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American concentration camps during WWII, the other side of persecution

Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp by the Soviet Army in 1945, and it’s also the occasion for remembering the victims of Nazi Persecution, at least for one day in a year. Pequod Rivista would like to delve deeper into the matter of concentration camps crossing the Atlantic Ocean to report a quite underrated fact, the existence of American concentration camps during World War II.

After December 7, 1941 the position of the United States about WWII changed, as a consequence of the unexpected Japanese aircraft attacks on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. American reaction was as harsh as such an unfair attack had been – in facts, Japanese hadn’t declared war to US and Pearl Harbor events came just out of the blue. Not only did American government decide to enter WWII after that tragic event, but also it established the building of several concentration camps for Japanese-Americans in the western part of United States.

Original WRA caption: San Francisco, California. Exclusion Order posted at First and Front Streets directing removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from the first San Francisco section to be effected by the evacuation. Source:  
Original WRA caption: San Francisco, California. Exclusion Order posted at First and Front Streets directing removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from the first San Francisco section to be effected by the evacuation. Source:

After the bombing, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized to incarcerate 120,000 Japanese-Americans, both adults and children (referred to as “Nisei”, term indicating Japanese immigrants’ children in USA), with no distinction between immigrants and citizens.  According to Executive Order 9066 (link) and to Public Law 503 (link) the US government gave the Army the power to exclude Japanese-Americans from American society in case of “military necessity”. Later, from February 1942, people of Japanese ancestry were forced to move from the West Coast to the inland western states. The aim was preventing Japanese-Americans from sabotaging and spying on the US affairs in favor of their home country.


The War Relocation Authority (WRA) tried to run camps as small cities, where the Japanese-American inmates could go to school, do recreational activities and go to the market, even hold elections for self-government. Located in the desolate desert, the internment camps were shaped as blocks of wooden barracks with communal bathrooms, laundry facilities and dining halls, surrounded by barbed wire fences along the perimeter and by watching towers overlooking the inmates.

Copyright Ansel Adams: “Mrs. Yaeko Nakamura and family buying toys with Fred Moriguchi.”
Copyright Ansel Adams: “Mrs. Yaeko Nakamura and family buying toys with Fred Moriguchi.”
Copyright Ansel Adams: “Nurse Aiko Hamaguchi, mother Frances Yokoyama, baby Fukomoto.”

At the end of 1942, a feeling of unrest among the inmates was animating the camps. The WAR circulated a questionnaire in order to figure out how many of those Japanese-Americans were loyal or disloyal toward United States. Those who proved to be loyal could leave the camps but were forced to enlist. In 1944 the government started drafting men from the internment camps. Most of them seized the moment, as it was the only way to restore their honor, but 300 of them strongly refused to fight for a country that had ignored and cancelled their civil rights.

photo 5
“Goodbye my son”, by Henry Sugimoto (1942).

With the end of the war, all the concentration camps were quickly closed, with the exception of Tula Lake, and the Japanese-Americans started to go back home, trying to integrate themselves again within the American society. Once they were back their lives were all but easy. On one hand, those who went back to the city found it hard to find accommodation and job; on the other, people who had come from the countryside found out that they had lost their farm and had to start again as farmers.

photo 6
Charles Isamu Morimoto, a well- know artist in Los Angeles, he documented his life in Manzanar’s camp.

Only in 1988 the US government officially apologized for the “grave injustice” done to Japanese people during the war. Actually, also in the immediate postwar many Americans had recognized the injustices of the wartime. Nowadays it’s really important to remember and to understand what happened during WWII in the United States, especially considering the contemporary issues connected to terrorist threats. The diffused opinion that governments are allowed to overpass civil liberties in the name of public safety should consider how dangerous some decisions might be, remembering that in the past many innocents lost their lives and their freedom only because of blind fear of the unexpected and of the unknown.

Ansel Adams, concentration camp, featured, japanese, Japanese-American, memoria, Memoria1, Nisei, Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt, Tula Lake, usa, WRA, WWII

Francesca Gabbiadini

Nata in valle bergamasca nell’inverno del 1989, sin da piccola mi piace frugare nei cassetti. Laureata presso la Facoltà di Lettere della Statale di Milano, capisco dopo numerosi tentavi professionali, tra i quali spicca per importanza l’esperienza all’Ufficio Stampa della Longanesi, come la mia curiosità si traduca in scrittura giornalistica, strada che mi consente di comprendere il mondo, sviscerarlo attraverso indagini e ricomporlo tramite articolo all’insegna di un giornalismo pulito, libero e dedito alla verità come ai suoi lettori. Così nasce l’indipendente Pequod, il 21 maggio del 2013, e da allora non ho altra vita sociale. Nella rivista, oltre ad essere fondatrice e direttrice, mi occupo di inchieste, reportage di viaggio e fotoreportage, contribuendo inoltre alla sezione Internazionale. Dopo una tesi in giornalismo sulla Romania di Ceauşescu, continuo a non poter distogliere lo sguardo da questo Paese e dal suo ignorato popolo latino.

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