The Japanese American National Museum recently launched a new web resource, Exploring America’s Concentration Camps. Like our core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community, which provides a key educational experience for 15,000 students and teachers every year, EACC showcases photographs, letters, artwork, oral histories, and moving images from our permanent collection. We selected and digitized artifacts from all 10 War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps and organized them thematically for this new website. Our goal is to share our collection widely with students and teachers around the nation to help them learn more about the Japanese American World War II experience.
The above photo of a group of women making mochi in the Gila River camp in Arizona has a handwritten caption: “New Years a comin’.” At around the same time in Utah’s Topaz camp, artist Hisako Hibi painted two stacked pieces of mochi topped with a small citrus, a symbol of hope for a healthy and prosperous new year. On the back of her painting, Hibi wrote, “Hisako Hibi. Jan 1943 at Topaz. Japanese without mochi (pounded sweet rice) is no New Year! It was very sad oshogatsu. So, I painted okazari mochi in the internment camp.” These artifacts, like many others in JANM’s permanent collection, speak to how important it was for those in camp to find ways to maintain their traditions, despite being incarcerated in harsh environments far from home.
Other artifacts speak to the idea of security. For example, this badge and identification card are from the collection of Norio Mitsuoka, the inmate who would become the fire chief at Idaho’s Minidoka camp. The WRA created and ran camp entities like fire departments to ensure standard protections for the Japanese American prisoners. Such artifacts not only give viewers a deeper understanding of camp life, but they also surface broader questions about security, both physical and psychological.
A handmade chest of drawers, meanwhile, illustrates the dignity with which the Japanese Americans endured the camps. The collection of Frank S. Emi, who is perhaps best known for his leadership in the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, offers us a glimpse at another skill he possessed: furniture making. In an oral history interview for JANM, he shared what the furniture meant to him:
I built this chest of drawers from scrap lumber in the fall of 1942 while incarcerated at the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, concentration camp. The barracks were bare except for a potbelly stove and a single light bulb dangling from the roof. I had also built a vanity with a 36-inch mirror (purchased from a mail order catalog), which was my pride and joy.
Exploring America’s Concentration Camps was produced with major funding from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant program. JANM is currently at work on several other JACS-funded projects, including the digitization of rare home movies; a traveling display of artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection, which will premiere at JANM on January 7, 2018; and another website that revolves around one family’s story of being separated after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the hardships they endured throughout the war.
A shortened version of this article was published in the fall 2017 issue of Inspire, the magazine for members of JANM.