A concrete monument in the desert with Japanese Kanji characters vertically etched in stone, reads, “Soul Consoling Tower."

The Incarceration, Not Internment, of Japanese Americans

Often when we talk about it amongst ourselves, we call it camp. To others, the benign-sounding word could recall sleepaway summers, pitched tents, and sing-alongs around a campfire. But when I ask other yonsei—fourth-generation Japanese Americans—if their grandparents were also in camp, what I mean is: was your family also forcibly removed from their homes, from their lives? Were they also labeled the enemy and locked up for years? We call it camp, but what we mean is incarceration. What we mean is that we are just one link in the long American tradition of locking up people of color for no other reason than we are here. The effects of such incarceration linger within us years and years after the inhabitants are set “free.”

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which commanded the forcible evacuation of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. As a result, 120,000 Japanese Americans, and some Canadians and Latin Americans of Japanese descent, were incarcerated (National Archives). He passed this order despite a report commissioned by Congress that showed that Japanese Americans posed no threat. The army general in charge of the West Coast summed up the general government’s feelings when he stated, “They are a dangerous element, whether loyal or not,” (Smithsonian).


• Investigate how your state or local school district teaches Japanese American incarceration. If it’s inadequate, contact them.

• Read more about the history of Japanese America on Densho’s Core Story.

• Support and follow Japanese American activist organizations like Tsuru for Solidarity, Japanese Americans for Justice Actions, and Nikkei Resisters.

Sign this petition to help Japanese Latin American survivors receive justice and reparations for their internment.

In school—if you learned about this event at all—you probably learned about it under the name internment. But this is inaccurate, as the Japanese American-led organization Densho explains: “‘Internment’ refers to the legally permissible, though morally questionable, detention of ‘enemy aliens’ in time of war. There were approximately 8,000 Issei (“first generation”) arrested as enemy aliens and subjected to what could be described as “internment” in a separate set of camps[…]This term becomes a misleading, othering euphemism when applied to American citizens detained by their own government.” Today, we choose to call this event what it was: incarceration.

It was incarceration based, like much mass incarceration, not on facts or danger but on racism and economics. After Japan’s government bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, anti-Japanese American rhetoric was pervasive. At the same time, lobbyists representing “competing economic interests or nativist groups” pressured the federal government to remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast (Our Documents/National Archives). Incarceration also functioned as a land grab, as many white farmers were resentful of Japanese American farmers’ increasing presence. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians estimated that Japanese Americans lost what in 2020 would be $3.38 billion in property and $7 billion in income as a result of incarceration (Personal Justice Denied via National Archives).

After the order was passed, Japanese Americans were given only a few days to evacuate, only allowed to pack what they could carry. “Many of the neighbors came to offer us ridiculously low prices for our possessions,” my grandfather recalls. Their refrigerator went for a dollar; the $700 car all the family had saved up for went for $100. They were taken to Merced, California, where they spent six months in one of fifteen euphemistically titled “assembly centers,” while the Army built permanent incarceration camps (Densho). In September, my grandfather and his family were evacuated again to Amache (Granada), a camp in the middle of the Colorado desert, where they would spend the next three years in a 20×25 barrack (Amache.org).

Not one Japanese American was ever found guilty of espionage or war crimes. 

“I was wondering how will they ever put all of us in a place that small. What surprised me most was why did the soldiers have to stand guard with guns…and to tell you the truth the way some people stared at us, it chilled me a bit.”

My grandfather, then 16, reflecting in 1944 on his arrival at Amache (Granada) Relocation Camp two years earlier.

In 1980, Congress organized a federal commission to investigate the impact of Executive Order 9066. Its 467-page report, fittingly titled Personal Justice Denied, called the camps a “grave injustice, motivated by racial prejudice, war hysteria, and the failure of political leadership” (Personal Justice Denied via National Archive). Later, the Sanseis—third-generation Japanese Americans—fought for reparations for their parents and grandparents (Densho). This decades-long battle, fraught with dissent even within our community, led to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, also called H.R. 442, in honor of the highly decorated Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team (Go For Broke). The act stipulated that the $20,000 in compensation would only be paid out to survivors themselves, not descendants of any incarceree who had died because the government did not want to set a precedent or framework for reparations for “the descendants of slaves, [Indigenous people] forced onto reservations, Mexicans who lost land, and other historical victims of racism” (Densho).

Today, many Japanese American activist groups utilize our past to work in solidarity with other people of color. We try to use the legacy of Japanese American incarceration as an opening to speak to our elders and our community. Japanese-American-led activist groups are using our history to mobilize our community to protest detention sitescombat anti-Blackness, and fight against mass incarceration. At a protest at Cook County Jail, young Japanese Americans lay origami cranes to honor those killed by police and who recently died in prison and our ancestors who died inside the World War II camps (NPR).

Densho’s mission “to preserve and share the history of the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans to promote equity and justice today” succinctly summarizes why it’s important to remember these historical events because the past links to the present and the future. Today, Japanese Americans, as a group, are no longer treated the same way we were back then though anti-Asian sentiment during the coronavirus hearkens back to those tropes, as I write elsewhere. But incarceration and its related trauma have profoundly shaped our community and our culture.

Last week, my grandfather turned 92*. He still can remember the names of all the people he knew at Amache. He remembers what cell block they lived in, what hometowns they left behind. It happened 80 years ago, and it still affects him—and us, his children and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—to this day. The racist actions our government is taking today—the border camps, the mass incarceration, the police brutality—will reverberate in communities of color for decades to come.


• Over 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II because of the American government’s racist, unfounded fears.

• President Roosevelt signed this executive order despite Congress finding no evidence to support it.

• No Japanese American was ever found guilty of espionage or war crimes.

• Japanese American camp survivors have since received monetary reparations, yet, reparations for slavery and settler colonialism remain a nonstarter.

*This piece originally ran on 9/1/20.

2400 1800 Jami Nakamura Lin

Jami Nakamura Lin

Jami Nakamura Lin is a Japanese Taiwanese American writer whose essays focus on mythmaking, folklore, culture, and mental illness. She is a columnist at Catapult, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the New York Times, Electric Literature, Woman's Day, and the anthology What God is Honored Here? (University of Minnesota Press, 2019). She was awarded a Creative Artists’ Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts/Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and an inaugural Walter Dean Myers Grant from We Need Diverse Books. With her sister, artist Cori Lin, she runs ROKUROKUBI, a project that melds visual and written narrative to investigate cultural identity. She received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Penn State and works for a public library outside Chicago. Find her on Twitter @jaminlin or at www.jaminakamuralin.com.

All stories by : Jami Nakamura Lin
Start Typing
%d bloggers like this: