew up. The buckling building on the side of the road—the site of a former work camp—was often overlooked. That its history went largely unrecognized is a testament to how precarious national memory can be. It’s startlingly easy for shared histories to go blurry around the edges until they’re hardly legible at all.

Now, new and ongoing projects in the U.S. and Canada are aiming to preserve internees’ stories and re-inscribe them into the national conversation.

The California Museum, in Sacramento, is honoring those stories through a series of 29 videotaped oral histories, which will be installed in the museum’s galleries next month. Tsukamoto—a longtime docent at the museum—narrates her family’s experience. Another woman reflects on the sound of emptiness echoing throughout a house stripped of its furniture and possessions.

Ephemera and a replica of a watchtower help visitors imagine life under internment. (Courtesy California Museum)

The museum has been sharing similar stories, mostly with school kids, as part of the annual Time of Remembrance program. Over the past eight years, some 75,000 students have toured Uprooted! Japanese Americans During WWII while listening to first-hand accounts from survivors who were interned when they were children themselves. “To get that history from the people who lived it is immensely memorable,” says Amanda Meeker, the museum’s executive director.

Even if the particulars are unfamiliar, the stories spin around themes that kids relate to, such as home and belonging. Docents often ask kids to think about dilemmas they had faced: If you had to pack one suitcase, what would you leave behind? How would it feel to abandon your pet? Framed that way, the scenario seems to linger in kids’ minds long after they leave the museum. “The letters we get from them, you can see it got through to them, made them think about citizenship and the Constitution,” Meeker says.

A reproduction of barracks in the “Uprooted! Japanese Americans During WWII” exhibit. (Courtesy California Museum)

The videos will make these first-hand accounts accessible, year-round, to a wider audience. The stories invite guests to consider the profound magnitude and long-term ripples of families’ loss. Kiyo Sato’s family was pulled from their farm at the peak of strawberry season, essentially cutting their financial lifeline. “That harvest would feed us for the whole year. We’d buy 100-pound sacks of rice,” Sato says in one video. Even when internment was over, its legacy sculpted the shape of a family’s life, often blunting the path forward. “We came back to nothing, or we had nothing to come back to,” Sato says.

Those themes are echoed in the Landscapes of Injustice, a Canadian project that zeroes in on the effects of the federal program to sell off material goods belonging to the relocated Japanese Canadians—anything from homes and businesses to china sets and dolls.

Among the general public, relatively little is known about this program, says Jordan Stanger-Ross, the project director and an associate professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Images of people being hauled away from their property are more familiar. “It made a lot of sense that’s where the story started—it’s the most tangibly human, images of people being rounded up into trucks, trains, forced from their homes,” Stanger-Ross says. “Those resonate so powerfully.” But the story about the dispossession speaks to a desire for rootedness, and the anxiety that swirls when those roots are destroyed. Imagine warehousing your life, then being told there was no place to unpack and rebuild.

Fishing boats docked in a harbor at Steveston, British Columbia, circa 1927. (Courtesy Nikkei National Museum (2010.31.2)/Landscapes of Injustice)

The seven-year project began in 2014, and is backed in part by a $2.5 million grant from the federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. So far, the bulk of the work has involved exhaustive and collaborative research conducted across 16 institutions and organizations. The team is sifting through legal enactments and government records, and collecting oral histories. They’ve conducted around 105 interviews with bystanders and former internees, and expect that number to double by next year, says Josh Labove, a postdoctoral scholar who is working on the oral histories with Pamela Sugiman, a professor of sociology and dean of arts at Ryerson University.

The oral accounts span the country, from Vancouver’s once-thriving Japantown to Manitoba and Toronto, where many Japanese-Canadians resettled after the war. Many of the oral histories are sparked by surveying fire insurance maps, remembering the shops lining the city streets, or the canning facilities near the water.

But “the maps we’re most interested in are mental maps,” Labove says, and the oral histories allow bystanders space to wrestle with guilt, complicity, or something else entirely. Even decades later, internment evokes a range of complex feelings across the board. “Maybe [neighbors] took a sewing machine from a house that was vacated, maybe they have some of the artifacts, but they weren’t orchestrating the whole thing,” Sugiman adds. Sugiman, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian, says the oral histories invite speakers who were witnesses and victims of the plan to “re-engage with their memories.”

Collaborators are also working to excavate stories from photographs, as well as from microfilm at the Library and Archives Canada, and case files accumulated by the Custodian of Enemy Property.

One such story comes from Rikizo Yoneyama. At the time he was removed from Haney, British Columbia, Yoneyama had been a Canadian citizen for 30 years. He learned that his possessions and 17.5 acres of land had been sold for $1,406.98. He’d made a living off that land—about $3,500 a year, enough to put two of his four children through college to become a doctor and a dentist. In July 1944, Yoneyama—58 years old and in failing health—wrote a letter to the Minister of Justice, seeking recourse.

“I realize we are the victims of a war emergency,” he wrote. “However, I do urgently desire to return to my home at Haney when the present emergency ends. May I plead your assistance in the sincere request for the return of that home?”

The loss of property was a financial hit, but also a threat to something deeper. The home was the linchpin of family life—“the foundation of security and freedom as Canadian citizens,” as Yoneyama wrote. “I cannot start again from the bottom.”

Young women wearing kimonos walking in parade in Vancouver in 1939. (Courtesy Nikkei National Museum (2011.58.13)/Landscapes of Injustice)

The project’s research phase is forecast to wrap by 2018. Then, the team will pilot educational resources for school kids, and a traveling museum exhibition, which will eventually find a permanent home at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby, British Columbia. The team is also digitizing tens of thousands of records, so that individuals, students, and scholars can make use of the archive and press on with the project.

To Stanger-Ross, remembering is only part of the work. The meaning of home and issues of identity aren’t receding from the national stage, he says. “In the last federal election, questions of race, security, and migration were perhaps pivotal, and I think they will be again,” he adds. By resurfacing these histories, he hopes to be “part of a society that doesn’t close the door on these kinds of histories—the most difficult or shameful—but engages in constant conversation about them as we engage the challenges we face.”

These stories, Sugiman adds, are also a celebration of resiliency. The Japanese-Canadian children who were interned went on to have families and find work. Now, she says, they may be preparing to share their recollections with their kids and grandkids. “They certainly have not stopped living.”

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.